Feature/ The Irish Rock Revolution

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By Alexander Brett, History of Art and French

'Ireland's musicians have unquestionably gone some way to healing its fissions, crossing borders with the power of their art', Alexander Brett explores the history of the Irish Rock Revolution.

The island of Ireland is home to just over five million people, yet during the twentieth century it produced some of the most respected icons of rock music: U2, The Undertones, Sinéad O’Connor and The Boomtown Rats, to name but a few. Proportionate to its population, this contribution to world music is impressive though, when compared to the contribution of other similar sized populations, it is not surprising.

What fascinated the world was that rock music in Ireland evolved from a society dominated and repressed by the confines of the Catholic Church, an institution that went as far as forbidding the immoral excitement of sex-infused rock and roll. Budding Irish musicians had to make do with ‘showbands’, groups that imitated rock and roll artists under the watchful eye of local priests. This compromise was undoubtedly constricting, with alcohol banned and entrance fees going straight to the local church, but it meant little to a population desperate to savour a taste of musical freedom. By the end of the 1960s the showbands even had their own version of Top of the Pops, broadcast live on RTÉ, the national broadcaster.

Most of the population were happy to accept the compromise, however, it wasn’t long before upcoming stars began to rebel. Ireland’s first bona fide rock star was Phil Lynott. Growing up in a corporation house on the outskirts of Dublin, Lynott’s childhood was plagued by poverty and racism, but his passion for music defied his circumstances and allowed him to take Dublin’s folk scene in a new direction. While at school he began fronting numerous bands and in 1969 he joined forces with Belfast-based guitarist Eric Bell and drummer Brian Downey. Together with Bell and Brian Downey he formed Thin Lizzy. Travelling to London, Thin Lizzy signed to Decca Records, making their debut in the British charts with their take on the traditional Irish folk song Whiskey in the Jar. Thin Lizzy toured the United States in 1975 and a year later celebrated a third hit with The Boys are Back in Town. But with the grip of the Catholic Church unchallenged, political corruption on the rise and the economy in free-fall, Ireland was a country with a rock star, but no rock industry. Lynott was desperate to stay faithful to Ireland, but his fame and glamour had nowhere to go.

By the time Bob Geldof’s career was starting up, however, Ireland’s economic situation had improved, and it could welcome him with the open arms it had hoped to extend to Lynott. In 1975 Bob Geldof brought together five friends to form The Boomtown Rats, a group that became the blueprint for all Irish rock music to come, leaving a particularly strong impression on the young U2. A mixture of Catholics and Protestants, U2 are today synonymous with pan-Irish forgiveness. Unlike their predecessors, U2 never set their sights on Europe, but instead headed straight for America. Their breakthrough hit, Pride, was inspired by the life of Martin Luther King and their fifth album, The Joshua Tree, spoke to generations of Irish immigrants in America, selling twenty five million records and giving them two American number ones.

U2 meant Ireland caught up culturally with the rest of the world, but its rigid social and religious structures would take time to dissipate. Abortion remained illegal and stories of forced Church adoptions were everywhere. It would take a female rock star to go some way to changing this, and this came in the form of Sinéad O’Connor. O’Connor’s 1990 cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares went straight to number one across Europe, certified platinum in Austria and the UK and gold in Germany and Sweden. She was the first Irish female to garner cultural success on the world stage, and the last in a series of musicians who attempted both to change Ireland domestically – by ending years of bloody conflict – and internationally – by giving its culture a sense of place in an increasingly competitive world. Ireland may still be a religiously and politically divided island, and the stability of its peace may now, more than ever, have been thrown into question, but its musicians have unquestionably gone some way to healing its fissions, crossing borders with the power of their art.

Featured Image: Flickr / U2 Start and Rob D


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