It was a great day when I discovered that, due to some wonderful loophole in our educational system, taking film classes counts towards my English degree. I relished the chance to sit peacefully in a classroom, watching movies and probably napping. I selected an Irish film course and prepared myself to coast through the semester with Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb as my tutors. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to nap nearly as much as I’d hoped, because almost every film we watched had multiple musical numbers or riotous bar scenes. Usually both. It was quite distracting and sadly I was forced to actually pay attention in the class.
It became glaringly obvious that Irish film was rife with stereotypes, but the musical inclination of the Irish people was perhaps the most prevalent of all. Just the name of the country conjures up images of step dancing, banjos, flutes, and burly, cheerful men along with a nauseatingly beautiful countryside. That being said, with a handful of notable exceptions (Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison, U2, and the famed Eurovision Riverdance of 1994, to name a few) Ireland hasn’t had the largest impact on the music industry. It’s even more noticeable, then, that the nation has had such an outsize influence on a genre like punk.
Much in the same way that Scandinavia is just inherently metal, it seems Ireland just is quintessentially punk; the national identity, formally known as “Irishness,” lines up quite neatly with the basic punk ideology. Irish and punk identities both emphasize the working-class hero, the general disdain for authority, the (anti)political slant and conversation about political violence, and of course the raucously loud music as a form of social glue, whether it’s singing drinking songs in a pub or throwing oneself about in a mosh pit. Ireland’s cultural history is of dissidence and of political strife, two things that are inherently punk in nature, so it’s no wonder the Irish narrative dovetails so well with that mindset.
Thin Lizzy are, of course, the original hard-rocking Irishmen, founded out of Dublin in 1969. While they may not have that classic Celtic fiddle-and-tin whistle sound, they were the arbiters of combining heavier, more aggressive sounds with traditional aspects of their home country, like covering folk songs from the 17th century. It wasn’t punk, per se, but it propped open the door for the explosion Ireland was about to witness: first the Pogues and Mahones, who in turn spawned a wave of other groups, all singing about the same things, the same inherently Irish experiences, over that undeniably punk sound.
If you happened to read my Firefly diary, in which I examine the strange Irish punk microcosm at a primarily pop and EDM festival, then you already know how I feel about Flogging Molly. Their “What’s Left of the Flag” is chock-full of Irish clichés, but in an endearing way, not a “this is the cheesiest thing I’ve ever heard” way. There’s that rage against the war, the working class hero who sacrifices everything, and of course the sense of community, like Ireland is just one big nation of brothers. Celtic punk is all about the community. Also, Flogging Molly keeps it classy onstage; they dress like a string quartet and sound like the musical equivalent of a bar brawl.
Celtic punk isn’t exclusively made by natives of the country, but quickly spread to areas like London and Boston, the unofficial Irish capital of the United States. Case in point: the Dropkick Murphys formed almost two decades after the Mahones and 3,000 miles from the nation, while Enter the Haggis (or Jubilee Riots, depending on who you ask) hail from Toronto of all places. It turns out that Canadians can rock bagpipes just as well as any Irish lad, although they look decidedly more hipster while doing it.
And for whatever reason, bagpipes just pair so well with punk. Maybe Riverdance should incorporate electric guitars into their act or something.
Irish punk emerged by coincidence: it just so happens that not only do fiddles and banjos sound freaking great with the standard punk ensemble of guitar / drums / bass, but the punks and the Irish also share a lot of subject matter. And most importantly of all, they both like to get drunk as hell and play rowdy music all night. It truly is the best of both worlds. Slainte, Celt-punks, and Éirinn go brách.