Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Books

When Irish musicians rocked to an anti-British tune

British music owes a great deal to Ireland. Try to imagine if our emigrants hadn't swarmed across the Irish Sea in the 20th century - there would have been no Beatles, Sex Pistols or Oasis. How threadbare would English pop have been without Kate Bush, Elvis Costello and Boy George?

Irish Blood, English Heart examines the phenomenon of second-generation Irish musicians in the UK. Written by Cambridge media studies lecturer Sean Campbell, this scholarly but absorbing book focuses on three groups who blazed a trail in the 1980s - Dexy's Midnight Runners, The Pogues and The Smiths.

All three bands were fronted by erudite young men acutely aware of their Irish background when being Irish in the UK could be a significant cross to bear, yet Kevin Rowland, Shane MacGowan and Steven Morrissey (whose 2004 song Irish Blood, English Heart lends the book its title) embraced their ancestry in their music.

Rowland, the most compelling (and least mythologised) of the three profiled in the book, refused to put his head below the parapet.

Dexy's Midnight Runners' debut single Dance Stance (later re-recorded as Burn It Down) was written to refute an insidious notion, popular in the UK in the 1970s, that being Irish and 'thick' were one and the same.

Campbell - an Englishman of Irish parentage - suggests that musicians like Rowland were fired by a sense of duality.

And he argues their creativity was heightened by a feeling of not being fully Irish or English, but rather in a state of limbo.

Too frequently, when second-generation Irish musicians returned to the 'homeland' they were treated with suspicion, and not welcomed as warmly as they might have imagined.

Shane MacGowan and The Pogues were seen as 'plastic Paddies' when they toured Ireland in the mid-1980s. In some quarters, MacGowan, with his pronounced London accent and salty use of language, was regarded as an 'anti-Irish racist' - a thought that seems utterly preposterous with the benefit of hindsight.

Yet, at the same time, Morrissey was being accused of being anti-British. The singer made some inflammatory comments around the time of the IRA bombing of the Tory conference in Brighton.

Praising the terrorists for being "accurate in selecting their targets", he expressed his "sorrow" that Margaret Thatcher had "escaped unscathed".

Morrissey and songwriting partner Johnny Marr rarely played on their Irish provenance, yet their hatred of Thatcher and veiled support for the IRA helped earn them the dubious honour of being praised by An Phoblacht, not usually known for its interest in rock music.

Consequently, when The Smiths played their debut Irish tour, they received threats from both sides of the paramilitary divide - loyalists urged them to stay away, republicans insisted they could not pull out. Concerts in Derry and Belfast attracted considerable security concerns, although both gigs passed without incident.

It was also as a solo artist that Morrissey explored Irishness and Catholicism.

If anything, it was his Britishness that was most pronounced during his Smiths days and his republicanism was rooted more in contempt for the United Kingdom's monarchy than a desire to see a united Ireland.


From Belfast Telegraph