“Wife, I thought to myself, children forgive me for what I do this night, terrible as it may be, for this is Ireland in the rain of an ungodly time.…Where the dead must go to die” -Ray Bradbury
From Ireland they come. A land of terrible beauty, to use a well-worn cliché. A place forever at war with it’s past, yet eternally connected to it. Forever in love yet combat until the end of time. Yes, to be sure, the story starts with the land itself. A land symbolized by Green. Green everywhere, as far as the eye can see. Even green shadows. This Green land – a symbol of life? What of the contradiction? Green with life, but a history full of death. A land of hope, but a people forced out into exile. Where life itself flourishes. Where the dead go to die. A history filled with heart-swelling victory and even more so with deep seeded loss and regret. A story within a story within a tragedy. And a people more resilient than a people ever were. And out of this land, rebels were born.
Within this piece, I want to give a brief history of early rebel musicians like Luke Kelly and the Dubliners, and explore how being Irish has shaped them and the men that have followed in their whiskey-stained boot steps. Devices such as themes of rebellion, freedom, war, drinking, sex and more drinking are prevalent in all of their works. Being an Irishman and growing up in certain circles shapes the way one views life, ones attitudes and beliefs. It is no secret, then, that the rebel Irish musicians who inhabit this piece, whether born to Ireland herself or born of the great Irish Diaspora which history tells us of, have shared experiences that contribute to the uplifting, sad and angry music they make and the uncompromising way they live their lives.
“I started singing folk songs after realizing that they were not as square as I had been led to believe.” -Luke Kelly
Born in Dublin in the year of Our Lord 1940 was Luke Kelly. Luke grew up in the rough, tough-n-tumble dockside area of Dublin. A strong working-class upbringing had a huge effect on this future leader of the legendary folk ensemble, The Dubliners. Luke, at first, rejected the idea of doing folk music. He opposed the idea, thinking, as many do, that folk was simply fluff. Upon closer inspection, however Luke realized the themes contained within the songs were hardly light-hearted material. Luke immediately related to the themes of the Irish folk song, themes any working-class member of Irish society could: drinking, fighting, loving, living and dying. Matt Kelly of the Dropkick Murphys once noted that “folk songs are more punk than most punk bands songs anyway.” And right he was. Luke Kelly and the rough and tumble cast of characters who make up the Dubliners did folk how it should be: from the gut, no bullshit. The response they got was immediate. Their version of “Seven Drunken Nights” made them the toast of the folk scene and concerts everywhere sold out. They were a smash! Hit albums and tours continue to this day. Their status as legends is secured. Not what you expected from a bunch of hairy people who “looked like they’d just been dragged out of a seedy bar via a hedge (backwards) and dropped on London from a very great height” to quote an accurate description I once read.
Terje Oye’s excellent website describes the Luke and the Dubliners influence as follows: “The number of artists that list The Dubliners as one of their major influences and idols, is endless. They have brought folk music to millions of people all over the world, people who never would have been interested at all. That isn’t only because of the folk music, the instrumentals alone, it’s because of The Dubliners, their astonishing voices, their indescribable instrumentals, the wild life style and drinking, late sessions, their enormous beards, their extensive touring, their charisma and characters. It was, and still is to a certain extent, a blend the world will never see again.” Sadly, Luke Kelly passed due to cancer in 1984. The world lost a great man, but the influence left behind remains even to this day. Luke and the lads certainly did bring folk into the spotlight, and proved what attitude, heart and belief could do for a group, and their influence on those who came after looms large over the Irish music scene to this very day. If there is one group that Luke Kelly and the Dubliners could claim are closest to their own hearts, one most true to their own visions and one whose influence among generations of future musicians is nearly as great as their own, it would have to be the almighty Pogues, led by Shane MacGowan.
“We were heavily influenced by The Dubliners who I thought were the band that demonstrated Irish pop music the best.” -Shane MacGowan “A Drink With Shane”
Shane MacGowan was born in Kent, England, on Christmas Day, 1957. Although he grew up with firm Irish roots, his tale differs from Kelly’s in some ways, but the parallels do run deep. MacGowan’s father, Maurice, had grown up in Dublin, and his mother, Therese, had grown up on a farm in Tipperary. Shane actually lived in Tipp during his early years, and spent the summers of his youth there. He was surrounded by traditional Irish music and had many relatives who played instruments such as the banjo, fiddle, accordion, tin whistle, etc. All of this would stay in his memory for his lifetime and would contribute to the masterpieces he later produced with the Pogues. During his early school career, Shane had an acknowledged gift for writing and most other subjects. Shane spent his hours reading old Irish poetry and in time learned to write his own rhymes. He seemed headed for an impressive scholarly career, but it wasn’t to be for Shane, though. He got kicked out of a prestigious private school for illegal drug possession and was bound for greater things.
Before embracing the folk of his childhood, however, MacGowan would come up in the blossoming punk scene of London in the late ‘70’s. Shane became a face on the scene early on after the infamous ‘ear-biting’ incident at a Clash show would land the bloodied Irish teen on the cover of London’s largest newspaper. The energy, violence and power of the punk scene would also leave a lasting impression on the young Shane and he began to harness the creative energy he possessed, with his life-experiences of being a young London Irishman. After a few semi-successful tries and one damn fine group, the Nips, Shane decided to put his two natural musical loves together, Irish folk played with the breakneck energy and bombast of punk rock.
Shane has always acknowledged that his main influence for the Pogues was Luke Kelly and the music he made with the Dubliners. Add to the mix the excitement Shane felt after seeing the Sex Pistols for the first time, and a unique vision was born. “ I never understood why it took me so long to make the connection,” Shane said “I had a mental block that said Irish music was one thing and pop was another.” Spider Stacey tells of going to shows with Shane and going back to his flat, where they would put on Dubliners records and sing along. He recalls Shane playing along at top speed on an acoustic guitar until it suddenly became so obvious that they couldn’t believe they hadn’t thought of it before. Play the folk songs at the Pistols pace, complete with the filth and the fury. The kicked around at various bars in London, using various names like the New Republicans, until they finally solidified the line-up and a name was chosen: Pogue Mahone, Gaelic for “kiss my arse.”
The Pogues went from conquering London to conquering the world. It wasn’t long before Shane’s “Poguetry” had everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Tom Waits to Elvis Costello watching in complete awe at the sheer spectacle of it all. The Pogues could go from a drunken, rambling bunch of hooligans to a soulful, even beautiful group making some of the finest Irish music of the last century. And Shane did so under the watchful tutelage of the Dubliners, respecting what had come before and even collaborating with them on occasion. The Pogues, today hold a huge influence over the current punk scene and most every city has a band or two that cover a Pogues tune. They are, more than ever, in vogue. One band that aided in this popularity resurgence is Boston’s own Irish-American mouthpiece, the Dropkick Murphys.
“Until I heard the Pogues, I wasn’t Even Sure If I Liked Irish Music” -Ken Casey
Ken Casey’s Boston-Irish immigrant family experience is in many ways very similar to Luke Kelly’s own. Casey’s father passed away at an early age and his main father figure in life was his Grandfather, John Kelly. Kelly was a union-organizer, working with longshoreman on Boston’s docks. Coming from a working-class upbringing and the struggles of the everyman that accompany it were a large part of Casey’s childhood and were forever intertwined into his psyche. He, like Luke Kelly, used these experiences to tell the personal tales found in Dropkick Murphys songs such as “Boys on the Docks” which was written for and about John Kelly. The Irish working-class experience had shaped the band the Dropkicks are today.
Another parallel to Luke Kelly is that Casey, by his own admission, had Irish folk ‘shoved down his throat’ at an early age and wasn’t sure what he thought of it. At family get-togethers, parties and wakes, it was always the background piece, always propelling life along, for better or worse. I speak from experience when I say that hearing these songs at funerals and wakes, one can begin to associate them with life’s darker moments and sometimes this creates a prejudice of sorts.
In his youth, Casey became involved in the legendary Boston hardcore scene of the early ‘80s, seeing bands like SSD, Jerry’s Kids, DYS, Gang Green and the like. He credits these and other bands of the genre with inspiring him. “I have to say it inspired me into the whole lifestyle which eventually led to the music and making music” Casey said. So punk rock and hardcore was Casey’s earliest love, but what about Irish folk? How did Casey go from a lukewarm feeling about it to the fire he now possesses for it?
Ken Casey says he wasn’t sure what he thought about folk until he heard the Pogues. The Pogues, for Casey and so many others, gave the younger Irish generation a voice. About the folk/Pogues connection, Casey says: “I hated it as a kid,” he recalls, “but it was smashed into my head so much that I gained an appreciation for it as I grew older. Then when I saw The Pogues, I started to make the mental connection between their music and folk music. So when we started the band we figured we’d just combine folk music with punk and see what happened. I think you could take any one of our songs and play it on an acoustic guitar in a pub.” Casey, like Kelly, had to admit to himself that the folk music of his ancestors wasn’t ‘square’ but was a powerful voice of an oppressed people. With some help from MacGowan, Casey embraced it. So, Luke Kelly’s influence shaped MacGowan, who in turn, influenced Casey. The circle remains unbroken from Ireland to London to Boston.
The power and ‘punkiness’ of Irish folk lies in its subject matter and the way it’s delivered. Much of the material that runs through the Dubliners music deals with the Irish struggle for freedom and the wars and loss that accompany it. “The Foggy Dew” “Off to Dublin in the Green” and “Roddy McCorely” all tale tells that no pop song would dare. They celebrate the lives and deaths of Irish rebels. Pride in ones heritage shines through many an Irish folk song as well. Ireland and being Irish is celebrated with a glee only the Irish seem to muster. Luke Kelly covered classic after classic of these type tunes, from “A Nation Once Again” to “The Town I Loved So Well” written by Phil Coulter specifically with Kelly in mind.
Shane MacGowan also celebrated Ireland and it’s rebellion with classics like “The Broad Majestic Shannon” and “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” but he spent many a tune singing the praises and scouring the gutters of his home turf – London. As a young London Irishman, MacGowan gave a unique and slightly different view of the Irish Diaspora. Surely classics like “The Dark Streets of London” “Lullaby of London,” “London, You’re a Lady” “A Rainy Night in Soho” and the rest tell the unique tale of what it’s like for the displaced Irish in Her Majesty’s Kingdom. Shane, too, covered many the rebel song over his recorded career, including “Paddy Public Enemy Number One” and has been doing “A Nation Once Again” live. In his new book “A Drink With Shane MacGowan” he says he regrets not joining the IRA and laying his life on the line for Ireland and Shane always said his mother came from an IRA family. Rebel with a cause, indeed – to get his message across through a folk/punk rebel hybrid.
Likewise, Ken Casey sings the praises of living in Boston and the American immigrant experiences and hardships his family have encountered – again, a uniquely different Irish tale, but with common threads connecting to both Kelly and MacGowan. “Yes, we have Irish backgrounds, but we’re an American band and we don’t go after the Irish-American community as a fan base on purpose. We’ve always had songs about Boston, and we’re spouting off about the Bruins or whatever. We’re carrying the Boston torch with us. Sometimes I think we should get a couple of bucks from the Chamber of Commerce for promoting tourism. We’ve had so many kids from other parts of the country and from different scenes come up to me and say, ‘I’m moving to Boston; it sounds so cool, you have so many different bands,’ and then they move here and it’s cold and people are mean, and they’re like ‘This place sucks, I’m getting out of here’” Casey laughs. Still, it is easy to see that the Boston Irish pride and fierce loyalty burns deep within the Dropkick Murphys.
It’s not all pride, rebellion and war in Irish folk, though. The good times, complete with gallons of booze, is another required tale in the canon. From the Dubliners “Seven Drunken Nights,” “Whiskey You’re the Devil” and ”Whiskey in the Jar,” the Irish make a case for the stereotypes of being the world’s greatest boozers, and Ireland being ‘the birthplace of good times.’ The Dubliners not only sang about boozin’ but also the Church-frowned upon subject of illicit sex as well. They played “Monto” with a wink and a nod, knowing that the Montgomery Street area in Dublin, which it is based on, is notorious for prostitution. Likewise the men saying goodbye to the women in “The Holy Ground” are the sea-bound sailors of Cork and the women they were with, prostitutes.
The Dubliners drinking exploits soon became the stuff of legend. Taking a cue from them in both song and action was Shane and the Pogues. Shane’s songs are full of boozy characters in drunk tanks, of love lost and mourned for over whiskey after whiskey, of drunken priests and fathers, of soiled, drug-addicted prostitutes and the like. Shane, Spider and the rest of the boys also came under much scrutiny for their drinking habits. Friends eventually intervened for fear of Shane’s life, and, according to some, his drinking led to his dismissal from the band. Shane remains as optimistic as ever, acknowledging that he drinks when he chooses and loves to do so. (For those concerned or those who have him as a choice in their local death poll, Shane actually didn’t look too bad the last time I saw him play a few months ago in Chicago.)
The Dropkick Murphys albums are also full of the celebratory drinking song, covering such anthems as “The Wild Rover” and “Finnegan’s Wake” but Casey often times approaches drinking from a cautionary standpoint, having spent early years in barroom brawls and drunken stupors. Songs like “Caps and Bottles” and “Curse of A Fallen Soul” attempt to steer the wayward soul away from mistakes older, wiser men have made, but like the lives of their friends and family, many Dropkick Murphys songs have unhappy endings. Untimely death is a theme of much of the band’s work, and songs like “Noble” are cautionary tales as well as tributes to the deceased. “Yeah, these are people I knew,” Casey says. “I would go to the wakes of guys who died of drug overdoses, and I would see friends there who were drunk or high themselves, and I couldn’t believe it. I just want to tell them they’re going down the same road that killed a friend.”
The connection between Irishmen like Kelly, MacGowan and Casey and the various forms of folk music they all chose to communicate their stories with isn’t accidental. The Irish, on their home turf, in London and in America, have been treated as less than human. Starvation at home, and no work and horrid conditions in London and America equaled some of the hardest immigrant experiences ever encountered and the music itself was a release. The music spoke of common themes of rebellion and loss, rebellion and success, love and death and glory – all real life themes the Irish encountered. All real life themes to help keep their chins up. Music, as a medium, is powerful, but it acts as a medicinal device as well. It helps heal the soul in times of woe. So, it became, naturally, the voice of the working-class and the oppressed. Irish folk has always celebrated the underdog. From the IRA soldiers fighting against British oppression in “The Patriot Game” or “Johnson’s Motor Car” to the young immigrant arriving in New York scared and bewildered in the Wolfe Tones “Streets of New York” and Shane MacGowan and Ken Casey are insuring that this is not soon forgotten.
Coming from Irish backgrounds, and sharing traits and experiences dictated by heritage and history, it is no surprise then that the three ‘Irish Rebel Musicians’ evolved the way they did – honest and uncompromising, with a ferocious lust for life in it’s good times, and all the while keeping the faith strong during the bad, and, most importantly, retaining their uniquely Irish visions. So, it seems, that the “land of terrible beauty” which has a history so steeped in pain and loss, has produced generations of Irish sons, both at home and displaced, who are and were dedicated to seeing the music of Ireland preserved for eternity.
By Sean Holland