One of Australia’s finest Celtic punk exports are back with their first EP since 2016’s ‘Whitewashed Graves’. Have they still got it? Make no mistake: these guys pack a punch, and they always have.
The Ramshackle Army kicked the Celt-folk door open way back in 2010. Quickly, they proved they could deliver exciting, fast-paced performances to rival the best of ’em. While they’ve obviously been influenced by The Dropkick Murphys, and have a core sound reminiscent of 2000s-era punk rock, the band is much more than a mere Dropkicks tribute, let me tell ya that!
The Army have toured the US several times, supportin’ top names like The Tossers and The Dropkicks themselves, and sharing festival stages with Flatfoot 56 and The Mahones. The Army (as I shall refer to them from now on) have described their music as “the sounds of punk rock, with a dose of the Celtic folk”. And that, my friend, is precisely what we have here on ‘Highflyer’. And damn, it’s good to see these guys the other side of lockdown.
To the EP itself: this 5-track record is a thrasher, from start to finish 🙂 It also showcases some of the band’s punkiest moments to date. From the minute the title track “Highflyer” kicks in, we know we’re in for another good ride. Singer Gaz Byrne treats us to the catchy, Cockney-tinged vocal melodies we’re used to from him. The sound again immediately provides that homely feeling that Celtic music always summons in the listener. With lines like “Where is the line in the sand? / Why do highflyers sink so low?”, the song takes a critical swipe at the business success but lack of moral principles embraced by some “highflyers”, wrapping it up in a hopeful and powerful chorus. A strong opener, and one that brings back memories of “Protest Songs” from the aforementioned ‘Whitewashed Graves’ EP, or indeed 2012’s classic “Rue The Day”, the video to whichis currently nearing 50,000 views on YouTube.
Tracks #2 (“Bend Don’t Break”) and #3 (“Rise and Fall”) allow the band’s rock sound into the foreground, with the fiddles and mandolins taking more of a back seat. However, this takes nothing away from the musicianship of these songs, and our favourite Celtic instruments make a strong return in the interestingly-titled “The Also Rans”. If you’re looking for the band’s signature “woah-oh!” singalong moments, then await the chorus patiently 😁 For me, this is the second strongest song on the record only to title track “Highflyer”, but you might feel differently, so crank the volume 😉
You’ll want to keep the volume up for closer “Old Weapons”, too. I’m pretty familiar with The Army’s back catalogue, but they’ve hardly ever sounded heavier or faster than they do here. A desperate burst of energy to emerge from the terrible pandemic that’s wrecked people’s lives, perhaps? Maybe. Either way, this one’s sure to be a firm singalong at the band’s gigs in support of the EP, supplying 1 minute and 49 seconds of untempered energy.
Anyway, enough from me…to feast yer ears on this fine piece o’ work, click HERE or try Spotify.
What happened when Shane MacGowan met Ronnie Drew back in the ’90s? Well, a few things happened, but here’s one thing ye might not know about. Let’s take a trip back through time, but not one that will bore you.
Back in the day, Ronnie Drew was makin’ a solo record called Dirty Rotten Shame. He was short of a few songs, so he contacted the ol’ legend himself, Shane MacGowan. Shane sent him a song he’d written, called The Dunes.
Like most of MacGowan’s work, it’s a beautiful piece of music, and it shines a light on the ugly side of life. On one of Ireland’s toughest times. The Famine of 1845-52.
The Great Hunger
I walked today on the cold grey shore Where I watched when I was much younger Where they built the dunes upon the sand For the dead from The Great Hunger.
Those are the first lines Ronnie sings in the song. It sets the scene of the terrible famine of 1845 to 1852, caused by a potato blight. The Irish, especially the working class, were heavily dependent on the potato, often eating 5 kilos a day. So the Famine struck right at the heart of their livelihood.
Ultimately, a quarter of Ireland’s population was either wiped out, or left to find a home elsewhere. This is what Shane writes and Ronnie sings about in the song, almost like they were there. More to the point, Shane was, when he was 18 or 19. “I was up near Louisburgh in Co. Mayo, and I heard the story about people burying their dead on the beach, during the Famine times,” the singer said once. “The place was eerie, all these bones lying about. I’ll never forget it.”
And Shane didn’t forget. Just listen to the line, “the children kicked the sand about, and the bones they are revealed, then”, and there’s your proof.
Shane at his best
Despite being about such a grim topic, The Dunes showcases MacGowan at his finest. While it’s hard to pick out the best lines Shane’s ever written, I particularly like the penultimate verse, which goes like this:
A crack of lightning split the sky The rain on the dunes, it poured I left them lying where I shot them down The bailiff and the landlord Then I went for a drink in Westport.
He’s had his problems, but Shane is a fucking genius. And the “Westport” line is the only moment of hope in the song. The only moment where the narrator seems to hint at a normal life, like going for a drink in the pub. Sadly, it’s also a strong reminder of the part of Ireland that was hit the hardest by the great hunger.
It was the West, and the South, that copped the worst of it. Many of those who died were Catholics, as referenced by the “rosary” line earlier in the song. And one of the truly tragic factors about it all was the soup kitchens. These were set up to provide relief to the starving poor, and it did help. But since the kitchens were Protestant, and Catholics were sometimes reluctant to go in case they got converted, we’ll never know how many people died out of fear of losing their religion.
Busting a myth
Most of what I know about the Famine was written in a book by Joseph Coohill. His father was an Irish-American, and Coohill is a respected academic. His book Ireland: A Short History is informative without being hard to follow. Also, to Coohill’s credit, the book is fair to the Nationalist and to the Unionist sides. It’s fair to the Irish, but portrays the British in a factual light too.
That brings me on to something. The myth you’ll sometimes hear is that the Famine was entirely the fault of the British. While it’s a popular myth, it’s not completely true. The Quakers, and even Queen Victoria, donated a shitload of money, to try and stem the impact of the Famine. Robert Peel was PM when the Famine started, and he genuinely tried to help, but was stabbed in the back by his own government. They didn’t want him importing cheap food from abroad, even though people in Ireland were already starving to death. Sometimes it was the rich Irish landlords and bailiffs who turfed the starving people out of their homes, and effectively “stole their grain”, like it says in The Dunes.
If you’re looking for people in Britain who cocked things right up, try the following:
Peel’s successor, PM John Russell. He believed in economics, rather than fixing an agricultural problem.
The scientists appointed by PM Peel to investigate the Famine. They disregarded a specialist’s opinion that the potato blight was caused by a fungus (which it was).
The arrogant people among the British, who believed the Famine was “sent by God to punish the Irish”. So much for love thy neighbour. Ireland was part of the UK at the time, so why didn’t more people look out for them?
Charles Trevelyan, treasurer to PM John Russell. Trevelyan was slow to give the Irish any kind of proper aid, and he also believed in the God-punishing-the-Irish crap. A poor treasurer and economist if ever there was one.
As Ronnie returns to the opening verse of The Dunes to finish, he sings about a man walking on the same shores where he witnessed the horrors of the Famine as a young boy. That implies that the Famine may have passed, but that it lives in the hearts and minds of the people connected with it. There’s a lesson to be learned in life, then. And that lesson is this: do what you can to help others. As human beings, we can’t work miracles. But we can all do something or other to make a difference.
It could be doing a Ferocious Dog and organising a food bank at a music venue. It could be raising money for, or donating money to the homeless, as I’ve done in the past and still do. It could even be as simple as looking out for folks during the terrible COVID-19 pandemic. In a world where ordinary people can feel powerless, let’s all do a little bit to make it a better, more humane place.
Listen to The DunesHERE. Or, you can watch an old video of Ronnie singing it HERE.
Ever since Shane and The Pogues knocked our ears into gear in the ’80s, hundreds of bands have followed in their footsteps. Year after year, they bring us exciting Celtic punk songs, albums and gigs to light up a somewhat shit world. But what about Celtic punk stories? Why ain’t there many of them floatin’ aboot?
Maybe there’s more than one way to entertain people. If you’re into Guinness, St. Paddy’s Day and young people embracing the Celtic spirit worldwide, then what we have here will be right up yer alley, ye ken. They say hope springs eternal…and so does folk!
Have you ever wanted to read a short story, or even a novel, about Celtic punk? As if The Pogues, Tossers and Mahones were ready to jump off the page at ya? If that sounds cool, then meet Gus, Lin, Herman and Rash. Four characters from the far-flung reaches of Nova Scotia, Canada. They’re passionate musicians, folkin’ the Irish pubs and refusing to bend to society’s wishes. Below, I give ye four reasons why you should give a shit.
1. They have the bottle of smoke
Yes, that’s a Pogues reference! The Bottle of Smoke is the band’s aptly-named local Irish pub. We kick things off with them playin’ The Smoke mid-week to an appreciative audience; Gus on guitar and vocals, Herman on mandolin, Rash workin’ the accordion, and Gus’s cousin Lin banging the bodhrán (not in a sexual way). Gus is essentially the band’s very own Shane MacGowan; a troubled ratbag who likes a drink or six, but a songwriting genius with a fistful of dreams and a big, beating heart at the centre of it all. And speakin’ of The Pogues, if there’s one band you would automatically compare these four musicians to, then the London Irish legends are it.
As well as playin’ The Bottle of Smoke as often as the pub’ll book ’em, the band are making inroads into the rest of Atlantic Canada as well. They’ve played out west a little, they’re set to play Cape Breton Island on St. Patrick’s Day, and they’re keepin’ their well attuned ears to the ground for more. The stage is quite literally set for a Celtic punk love affair.
Sounds good so far? Read on, ya big bollocks 😉
2. They have ideals
We all realised we weren’t gonna get anywhere in life unless it was through the music. Ozzy didn’t wanna do what his father did for a living, and Tony didn’t wanna do what his dad did. Neither did Bill, and neither did I.
Geezer Butler, Black Sabbath
While Kilmainen (being the band’s name) might not be working-class, backstreet kids from Aston, Birmingham, they ain’t exactly moneyheads either, to use Gus’s own word. Gus himself is a standout example of this, working just 15 hours a week in a music shop. Underpaid, no doubt, but doing something he actually cares about. Cousin Lin is similar, having snubbed the corporate world to go part-time in an artsy café. The band members take the time and energy saved, and reinvest it into the one thing that matters most to them: their music.
The plan is that writing songs together, recording albums, doing interviews, playing gigs and working with other musicians will one day become the quartet’s full-time gig, their sole source of income. That’s certainly what the Austrian-born Herman dreams of, as he spends Sunday afternoons promoting the band’s music online. The biggest dreamer, though, is once again Gus: what you’re about to read is one of the entries he pours into his diary mid-way through the story.
I don’t want to live by society’s rules. It’s boring. I don’t wanna live life with no idea what I want. Society wants you think you’re worthless, and that it’s YOUR fault if you’re unhappy. But I can see through that. I KNOW what my purpose in life is. It’s the best feeling you can get, when people say your music’s helped them. Tell me it’s just a hobby? Bollocks to that. I wanna BE someone in life, change things up.
Guthrie “Gus” Ward, Folk Springs Eternal
I once saw a great film where actress Julia Jentsch said, “I want to live young, wild and free.” Most people will tell you that’s stupid, but her co-star Daniel Brühl said, “that’s not stupid.” He was right, and so is Gus above. There’s nothing wrong with having a dream, with looking at the world and asking questions. Asking whether life can be lived differently, rather than the way it’s spoonfed to us. That’s where the hope lies, my friend. And hope – like I started out saying above – springs eternal, right?
Will folk music spring eternal in Kilmainen’s case, too? Read on, because here’s where it gets nail-biting.
3. They have to fight society
Unless you’re sheltered from the world, or just strike lucky, you won’t follow your dreams without some serious backlash along the way. Numerous examples exist: Mahatma Gandhi, Carl Brashear, Jacinda Ardern, Mark Oliver Everett, the list goes on and on. These people had to battle their way to success, and our four musical heroes are no exception to this rule. We get a glimpse of it in chapter 4, when Rash’s office colleagues disregard his ambition to become a professional musician. “There’s no money in that game,” they tell him.
If that seems quite harmless, wait a little. Lin gets on a bus five days later, and is violently attacked by three youths who don’t like women who think and dress for themselves. “Irish music ain’t cool,” they say, and apparently neither is being a lesbian. Luckily a trip to hospital is averted just in time, BUT: bring on St. Patrick’s Day, where things go from bad to worse. In less than 24 hours, the band is all but over, with their morale and reciprocal support in the gutter.
4. They have to win.
What will become of the band? Will the quartet survive their trial by fire? Or will they fail and self-destruct among the flames? Well that I won’t tell you 😉 I will only promise you that the Celtic punk author doesn’t make a habit of letting people down.
So you have two options, my friend. One: you’re invited to take a wee look around my website, where the story and other cool stuff is available for purchase. Click HERE to check it out. Or two: if you want chapter 1 for free first (plus a free song!), then click HERE instead. I swear by the holy iron which I hold, that I, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser (okay, no), will not pass your email addresses on to any gobshite else.
I hope you enjoyed the read, my friend. Sláinte mhaith! 🥃
The Pogues. The Mahones. Flogging Molly. The Dropkicks. All bands who’ve made their mark on the Celtic-Punk genre. But we can’t forget the lesser-known bands too, the musicians working tirelessly to keep the flag up and flyin’! In his first guest post, Andy Beck (aka. The Celtic Punk Author) showcases the old and new from his small, but growing Celtic Punk playlist on Spotify.
We kick things off with Sir Reg, an energetic six-piece from Sweden with a top Irish singer in Brendan Sheehy. “Giving It Up (The Drink)” is a prime example of what these guys can do, arguably bettered only by the irresistible “FOOL (Fight Of Our Lives)”. This outstanding track appears further down the playlist, and is taken from the same album, 2018’s The Underdogs.
If Reg are still too well-known for ya, then how about the acoustic fun of Anthony Leclair? “A Prayer To Spirits” is an expletive-laden number that sits finely among the rest (before proceeding to fall drunk under the table). “Jack Daniels can just fuck right off, I’d rather drink shite beer”, is how it goes. And I can get behind that. Sorry, but you’re talking to a single malts guy who’s visited about half the distilleries in Scotland, so mine’s a Lagavulin 16.
One more fun acoustic one before we get back into the heavier shit. Check out “McGuffin” by an outfit called Gypsy Rebel Rabble, hailing from Dublin’s fair city. This song was written about a man with some sort of grudge, and an unstoppable urge for revenge, and I’ve been hooked on it since first it was recommended to me. So be sure to give that one a spin for proof that Celtic punk don’t always gotta be distorted.
Gypsy Rebel Rabble hail from Dublin. Give the uptempo “McGuffin” a spin!
Meet the Germans!
If you’re lookin’ for Celtic music beyond the Celtic countries, you’ll go a long way to find a more fertile place than Germany. There are about a dozen Irish pubs in Berlin alone, and I’m unashamed to tell you that it’s precisely this fine city that got me into Irish music properly. I lived there for 6 years, travelled around the country a bit, and came across a number of awesome acts who can hold a candle (and a Guinness) to any Irish, Scottish, American or Canadian folk punk band out there.
On the playlist, we kick shit off with The Feelgood McLouds. If “McGuffin” (see above) had me hooked from the go, so did these guys’ track “Dirty Bastards”. It’s a catchy offering by the Saarland group, with lyrics about camaraderie and a bagpipe leading the tune against a wall of distorted guitars. I challenge you to listen to it and not start nodding your head, tapping your feet or whatever the feck else one does when enjoyin’ a tune.
Another band you shouldn’t miss is the Kilkenny Knights. I had the honour of playing the same festival as these guys in 2015, when they won the Newcomer Award that my old band The Celtic Gobshites had won the previous year. And sure enough, “A Drinker’s Song” boasts a catchy accordion riff that takes me right back to them Irish pubs and mediaeval markets that I loved so well.
No reference to German Celtic punk would be complete without a nod to the kings of ’em all – Fiddler’s Green. These guys organise an entire festival every year in North Bavaria, known as the Shamrock Castle Festival, and it would have taken place this year too had it not been for that bastard virus. Still, “John Kanaka” is the band’s fine-ass reworking of an old Hawaiian sea shanty, complete with beer cup antics before the guitars and drums knock your ears into gear. “Yindy” is another one I chucked on the playlist, with fun – albeit slightly silly – lyrics to keep ye grinning.
The Kilkenny Knights, all the way from Coburg, Germany
A Few Surprises!
I’ll leave yers with a few surprise tracks that ye may not have expected on a Celtic punk playlist. Ever heard of Saor Patrol? If no, these guys are aboot as Scottish as it gets, ya wee bawbags. They’re a pipes and drums band whose proceeds go entirely to the Clanranald Trust, an educational establishment that preserves and spreads medieval Scottish culture. “Three Wee Jigs” is a perfect example o’ how these guys can rock ya socks off, so stick it on, crank the volume and go mental.
If the Germans had ya riveted earlier with their take on the music, then check out French outfit Toxic Frogs too. This all-female act knows how to sing, scream and folk with the best of ’em. The lyrics are admittedly a tad difficult to understand, but show me a punk fan who cares much about that and I’ll show ya a bad seed.
Last of all – but by nae means least – I have to cite the mighty Alestorm! Though pirate metal is these dudes’ specialty rather than Celtic punk, I believe they deserve a spot or two on the playlist. Almost all of their songs are about pirates and sailing the seven seas, so the outrageously funny “Wooden Leg” will surely not disappoint! Check it out, but be prepared to be hooked (no pun intended).
So where’s the damn playlist, then?
Thought you might ask me that Click HERE to be taken there, ye gobshites.
If ya like what you hear, the creator would sure appreciate a like. Feel free to tell someone else about it if ya think they’d like it too (in English: please share). Got any recommendations for what should be on the ol’ list? Send ’em to The Celtic Punk Author on Instagram -> @thecelticpunkauthor
Sláinte mhaith and enjoy the ceol, ya bollockses x