A History of Ireland in Ten Englishmen (9): Shane MacGowan, the Old Songs & A Lullaby of London

shane-mcgowan-sean-leonardI’m pretty sure Shane MacGowan would be mightily peeved about being called English. He would have pretty good reason. The fact that he was born in England, and spent most of his childhood here (and subsequent life) would qualify him as English, and does for the purposes of this series. However, his Irish parentage, and cultural identity, would qualify him firmly as Irish. In truth, the key is in the duality.

Going back the 1980s, I did a wee bit of what we might call charity work in London and the Home Counties. Much of it involved talking with older people. In doing so, I lost count of the number of times I heard a recognisably London accent speak of a childhood, or a parent’s background, in Ireland.

The single most distinctive feature of the social and economic history of modern Ireland is surely emigration. That is not to say Ireland was alone in that, but the Irish experience was distinctive. Of course, in that history the famine marks a terrible caesura, pretty much halving Ireland’s population, but in truth for the hundred-odd years that followed emigration was a constant fact of Irish life, one which independence did nothing to change. Indeed, such was the poverty and economic sterility of independent Ireland that emigration was an essential safety valve: it was built into the system.

The emigrant experience is hard-wired into Irish culture, the diaspora a fact of Irish life. The Irish-American, of the Irishman in Melbourne is part of the nation’s identity.

In part, of course, the emigrant experience of those who did take the boats to the America or the antipodes had the most intense emigrant experience of them all. Most, they knew, had left for good, never to see home again.

And it is, and always has been, a reality. There aren’t many places in the world that I have travelled where I have not run into an Irishman and, given how small the place is, there are pretty good odds in you having places, or even people, in common. And then there are the songs.

A couple of years back, hearing Christy Moore singing Spancil Hill in Vicar Street was one of those spine tingling moments. The emigrant ballad is one of the subspecies of the Irish folk tradition, of the Irish folk music that forms part of the Irish cultural tradition on which the likes of Shane MacGowan drew. Here are the two of them:

Cover_of_Francis_James_Child's_''English_and_Scottish_Popular_Ballads''The survival of that music is in part thanks to the folk tradition, often passed on in families, or in small communities. The traditional forms survived because family or (usually rural) communal traditions held good. It was also in part thanks to the deliberate acts of a select band of scholars and collectors from late 19th century and after. In America, folk forms from Appalachia to the Delta were preserved, recorded and honoured. The great Francis James Child’s collection, Child’s Ballads, preserved the great heritage of the folk tradition and America and Britain with immaculate scholarship.

Collectors had preserved traditional Irish music throughout the 19th century. Once again though, the most important of its 19th century collectors was, once more, based in the United States, Francis O’Neill. Like John McKenna, he kept alive the music of home.

An interest in folk music was part of a European wide movement in classical music too, from the likes of Bartok through to Stravinsky, or Vaughan Williams. This was very much in the volkisch romantic nationalist tradition. In Ireland, as in much of Europe, volkisch nationalism had a political edge: the Gaelic League, and the literary revival, often rather unconvincingly, in truth, lauded Irish folk tradition and music with it.

After independence though, traditional music waned. Where it was found, it was often of tamed variety related to formulaic Irish dancing. The 1935 Public Dance Halls Act, borne of the church’s desire to restrict and control potential immorality, sent some traditional music back into the home.

Its revival, once more, owed much to the diaspora. Paddy and Tom Clancy, once of Tipperary, arrived in Greenwich Village in 1951. They were actors. But, by 1956, they were, along with brother Liam and Tommy Makem, making their name as singers. By 1961, they were on the Ed Sullivan show, and were stars, with their trademark Aran jumpers. But they were never parochial:

The folk revival was an international phenomena, and Ireland followed. The Dubliners and The Chieftains began it in many ways, though there was another tradition, the rebel ballad, personified by The Wolfe Tones. The later ‘sixties and early ‘seventies saw the likes of Planxty emerge.

It was not just an Irish phenomena. In another sense, it was English, and Scottish. The young Christy Moore spent plenty of time playing clubs in England, playing both to an Irish diaspora and an audience of English folk fans. Planxty were very influenced by Balkan music, and used Balkan instruments.

Here they are, in their pomp:

And then there was another tradition entirely. By 1976, we had punk. When the young Shane MacGowan had his earlobe split at a gig by The Clash, and when he formed his punk band The Nipple Erectors, he was part of a London punk scene. He met Jem Finer and Spider Stacy at a Ramones gig at The Roundhouse in 1977.

The Pogues were genuinely something different. They combined a punk sensibility with elements of the Irish traditional and ballad traditions. As such, they were a product of the so often unheralded Irish emigrant tradition: the Irish in Britain. So much is said of the Irish emigrant tradition in America, that the far larger number of Irish people that settled in Britain have been somewhat disregarded. Famously, the politics of Glasgow and Liverpool were as much Irish as British in the late 19th century.

After the First World War, Irish politics had ceased to matter in England. However, the tide of Irish emigration continued. The reality of Irish life was to have family members in England: some unhappily, but many making lives that would be far better than they could have made in the poor and backward Republic. What is, in my opinion, the finest Irish novel of recent times, John McGahern’s Amongst Women, sees the estranged family over the water.

Shane MacGowan is very much a product of that English Irish diaspora. The Pogues are also a product of a love of Irish culture that transcended Co Kilburn (the bit of that North London diaspora I knew well). For some, it is a dual identity; for others, a love by association. In the same way that many hippies adopted Irish music, The Pogues did for punk.

Pogues-band-r02The result was two genuinely great albums, both of which blended Irish tradition, a punk attitude and the emigrant experience. It had the romance of that diaspora, and some of its lazy unthinking politics to be true, and even the romance of the drink that has done so a much damage. In all those things, though, MacGowan has been a symbol: both an artifice and real. It was borne both of Ireland, and London, and well beyond.

Pure Irish folk? Never. Such a thing never really existed anyway. The Pogues covered songs from all over. I love Irish traditional music, which, funnily enough, has so much in common with the traditional music of the Northumberland I have lived in these past twenty years. The folk traditions of England, Scotland, Northumberland, Ireland and the United States are all intertwined. So, a punk folk ersatz Irish/London band, with an Irish lilt and London in your face attitude: well, that says so much about the cross-over between two cultures that is one of the joys of these islands and of our Atlantic cousins.

Here’s their finest hour:

Cheers, Shane.

Ok, a bonus. A favourite, A Lullaby of London:

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