Poguetry In Motion

I mentioned on Wednesday that I’d be spending Patrick’s Day immersing myself in Irish culture. I had planned to take it easy on St Patrick’s Eve, but shortly after writing the post I got an unexpected text from a good friend of mine. It didn’t take too much for Tom to persuade me to call over to his place for a few drinks and to watch Chelsea take on Inter Milan in the Champions League. Watching English football teams is one of the most popular pastimes amongst Irish males and the tie was nicely balanced at 2-1 to the Italian team. I brought along an 8-pack of Bulmers cider (the Irish one, not the English one). The game was quite close, but Inter scored near the end to ease their passage into the quarter-finals. As the number of cans got fewer and fewer, Thomas put on one of the best Irish films of recent years, In Bruges (it’s in Belgium). The next morning, Tom’s lovely lady Linda made an Irish breakfast for the three of us. Even though Linda was unable to offer any evidence as to the food’s heritage, I had no reason to believe that it wasn’t an Irish one. It was cooked and eaten in Ireland and it even tasted like an Irish breakfast. After that, Tom checked out Cheltenham and we watched the Irish trainers, horses and riders cleaning up. After Linda cleaned up, she dropped me home. My thanks to Thomas and Linda for a lovely Irish day

By the time I got home, I decided that my immersion in Irish culture was complete. I wasn’t too disappointed that I’d missed the parade, as I’ve never actually witnessed this spectacle. It’s not that I’ve anything against Saint Patrick. Even though the guy on whom St Patrick is based was actually British, I can’t thank him enough for making Ireland a snake-free zone and for inspiring a national holiday named in his honour. This gives a paid day off to the majority of employees in Ireland every year and allows us to spend that money in the pub. One of the main purposes of a national holiday is to celebrate a nation’s uniqueness and the particular characteristics that differentiate it from other nations. I’ve always been willing to engage in the drinking side of the day, but I find the rest of it a bit too kitschy. In any case, the day is less of a celebration for people in Ireland and is more a day for people in other countries to celebrate their Irish identity

While chilling out at home later that day I came across an article that made my Irish blood boil. It was on the Guardian‘s music blog and was entitled Celebrating St Patrick’s Day? Don’t do it with the Pogues. This provocative headline did not reflect the content of the article that followed and this foreshadowed the inconsistencies that were also present in the piece. Instead, the byline beneath this headline posed a more accurate statement of the author’s intent: “Bands such as the Pogues and Dropkick Murphys are known around the world for creating an Irish sound. But how authentic are they?” The writer’s name was not part of the byline and I had to look for it. It turns out it was written by Ed Power, who writes for the Irish tabloid newspaper, the Irish Independent. Some of his articles there include these positive reports about Irish singers Gemma Hayes and Lisa Hannigan. He also wrote approvingly of Lisa’s nomination for what he terms the “prestigious Mercury Music Prize” and has done a Q & A with Fionn Regan. This would appear to be Ed’s debut article for the Guardian and, judging by the predominantly negative feedback that it provoked in the comments that followed, it may be a while before he gets a chance to toss off another one for them

In Power’s Guardian article, he notes the parallels between the birthplaces of the members of London-Irish band The Pogues and the Republic of Ireland football team from the late 80s and early 90s. Ignoring the fact that Ray Houghton had a Scottish accent, he highlights the high proportion of English accents that both the Irish national team and The Pogues featured in their lineups. Certainly, not one of the six original members of The Pogues was born in Ireland, including frontman and chief songwriter Shane MacGowan. The subsequent addition of Philip Chevron and Terry Woods, two established Irish musicians, signalled the first time that bona fide Irish-born men could call themselves Pogues. Power’s narrow definition of Irishness ignores the complexities of national identity by simply equating nationality with birthplace. In contrast to what he perceives as the shamrockery of The Pogues, Power highlights the names of three bands that he felt put Ireland on the musical map: Thin Lizzy, The Fatima Mansions and My Bloody Valentine. Three great bands indeed, but I wonder if Mr Power is aware that half the starting four of My Bloody Valentine had English accents? Both Bilinda Butcher and Debbie Googe were English-born and bred. Throughout the band’s heyday in the 70s, Thin Lizzy’s various incarnations featured enough different members to form a football team. However, only one of those guys was actually born in the Republic of Ireland: drummer Brian Downey. I doubt if anyone would dispute that Phil Lynott (born in West Bromwich, no less!) was anything other than an Irishman, even though only one of his parents was Irish

Even though MacGowan was indeed born in Tunbridge Wells, he was born to Irish parents who were visiting relatives in Kent and actually grew up in Co Tipperary. In addition to that, MacGowan was immersed in Irish culture, music, literature and history from an early age, a passion that would continue throughout his life and that seeps out of his songs and music. What Power conveniently chooses to forget, however, is that MacGowan and the rest of the English-born musicians in the band were not laying claim to an Irish identity but to an immigrant Irish identity. The Pogues successfully tapped into a London-Irish identity that permeates many of the band’s finest songs. Power’s notion that the band were jumping on the Irish bandwagon because they used instruments associated with traditional Irish music (such as accordions and tin whistles) shows his corresponding ignorance of musical history

Confusingly for the reader, Power lumps Irish-American groups such as the Dropkick Murphys and the Flogging Mollys in with The Pogues. He sees them all as “Plastic Paddies” whose adoption of “Oirish” music is a cynical attempt to take advantage of the large Irish-American market in the USA. Again, Power is intolerant of anyone who claims to be Irish, but who wasn’t born on the island. He fails to see that an Irish-American is a combination of Irish and American interests and experiences who may be very much an American, but who also has a knowledge of and passion for various aspects of Irish culture. Even more confusingly, Power levels a number of these criticisms at three contemporary Irish musicians that he has championed in articles in the past. He dismisses Hayes, Regan and Hannigan as pandering to “Celtic whimsy” and the notion of the “misty-eyed troubadour”. In the articles that I link to above, he gets a chance to interview Regan and Hannigan, but fails to challenge this particular aspect of their musical direction. In fact, in these and other pieces, he continues to harp on about the Irish abroad. In his Q & A with Regan, Power asks him: “Some Irish artists have complained about the ex-pats they attract abroad, who seem chiefly interested in ‘de craic’ rather than listening to your music. Is that a problem for you?” Regan’s answer is a positive one and he indicates that it is not problematic for him. The interview ends on this pointless question from Power that illicits the response it deserves from Regan:

Power: You’re from Bray and live in Dublin. But for years, everybody thought you were based in Brighton …

Regan: I know … it was one of those things. But there you go …

In Power’s Guardian article he bizarrely compares Bell X1 to Radiohead when the influence of other bands might have been more apt. In fact, in this 2009 interview while the band were touring the US, he makes reference to the more obvious comparison to the music of Talking Heads. Yet again, he returns to his obsession with the Irish abroad. He dwells on an incident in an American city where a drunken expat heckles lead singer Paul Noonan in Irish and two more drunken encounters follow in Philadelphia. These incidents seem to be more of an issue for Power than they do for Noonan. His continued obsession with expatriate Irish men and women and a focus on their supposedly fake Irishness may stem from an crisis of identity within Power. Maybe he’s embarrassed about Irish culture, history and traditional forms of music and is more of a fan of bands that prefer to ignore what it means to be Irish. Perhaps he feels envy at those in other countries who celebrate what he perceives to be stereotypical aspects of Irish identity. These factors would explain why he has a go at the Irish-American bands and especially MacGowan and The Pogues. From his emphasis on birthplace, I assume that Power was born in Ireland. Perhaps it is galling for him, as a pure-bred Irishman, to see these “Plastic Paddies” forge an Irish identity through their music with which many more “real” Irish people can identify as well

The first time I heard the music of The Pogues was a revelation for me. I had heard various aspects of traditional Irish music before that and the majority of it didn’t appeal to me and seemed to belong to an Irish past that had nothing to do with my life. In contrast, The Pogues’ punked-up versions of those traditional songs and the punk spirit that they brought to their music made me question my prejudices about traditional Irish music. More than that, I was blown away by the musical and lyrical quality of Shane MacGowan’s songwriting. The band’s origins didn’t matter one iota to me as it came across as more authentic and ‘real’ than most music I’ve ever heard. Like Power, I find aspects of Irish identity to be problematic and our relationship with our culture needs to be interrogated. Power’s badly researched, unbalanced and inconsistent article fails to examine these issues, but perhaps it will get the discussion going. Nevertheless, I must admit that I’m at a loss as to how a quality publication like The Guardian could allow such inferior work to be published on their site. I doubt if even the Nenagh Guardian would have allowed this piece to be published. If The Guardian is looking for an Irish writer with a broader knowledge of Irish culture, history and music to write a piece for next year’s Patrick’s Day edition then I would be more than willing to oblige

The selection below begins with five cover versions of songs written by MacGowan that begins with a wonderful version of Lullaby of London from a traditional music band from England. The Jesus & Mary Chain, Nick Cave, Billy Bragg and Florence Welsh may not be your idea of shamrock ‘n’ roll, but they manage to incorporate elements of their own styles into the songs of the Pogues. Fairytale of New York has become the band’s most covered tune and the first time I heard someone else singing it was Christy Moore one summer in Thurles nearly twenty years ago. Always a man to spot a great songwriter, he had already recorded a fine version of A Pair of Brown Eyes on his Unfinished Revolution album from 1987. Philip Chevron’s Thousands Are Sailing from If I Should Fall From Grace With God was one of the few original songs by the band not written by MacGowan. His own version of his tale about emigration to the USA comes from the Bringing It All Back Home album. This is followed by MacGowan singing other writers’ words. His version of fellow Londoner Ian Dury’s Plaistow Patricia is backed by the late Dury’s former band The Blockhead’s and appears on the tribute album Brand New Boots and Panties. An Irish Airman Forsees His Death appears on another tribute album entitled Now and in Time to Be. The subject of this tribute is its author, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. The final three songs are by men with Irish connections, but who were, like MacGowan, all born outside the Republic of Ireland. The three songs from these “Plastic Paddies” examine the complexities of being part of the Irish abroad and wouldn’t be out of place on your Paddy’s Day playlist for next year

Lullaby of London (Pogues cover) – June Tabor & the Oyster Band

Ghost Of A Smile (Pogues cover) – The Jesus & Mary Chain

Rainy Night In Soho (Pogues cover) – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Fairytale Of New York – (Pogues cover) – Billy Bragg & Florence

A Pair Of Brown Eyes (Pogues cover) – Christy Moore

Thousands Are Sailing – Philip Chevron

Plaistow Patricia (Ian Dury cover) – Shane MacGowan & the Blockheads

An Irish Airman Forsees His Death (by WB Yeats) – Shane MacGowan & Café Orchestra

Irish Blood, English Heart – Morrissey

London Irish – The Divine Comedy

Nothing But the Same Old Story – Paul Brady


4 thoughts on “Poguetry In Motion

  1. Pat – here’s the link to Conor’s post on Dexy’s which, on re-reading, I find has a lot of similar reasoning to your post – and a link to a great vid by Dexys (sic) :
    Rowland’s roots were, I think, in your neighbouring county of Clare – even closer to you than Shano.
    As to Brel – he did actually get a lot of flak when starting out over: 1/ his ‘idiosyncratic’ looks (the French prefer their singers to have movie-star looks – not like an extra from ‘In Bruges’) and 2/ his being Belgian.

    • Great article. Thanks for the link, Seán. I completely forgot about Burn It Down when I was putting the songs for the post together. I agree that it is a shame that they are mostly known for Come On Eileen. I guess that Kevin and Shane have a lot more in common than just being great songwriters. That’s interesting about Brel, another kindrid spirit to the two lads

  2. Thanks, Seán. I’m sure that Ed wouldn’t be a fan of Powers (and certainly not Paddy). I had forgotten about the outcry that greeted The Pogues when their music first became popular in Ireland. Back then, I think the old brigade were scared of the band’s punk roots and MacGowan’s no holds barred lyrics. And I’m sure a lot of the detractors accused them of jumping on the ‘Ireland’ bandwagon as well.
    I must check out that post on Rowland et al. His music and background popped into my head as I was writing, as did that of Johnny Rotten, The Smiths and Lennon and MacCartney. It’s a good thing they didn’t all use tin whistles and banjos!
    I wonder if Jacques Brel got all this kind of crap

  3. Great post. Power – despite carrying the name of the sweetest of whiskeys – reasons like a tool. It’s pretty tiresome to hear the same tripe trotted out about the Pogues as was trotted out in the Irish media when they first broke. I remember a famous radio show where BP Fallon confronted them with a panel including the great boxplayer (but even greater grouch) Tony MacMahon with accusations of them denigrating Irish music. You can also find a clip on YouTube of their first Late Late appearance where the condescencion from Gaybo is in lethal doses.
    As an expat living in France, I run into people every week that were brought to Irish music by the Pogues.
    Conor, from our blog, did a post on Dexies a few years back addressing the same issues of the identity of the immigrant Irish, the irish of the diaspora. Kevin Rowland being as interesting an example of it as the great Shano.

Comments are closed.