The history of all of the various celtic nations is one made up of oppression, intimidation and emigration. Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Cornwall, Brittany (north west France), Asturias (north west Spain), Galicia (north west Spain) have all been for generations occupied by foreign countries who have tried everything to crush the culture, language and spirit of their people.
But first lets go back in time to the 17th century when the English invaded Ireland. The Irish rebelled against them but are finally subjected after many wars and battles and atrocities are committed. They never fully integrate into the English system of government in the same way the Scots and Welsh did, and rebellions carried on and with every generation their have been major uprisings against English rule.
Music was a continual form of expression which made it very important to the culture of the Celts. With the prohibition of native languages and songs just speaking or singing could see you exiled or worse. Misrule and a deliberate policy of starvation forced millions to emigrate away from Ireland while at least another million died while hundreds of tons of food a day was shipped out, under British Army guard, to England. In Scotland the forced clearances for land to give to rich barons to exploit for cattle and sheep farming sent tens of thousands of Scots to a new life in Canada. Other celts, for example many Cornish left when the tin mining industry went into decline, emigrate to the Americas in the 19th and 20th centuries and right up to the present day it remains high. Why the Americas? Despite those early settlers facing exactly the same kind of oppression, racism and bigotry that they had escaped from, it gave the little guy a new beginning. A sense that anyone could make it in this new world with hard graft and a little luck…plus it was away from the Empire that had held them down for so long, and even in the Irish case even tried to murder them! Later revolts in Ireland established a republic separate from England, yet the north is still in English control. This was never accepted by all and so began a bloody war to unite Ireland that continues to this day.
Just like the original Irish music pub sessions didn’t originate in Ireland neither did celtic punk. The Pogues formed in post ’77 era London during the ‘troubles’. Bombs going off in the streets of England and shootings were common, anti-Irish racism was a fact of life for many. Many Irish lived together in the same areas of London, Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham etc., creating, for want of a better word ‘ghettos’ where Irish life carried on despite being in a foreign and unwelcoming land. Punk music started by posh art school kids rebelling against their parents soon spread out to the working class communities and the 2nd and 3rd generation Irish youth of those communities were no different from their english counterparts in lapping it up. The idea of fighting against authority made celtic music highly compatible with punk. Many of those original english punk bands had Irish members but punk bands in Ireland didn’t want to sound Irish they were just trying to sound punk (i.e. Radiators From Space, Stiff Little Fingers). Punk music was able to gain popularity from the people with celtic roots because it represented something unique to their heritage. Punk reminded them of what it is to be celtic to stand against authority, independent and defiant.
The Pogues were the original celtic-punk band. Made up of 2nd generation Irish, Irish and English members they were the first to combine the two genres of punk and traditional Irish music together creating a totally new sound. They had plenty of plaudits and recognition and even managed to break out of the ‘Irish scene’ and became a genuinely popular band here in Europe and the USA. Shane MacGowan, their iconic lead singer and writer of the critically acclaimed Fairytale of New York, is now considered one of the best songwriters of his generation! At the time though many folk ‘traditionalists’ scoffed at them as being just a bunch of ignorant English pissheads out to ruin Irish music but this was before anyone realised there was about to be a massive outpouring of ‘Irish pride’ from thousands upon thousands of second and third generation Irish from outside the isle of Ireland. The Pogues spearheaded this and along with Celtic F.C and the Irish football team (itself packed to the rafters with 2nd and 3rd generation Irish players) came to represent us in our Irishness. The thing the traditionalists didn’t understand was that even though we were into modern music we’d grown up listening to The Wolfe Tones, Dubliners, Clancy Brothers etc., (even Country’n’Irish!) as children so a band like the Pogues coming along wasn’t a shock to us but the folk establishment sure as hell didn’t like it!
Jump to today and its the Dropkick Murphys who are the worlds celtic-punks most popular and famous band. They started off as a Oi!/punk band with no Irish/celtic music only some Irish imagery on their record sleeves and merchandise. They kind of, in their own words, “started out as a joke” and didn’t seek out acclaim, but they rapidly grew in popularity due in no small part to the many, many people in the US who have celtic heritage and celebrate it. Over the years they’ve adapted Irish music and instruments and songs into the mix to create today’s celtic-punk. The Dropkick’s represent what it is to be celtic/Irish in modern day America (being working class, the fight against oppression, overcoming adversity, toughness, family bonds, religion/ Catholicism etc.,) but overall its still The Pogues that best embody celtic-punk. They were the first band of the scene and their music and lyrics are closer to the source. The Dropkick Murphys put more of an Irish-American spin on their songs, The Pogues are more about the history therefore, especially to those of us outside North America, the songs of The Pogues are more authentic with more Irish themes and fewer American ones.
The globalization of celtic music through emigration, in which oppression and poverty were the main reasons people left, has spread the influence of celtic music across the globe, even outside of the usual haunts of the Americas, Australia, NZ and here. Celtic-punk bands exist in pretty much every country where a son or daughter of a celt has set foot. It has also spread to the land of origin of the other celtic nations, with very healthy scenes in Brittany and Galicia helping to rejuvenate the native languages. Use of traditional instruments- fiddle, tin whistle, banjo, accordion, bagpipes is higher now than it has been in decades, again due in no small part to the popularity of celtic-punk.
Celtic-punk reflects the heritage of celtic people and the fight against oppression. It embodies the history of what it is to be celtic and what it is to overcome hardships and to finally come out on top.
It is where we come from but don’t you worry this is no exclusive club… everybody’s welcome to the hooley.
This isn’t meant as an introduction to celtic-punk or even a potted history it’s just one man’s small attempt to unravel what it is that makes the music so appealing to himself and countless others. If you agree or disagree we’d love to hear your comments…
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