Before she wrote Running Up That Hill, the performer was writing about conflict in Northern Ireland
Kate Bush is happily back in our thoughts with the success of Running up that Hill and the song’s dramatic placement on the Stranger Things soundtrack. New listeners are captivated and the singer’s Irish connections have been revisited.
We’re now wise to the story of the Lambeg drum on her revived hit.
We know that the rope drum came from Sandy Row and it was procured for Kate by the Belfast musician Mike Edgar. Meantime, the County Waterford locations of Ballyvoile and Dungarvan are vying for credits as the true homeland of Kate’s mother, Hannah Daly.
Music enthusiasts are discovering the Northern Irish roots of Emily Bronte because of Kate, while there’s a fascinating back story of the singer’s attempts to bring the Molly Bloom soliloquy from Ulysses onto her album the Sensual World. At first the estate of James Joyce resisted, but Kate was finally allowed to use the text on a 2011 director’s cut version of the album.
Kate Bush records are gateways into music by Liam Óg O’Flynn, Davy Spillane and Dónal Lunny. It was the latter who encouraged her to record that amazing version of Mná na hÉireann for the 1996 album, Common Ground.
It was based on an aisling poem by the Ulster poet Peadar Ó Doirnín and the political content of the words is there if you care to find it.
As we go for deeper dives into Kate’s story, we learn that her maternal grandfather, Jack Daly, wrote a song about an incident during the Irish War of Independence.
It is called The Ballyvoile Ambush and it remembers a 1921 IRA attack on a British Army cycle column. An Irish volunteer, Jack Cummins, was shot in the crossfire and remembered in the lyric.
We find a peculiar echo of this story in a 1980 Kate Bush song called Army Dreamers. As with many of her works, the meaning is not obvious. But when you start to unpack the meaning, you realise that the granddaughter of Jack Daly is also writing about the Anglo-Irish conflict.
Army Dreamers was a top 20 hit for Kate and in the memorable video, she’s dressed in combat fatigues, searching in a forest for a young boy who’s also playing soldier games. There’s an unusual clicking sound on the track, which is actually the noise of an SLR, chambering a bullet.
What does it mean and why does the lyric mention a mother, an aerodrome and something called B.F.P.O.? Well, it seems that Kate was referring to the British Forces Post Office and the mother was collecting the body of her teenage son, killed in the conflict in Northern Ireland.
In the song, the grieving mother has a posy of purple flowers and she’s thinking of the futility of this loss. The boy had joined the army to escape from poverty. He might have been a rock star, a father or even a politician, but this was one of the few opportunities he was able to access.
The song echoes the Elvis Costello hit, Oliver’s Army, released a year earlier. Costello was also singing about the boys from deprived areas, like the Mersey and Tyneside, who had enlisted and were sent off to Northern Ireland with dangerous trigger fingers.
Costello wrote his song after playing the Ulster Hall on St Patrick’s night, 1978. On his way to the venue he saw some British soldiers on patrol. “They looked like little kids,” he remembered, “but they were little kids holding machine guns. You knew they’d come from towns that really looked no different from Belfast.”
Army Dreamers is written in waltz time and the recording mixes up parade ground commands with the sounds of cocking rifles. When the record was released, Kate spoke to Zig Zag magazine about the song’s vocal intentions.
Strangely, she was singing with an Irish accent on the track: “The Irish accent was important because the treatment of the song is very traditional, and the Irish would always use their songs to tell stories, it’s the traditional way.
“There’s something about an Irish accent that’s very vulnerable, very poetic, and so by singing it in an Irish accent it comes across in a different way.”
A lot of songs about the Troubles remembered the suffering of civilians.
But there is a subset of tunes that viewed the story from a less predictable side.
Stiff Little Fingers wrote Tin Soldiers about a fan who had deserted from the army to follow the band while The Clash came up with Tommy Gun. There was also a remarkable folk song by Harvey Andrews called Soldier, about Sergeant Michael Willetts, who died at Springfield Road police station in 1971, shielding locals from a bomb blast.
So, Kate Bush is part of a compelling tradition. She didn’t make a fuss about her statement, but Army Dreamers will continue to resonate, as long as there are grieving mothers, with armfuls of flowers, waiting for the coffins to roll off the back of a transport plane.