I’m excited that tonight Lucy Ward and I will be at the Royal Festival Hall to see “Imagining Ireland” – a concert exploring the strong musical ties between the UK and Ireland, and specifically the impact of Irish artists, tunes and ballads on British popular music. This is a subject close to my heart.
During the 70s and 80s, growing up in London, I was well aware that relations between the UK and the Republic were extremely fraught. The newspapers and TV news bulletins, which I followed avidly, were full of hunger strikes, tit-for-tat killings and “the Troubles”. Those of us with strong Irish backgrounds, Irish names and features were often unpopular in London. We experienced prejudice – on top of the usual British class barriers. Name-calling, casual racism, blatant exclusion – stuff that these days directed at an immigrant community would cause outrage – were the norm.
I don’t talk or write about this kind of stuff much. That’s because, on balance, British people have, for the most part, been remarkably welcoming to Irish people over the last few generations – and I prefer to stress that aspect. Since the Good Friday agreement of 1997, Anglo-Irish relations have anyway come so far. On top of that, claiming “victimhood” has never been my style – and, in my case, today seems rather ridiculous.
I mention those difficult times, though, because British popular music and, in particular, the massive Irish impact on British popular music – the inspiration behind tonight’s Royal Festival Hall concert – was, back then, a source of enormous comfort and pride.
Punk God Johnny Lydon – born of Irish immigrants in Holloway. Dexy’s Midnight Runners – led by Kevin Rowland, a Brummie who hailed from Mayo. Elvis Costello – real name Declan Patrick MacManus. The Undertones – a bunch of Catholic kids from Northern Ireland who were so good their debut song reduced the great John Peel to tears. He played Teenage Kicks twice in a row – unprecedented! The Undertones didn’t sing about police checkpoints, marching season or knee-cappings. They sang about adolescence, playing Subbuteo and teenage angst – subjects also on the minds of kids in Middelsborough and Milton Keynes. And that was the point.
British pop music showed me and many like me growing up in Britain that, whether you were Irish or not, if you were good, you were good – and that was the end of it. Being Irish in fact, far from setting you back as it normally did, seemed to increase your chances of being a top musician – if Top of the Pops was anything to go by !!
Thin Lizzy, The Boomtown Rats, Christy Moore – the soundtrack of my youth. Even Gilbert O’Sullivan for Christ’s sake – Van der Graf hair and ridiculous collars, maybe, but Waterford-born and an era-defining sound. I mean even the Beatles were Scouse-Irish, I was often told as a kid in the working mens’ clubs of Willesden, not least by builders down from Liverpool, in London looking for “a start”. Paul McCartney’s “Mother Mary” hailed from Monaghan. John Lennon’s surname derives from the gaelic word for “love”.
During the 70s and early 80s, most bands of Irish origin, if it wasn’t completely obvious, didn’t seem to mention it. Having parents from Mayo or Donegal was unlikely to help you sell records in Surrey or Glasgow and, if anything, made you suspect. It wasn’t the kind of detail that got into Smash Hits. Those of us from an Irish background knew them, though, when we saw them. It was obvious from what remained of their Anglicised surnames (shorn of the O’s and the mystical spellings) and the way they looked and moved.
Plus the London-Irish gossip grapevine meant you were always just a few introductions away from your heroes. “Ah yeah, the young fella with the hit record – his Aunty Bridy is from Killarney, plays bingo in Cricklewood,” you’d overhear an old lady saying in the pub, as she shoved endless 5p pieces into the one-armed bandit. “The hair on him – ridiculous! And the shoes – Jesus, Mary and Joseph!! Fair play, though, he bought his Mam a flat in Kensal Rise”.
By the mid-80s, the hunger strikes were over, Anglo-Irish relations – while still far from normalised – were fast improving, and the world was ready for U2. Here was a band that wasn’t only brilliant, but globally brilliant. They famously “cracked America”, of course – learning to tap, as had the Clancy Brothers 20 years earlier, that romantic “Amerikay-Irish” thing – and the rest is history. To top it all, Bono and Co were even an Irish-English Catholic-Protestent hybrid, having met at one of Dublin’s multi-denominational schools.
After U2 had established themselves as perhaps the biggest band in the world – and the Troubles eased as the 80s turned into the 90s – the sluice gates opened. Irish music came thick and fast, packing a mighty punch in the UK, engraining itself into a joint Anglo-Irish popular culture. The Corrs, Sinead O’Connor, The Cranberries, The Pogues – these were bands which, far from hiding their Irishness, screamed about it from the rooftops, made it central to their brand, shoved it right in your face. British youngsters, sick of divisions, bigotry and killings – and knowing quality pop when they heard it – roared back their approval.
I didn’t really mean to write this blog. I initially just wanted to mention that I’m going to the Royal Festival Hall concert tonight with Lucy – as, it feels to me like an important moment in my life. After writing the first paragraph, I guess I ended up writing a bit more. Why? Because, while this may sound ridiculous, the very fact that you can stage a celebration of Irish music in London, at the Royal Festival Hall no less, without anyone questioning that or causing a fuss, is a source of huge relief to someone from my joint Catholic-Protestant British-Irish background who grew up where and when I did.
I felt the same way when the Queen visited Ireland in 2011. That was the very first visit by the British Head of State to the Republic of Ireland – which won independence in 1949. So it took 62 years. That visit was of enormous symbolic importance. The Queen, so long a symbol of oppression for many Irish people, made a huge positive impact – winning over Irish public opinion with her charm, sensitivity and serious knowledge of horses. Likewise, the reciprocal visit of Irish President Michael Higgins to in 2014 – where he spoke with great eloquence of the “deep and enduring friendship” between the UK and Ireland – was an overwhelming diplomatic success.
One hundred years on from the Easter Rising, tonight’s concert is another small step on the long road to forging a strong, unbreakable bond of cooperation, allegiance and, above all, mutual respect between these two very different – but deeply related and intertwined – countries. It’s also important to note, I think, the vital role popular music has played in improving that relationship.
Pop, rock, punk and all the rest of it has served as a medium through which young British people have learnt to recognise and appreciate the talent of their Irish counterparts, while realising that their hopes and dreams, their pangs of youth, are all one and the same. Such affinities, forged in youth, have contributed hugely to stable, long-term relations between both countries.
Perhaps of more relevance to me was the huge Irish influence on pop music here in Britain during the 70s and 80s – a time when Anglo-Irish relations were so strained as to be tragically dysfunctional, and Irishness in many other aspects of British cultural life was derided and shunned.
For the sons and daughters of Irish immigrants, the Irish-Brits of that difficult generation, the music on Capital and Radio 1, the pictures on TOTP, showed us that, despite our blood, and perhaps even because of it, we could succeed, make a good life in Britian, and be accepted and judged – even if it took a while – on the strength of our effort and abilities.
Off to the concert …