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Review: Music: Irish Blood, English Heart by Sean Campbell

British music owes a great deal to Ireland. Try to imagine if our emigrants hadn't swarmed across the Irish Sea in the 20th century -- there would have been no Beatles, Sex Pistols or Oasis. How threadbare would English pop have been without Kate Bush, Elvis Costello and Boy George?

Irish Blood, English Heart examines the phenomenon of second-generation Irish musicians in the UK. Written by Cambridge media studies lecturer Sean Campbell, this scholarly but absorbing book focuses on three groups who blazed a trail in the 1980s -- Dexys Midnight Runners, The Pogues and The Smiths.

All three bands were fronted by erudite young men acutely aware of their Irish background in a time where being Irish in the UK could be a significant cross to bear, yet Kevin Rowland, Shane MacGowan and Steven Morrissey (whose 2004 song Irish Blood, English Heart lends the book its title) embraced their ancestry in their music to varying degrees.

To those who came of age during the Cool Hibernia nonsense of the 1990s, when Ireland was, fleetingly, the hip capital of Europe, it can be easy to forget how much racism second-generation Irish people endured in the IRA-ravaged Britain of the 1970s. From the huge sales of Paddy joke books to the anti-Irish bigotry of much of the media -- columnist Julie Burchill, take a bow -- one wouldn't have blamed the offspring of Irish parents from accentuating their Britishness.

Yet, Rowland -- the most compelling (and least mythologised) of the three frontmen profiled in the book -- refused to put his head below the parapet. Dexys Midnight Runners' debut single Dance Stance (later re-recorded as Burn it Down) was written to refute an insidious notion, popular in the UK in the 1970s, that being Irish and "thick" were one and the same. In the song, Rowland namechecks several celebrated Irish authors -- among them Shaw, Beckett and Behan -- and then urges the (UK) listener to "shut your f***ing mouth 'til you know the truth".

Rowland took such pride in his Irishness that he once physically attacked a journalist who questioned his ethnicity and met with Sinn Fein representatives in the early 1980s, yet he never spurned England, the country of his birth.

Campbell -- himself an Englishman of Irish parentage -- suggests that musicians like Rowland were fired by a sense of duality. And, he argues, their creativity was heightened by a feeling of not being fully Irish or English -- but rather a state of limbo in between.

And, all too frequently, when second-generation Irish musicians returned to the 'homeland' they were treated with suspicion, and not welcomed as warmly as they might have imagined.

Shane MacGowan and The Pogues -- initially pilloried in Britain as stereotypical Irish drunks -- were seen as 'plastic Paddies' when they toured Ireland in the mid-1980s. In some quarters, MacGowan, with his pronounced London accent and salty use of language, was regarded as an 'anti-Irish racist' -- a thought that seems utterly preposterous with the benefit of hindsight.

Yet, at the same time, Morrissey was being accused of being anti-British. The singer made some inflammatory comments around the time of the IRA's bomb strike on the Tory conference in Brighton. Praising the terrorists for being "accurate in selecting their targets", he expressed his "sorrow" that Margaret Thatcher had "escaped unscathed".

Morrissey and songwriting partner Johnny Marr (born John Maher) rarely played on their Irish provenance, yet their hatred of Thatcher and veiled support for the IRA helped earn them the dubious honour of being praised by Republican newspaper An Phoblacht, a forum not usually known for its interest in rock music.

Consequently, when The Smiths played their debut Irish tour, they received threats from both sides of the paramilitary divide -- Loyalists urged them to stay away, Republicans insisted they could not pull out. A pair of concerts in Derry and Belfast attracted considerable security concerns, although both gigs passed without incident.

It would be much later, as a long-established solo artist, that Morrissey would explore Irishness and Catholicism. If anything it was his Britishness that was most pronounced during his Smiths days and his brand of Republicanism was rooted in contempt for the UK monarchy rather than any explicit desire to see a united Ireland.

Campbell's assiduously researched book (there are almost 90 pages of notes and references) can make for heavy reading at times, yet he achieves the task to which any book on music and their makers should aspire: it compels the reader to seek out the music again and listen with fresh ears.

Indo Review