Music Subcultures in Ireland

From the 1970s and 80s, a strong tradition of musical subcultures has developed in Ireland, exerting a strong influence on musical subcultures outside of Ireland. Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher and Horslips all laid down the foundations for hard rock and heavy metal, while the world of punk had Johnny Rotten (real name John Lydon) and Shane MacGowan, both of whom were born to Irish parents, and raised in England. Goth music was heavily influenced by the music of the Smiths, whose lead singer, Steven Patrick Morrissey was born to working-class Irish immigrants in Lancashire. Arguably, illegal ‘raves’ were taking place in Ireland long before the Warehouse parties of the 1990s. These were the crossroads’ dances, made illegal by the Public Dance Halls Act of 1935.

Historically, rebelliousness is a feature of Irish life. While we may have adhered to strict religious teachings over the centuries, it was rebellion that won us our freedom. It is no surprise that as Ireland began to forge an identity for itself internationally, some artists would carve out  alternative paths or subcultures. In the 1950s, an international folk music revival was taking place, leading to the creation of ballad groups. In Ireland the 1960s saw the formation of The Dubliners, The Clancy Brothers and Sweeney’s Men; and in the 1970s there was Planxty, The Bothy Band and Clannad among many, many others. Yet alongside these traditional musicians was another movement. Meanwhile, Rory Gallagher was playing his blues-infused hard rock, Horslips were mixing rock music with mythology and traditional music, and Thin Lizzy were playing hard rock and heavy metal, at the same time singing about Cú Chulainn and Róisín Dubh. With the death of Phil Lynott in 1986, and Rory Gallagher in 1995, it seemed like hard rock and heavy metal bands might disappear from the Irish musical landscape.

In the 1990s, in Scandinavia, another beast was beginning to emerge. This music was called Black Metal, and would go on to influence a whole range of Irish bands. Black Metal is a style of music that incorporates elements of folk music with pagan themed lyrics and imagery. Scandinavian Black Metal bands were heavily influenced by Norse mythology and Norse paganism, as well as Nordic folk music. Scandinavian bands such as Bathory, Mercyful Fate, Darkthrone, Burzum, Mayhem, Emperor and Carpathian Forest, strongly influenced Irish bands such as Waylander, Celtachor, Geasa, Mael Mórdha, Primordial and Cruachan. These Irish bands were crafting their own unique sound by blending what Thin Lizzy and Horslips had produced with what was going on in Scandinavia musically, adding Irish mythology and history to the mix. Many of these Irish bands went on to achieve international success, playing to large audiences at festivals around the world, while remaining virtually unknown in Ireland.

Another music subculture in Ireland which is worth mentioning is punk. Three of the major players in the London punk scene were Johnny Rotten, Shane MacGowan and Billy Idol. Johnny Rotten, born John Lydon, and Shane MacGowan, both had Irish parents. Johnny Rotten went on to front punk band the Sex Pistols, while Shane MacGowan became singer for The Pogues, and a voice for the London-Irish community. MacGowan went on to front the Pogues, whose hybrid of punk and traditional Irish music is now world renowned. The Pogues influenced many trad-punk bands including the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. Billy Idol’s mother’s maiden name was O’Sullivan, and Idol has always been proud of his Irish roots. He began his career with punk band Generation X, and went on to achieve international fame as a solo artist.

Today Irish punk bands of note include bands such as Paranoid Visions, Ciúnas, Mouthpiece and Amadán, while Northern Irish band Stiff Little Fingers have been around since 1977 and are still active. Irish immigrants also played a role in the Manchester Goth scene – several members of the group the Smiths are children of Irish immigrants, the most well known of whom is the singer Morrissey.

It should be added that within music subcultures in Ireland, there is a strong tendency to create stage personas, whether this be through the use of a pseudonym or costume. In Primordial there is Nemtheanga, in Paranoid Visions there is Aoife Destruction. Of course, traditional mummers have been using costumes to embellish stage characters for years. Whether it is St Patrick, St George, or the Doctor, each character has a unique costume to help dramatise their role. Costumes also play a pivotal role in Irish dancing, and one has to ask if Michael Flatley could be Lord of the Dance without a silk shirt and bronze make up?

Music subcultures play an important role in society. They offer audiences the opportunity to be part of a movement, and to watch it grow and develop. As groups and artists emerge, audiences get to see them in small intimate venues, as opposed to watching a small, distant dot on a stage at a massive concert. The emphasis is on the emotional transaction of live music, where the audience and musicians can feed off each other’s energy. This is something that can never be replicated on a television screen, or across the barrier of a computer.

Being involved in music subculture is also about holding on to a piece of one’s youth, and carrying that energy and outlook throughout one’s life. Most of the music subcultures discussed here are being performed by people who are aged 40 and above, which makes one wonder if music subculture in Ireland is a dying phenomenon. As young people become more preoccupied with online gaming and social media – Tik Tok and Instagram – have they forgotten how to rebel? One could argue that the art of rebellion is being quenched by social media. Alternative thinking may become something which only exists online, in a parallel reality, thus making it easier to control. Perhaps the next generation will simply accept mainstream ideas, and alternative modes of thought become something which takes place online, but never makes its way into real life, or popular art, or music. Only time will tell…

  • This post was researched and written by Simon O’Leary, National Folklore Collection.

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