by Abagael McCauley

 “This is your heritage!”

my dad said as he turned up the volume of the Chrysler Mini-Van’s stereo. We were parked along the St. Patty’s Day parade route, just two blocks from my house, and The Chieftain’s cassette was playing so loud that I felt the car shaking with the sound of the bagpipes.

“Doesn’t it just make your blood boil?”

He said enthusiastically with a laugh. I nodded and pulled my blanket close as the cold March wind blew through the back of the open trunk. I never knew what he meant when he said that. Why was something that was supposed to be representative of my heritage meant to make my blood boil? It never sounded pleasant, so why did he get so carried away whenever bagpipes were played?

To many Irish and Scottish families, Celtic music is more than a way to honour a heritage; it is a way to reconnect with forgotten family and pay homage to a people’s history of struggle. It is a way for members of a divided culture to feel connected and unified despite distance. Celtic Punk acts as a cultural and political unifier for a new generation, taking traditional Irish songs and retooling them with a more modern, rock instrumentation, and by adding heavy political overtones.


Most countries over the course of their history experience some sort of inner turmoil amongst sectarian groups, and Ireland was no exception. Northern Ireland became a battle ground between two groups, the Protestants and the Catholics, the Unionists and Nationalists. The Unionists wish to see Northern Ireland continue to be part of the United Kingdom, while The Nationalists wish to see Northern Ireland become part of the rest of Ireland, independent from British rule. These two opposing views are linked to deeper cultural divisions. Unionists are overwhelmingly Protestant, descendants of mainly Scottish, English, Welsh and Huguenot settlers as well as Old Gaelic Irishmen who had converted to one of the Protestant denominations. Nationalists are predominantly Catholic and descend from the population predating the settlement, with a minority from Scottish Highlanders as well as some converts from Protestantism. Discrimination against nationalists under the Stormont government, which was in effect from 1921 to 1972, gave rise to the nationalist civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Some Unionists argue that any discrimination was not just due to religious or political bigotry, but also the result of more complex socio-economic, socio-political and geographical factors. Whatever the cause, the existence of discrimination, and the manner in which Nationalist anger at it was handled, were a major contributing factor which led to the long-running conflict known as the Troubles. The political unrest went through its most violent phase between 1968 and 1994.

From February 1967, a civil rights movement developed in Northern Ireland that challenged the unionist political status quo (Bryan). Between 1967 and 1969, there were increasingly violent confrontations between the Protestant and Catholic communities that began to attract the attention of the international media.

irish AmericaThis violence sparked what is often referred to as the ‘new Diaspora’, a mass exodus of Irish citizens mimicking the emigration habits of the Irish during The Great Famine that began 1845. One by-product of the Celtic Diaspora was the existence of large communities across the world that looked for their cultural roots and identity to their origins in the Celtic nations. This is particularly true in the United States and Canada, where there are large communities descended from Irish and Scottish immigrants (‘Celtic Rock’). Bryan, the author of ‘Orange Parades’, describes Irish traditions from Northern Ireland in terms of ritual and their meaning as a unifier.

“Ritual helps to create solidarity within groups, often in the absence of consensus, provides access to political legitimacy and moulds people’s understanding’ of the political universe. Ritual action provides the objectification of politics, constituted ad invested in symbols…cultural or symbolic capital that enables and sustains, but can also resist, the legitimization of communities” (Bryan)

That is, things that are interpreted as meaning one than can be used by a counter-culture to legitimize or reinforce a cultural or political stance. These things can even be used as a way to resist the powers at work in a culture. Elements of disguised and more anonymous forms of public resistance often manifest in the form of rumour, gossip, songs, rituals, and euphemisms.

Many times, and as can be seen in the consumption of Celtic rock, music can take on the role of sustaining an identity. Additionally, displacement and political exile as a consequence of armed conflict can also bring attention of people in other lands and from other cultures, who were otherwise unlike to have discovered it (‘War and Armed Conflict’).

Beginning in the 1950s, Irish traditional music was finding new audience and was being accepted by younger and older generations, but had a larger effect on the next generation of musicians who would create a hybrid genre known as Celtic Rock (Cooper). Earlier colonialism and a lack of external influences during the World Wars, due to Ireland’s neutrality, meant there had been a lack of international influence on culture. However, in the 1960s, Ireland began to see influences of soul, blues, rock and roll, and country mixing with Irish traditional timings and compositions to create an entirely new style of music (Cooper). Blues musicians often take the approach of personalizing a struggle by placing the singer at the centre of the narrative, offering an individual perspective within a community-centred genre or struggle (‘War and Armed Conflict’). Similarly, in the songs emerging from Latin American revolutionary struggles, the passion with which particular events and activities are recorded in music is

“…not so much that of a singer’s personal response as that of a collective interpretation of events”- ‘War and Armed Conflict’

Much of Celtic and Punk music functions as a way to feel the heartbeat of a collective culture and gauge the emotional state of a people.

Celtic rock is a genre of folk rock that incorporates Celtic music, instrumentation, and themes into a rock music context, and has played a major role in the maintenance and definition of regional and national identities and in fostering a pan-Celtic culture (‘Celtic Rock’). That is, traditional music, particular ballads, jigs and reels are given new life and appeal with the addition of rock instrumentation and incorporation of Celtic instruments, including the Celtic harp, tin whistle, uillean pipes, fiddle, bodhran, accordion, concertina, melodeon, and highland bagpipes to conventional rock formats (‘Celtic Rock’).

AMYTHREE (2)The bagpipe is a particularly important part of this movement due to it’s historical meaning to the Celtic people, especially those of Scottish descent. In Scotland, The Disarming Act of 1746 and the Amendment in 1748 as created by King George II, in order to ‘more effectually secure the peace of the highlands’ prohibited the use or bearing of the sword or other warlike weapon, or wearing any clothing resembling or paying homage to ‘highland clothes’. It did not, however, ban the playing or ownership of bagpipes, and this instrument, so

“potent in stimulating the blood of the highlander”

remained as one of the few ways for the Scottish people to hold on to their heritage despite English rule (Allen). This instrument quickly became a symbol of rebellion and pride for the Celtic people, and is often a featured component of Celtic rock bands and songs.

The function of Celtic Rock has been less to create mainstream success, than to bolster cultural identity. This has thus created reinforcement of pan-Celtic culture and of particular national or regional identities between those with a shared heritage, but who are widely dispersed (‘Celtic Rock’). A popular Celtic rock band, Flogging Molly, wrote a song titled ‘Rebels of the Sacred Heart’ which talks about what it is like to be Irish Catholic in America. The lyrics read

“Genuflect all you refugees who fled the land / Now on guilt you kneel / And say a prayer for those left behind/From beyond the pale to the Northern sky / So you saved your shillings and your last six pence / Cause in God`s name they built a barbed wire fence / Be glad you sailed for a better day / But don`t forget there`ll be hell to pay”

With little more than religion and tradition tying them to their homeland, Irish immigrants and their descendants often feel tremendous guilt for fleeing but also a pride in their heritage. The fact that this music is able to communicate a feeling that is so universal amongst those of Celtic heritage is a testament to it’s importance in fostering a feeling of unity and a pan-celtic culture.

The author of ‘Pipes and Pipers’, Greg Allen, wrote on the importance of bagpipers in the redeveloping Scottish culture. He said their function was

“to inspire youth with a national spirit, to give them a noble bearing on the march, in the playing field or on some solemn and sad …To assist these ends and to restore to our youth some of the high pride and dignity that belongs to a people who have suffered so much, who have struggled so long, to emerge from the land of bondage into the full freedom of a national existence so long denied to them…”(Allen)

I think the same is to be said for Celtic Punk – this unique style of music was served as a way to empower Celtic youth and unify them with the reminder that they have something to be proud of, despite their suffering.

On a March night similar to the one with my father at my first St. Patrick’s Day parade, I found myself in front of a stage that was about to present the band of musicians who first made me love the music of my culture, The Dropkick Murphys. The excitement of the audience was like nothing I had experienced at any other concert, and when the curtain dropped, the sea of green in which I was standing undulated towards the stage. I was swept up physically by the people around me who were pushing and swaying with the opening chords of one of their songs. On cue, four bagpipers took the stage to chime in with the accordion and guitars, and I was covered in goosebumps.

I took out my phone and texted my father.

“I get it now”

Irish America 1

Works Cited:

Allen, Greg D. “Pipes and Pipers.” The North Easy Folklore Archive. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.

Bryan, Dominic. “Northern Ireland: Ethnicity Politics and Ritual.” Orange Parades: The Politics of Ritual, Tradition, and Control. London: Pluto, 2000. Print.

“Celtic Rock.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Mar. 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.

Cooper, David. The Musical Traditions of Northern Ireland and Its Diaspora: Community and Conflict. Burlington, VT [u.a.: Ashgate, 2009. Print.

Dubber, Andrew. “MA Music Industries.” MA Music Industries. 1 Mar. 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.

McLoone, Martin. “Punk Music In Northern Ireland: The Political Power Of ‘What Might Have Been’.” Irish Studies Review 12.1 (2004): 29-38. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.

“War and Armed Conflict.” Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World: Media, Industry, and Society. London: Continuum, 2003. Credo Reference. Web. 17 March 2012

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  1. Bhoyo August 11, 2013 at 9:21 am Reply

    great song by London Irish rockers NECK called Diaspora…

  2. macseafraidh August 29, 2013 at 5:41 am Reply

    Reblogged this on The National Celticist.

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