Winners Write the History, Losers Write the Songs

Last night’s episode of Stuart Maconie’s ‘Peoples’ Playlist’ on BBC Radio 2 was on a really dificult topic, but one of the most enlightening. It was a mini history of the music of the British part of the island of Ireland.

Popular music began there in the dance halls, with scores of local bands doing covers of pop songs in the early 1960s. These places didn’t have licenses, so served only soft drinks, but they were the only places where young men and women could meet and socialise, as the pubs were a male preserve. Bands regularly crossed the border between Northern Ireland and the republic, but one night the Miami band was gunned down at a fake border crossing, so the circuit struggled thereafter. Northern Ireland has long been divided between Protestants and Catholics, but the bands were often mixtures, employing whoever was good enough, so people could not understand why they were shot. Maybe because they were a mixture, going against the entrenched boundaries.

The inter religious violence, or The Troubles had simmered for a long time, but really kicked off in 1966 – the 50th anniversary of the Easter Uprising. Violence escalated and British forces were drafted in, and were attacked by both sides, though they were generally seen as siding with the Protestants.

In the programme, people talked of the times. One man said he was in a record shop with his friend when a man came in, put down a box and told them they had 5 minutes to get out – the shop was blown up. Another remembered being in an office when a box was delivered and they were given only 3 minutes. This happened regularly. In the 1970s letter boxes were sealed shut to prevent them being blown up.  But by the late 1960s, a local music scene began to emerge. It allowed young people to meet across the religious divide. What we now think of as Irish music, the penny whistles, fiddles and folk songs, was long associated with poor Catholics, but it began to find favour with Protestants. One of the first of these bands was Planxty. Here’s them with ‘The Blacksmith’: One person talked of how the popularity of these bands helped the northern irish, especially the Catholics,  feel less like second class citizens.

January 1972 saw the horror that came to be known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ or the Bogside Massacre, when British troops opened fire on a human rights march in which 26 unarmed civilians died. Maconi commented that he found it strange that there was no musical response to the inicident, but the region was effectively a war zone. Locals were struggling to survive, and to write a song about it would be to take sides, which would make them targets.

On mainland Britain there was a very surprising response. Paul McCartney was the first of the Beatles to form a new band, and his surprising first single was ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’.  It surprised everyone that the baby faced one should become so political – John Lennon was always seen as the radical, but they were both of Irish descent and Liverpool had long been the destination of Irish fleeing famines or strife. The single was so shocking the BBc refused to play it or even to name it. In Northern Ireland, it was seen as simplistic, naive or worse, but it did draw attention to the troubles. Some resented the quintessentially Englishness of the song, and of St paul sticking his nose where it was not wanted. despite the bans, it reached no. 16 in the Uk charts, 21 on Billboard and number 1 in Ireland (of course) and Spain, where it was popular with the Basque separatists.

John Lennon covered the events with ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’:

And Luck of the Irish:

The early 1970s saw the rise of Punk, and this proved to be perhaps the most apt musical genre for young people of the area. Stiff Little Fingers produced a more informed take on the troubles that proved to be hugely popular, and was like a rocket announcing to the world that Irish music did not have to include penny whistles or sentimental ballads about the old country. This is ‘alternative Ulster’:

The Undertones, a Catholic group, became ambassadors for the region, and John Peel’s favourite song was their Teenage Kicks, which managed to transcend their background to be a paean to youth. they developed a huge fan base, especially in Japan. The record label Good Vibrations promoted local bands including them, and has recently been the subject of an indy film. :

The biggest band to come from the island, though they were from Dublin is of course, U2. this is their song ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, a stadium anthem that links the events of 1972 with the Easter Uprising.

Lead singer Bono has since then become a global phenomenon, doing his bit to spread peace, or telling people to give money to causes that he is rich enough to solve himself, depending on who you liten to. In 1998 a power sharing government was at last voted in to the province. At a U2 concert, leaders David Trimble and David Hume who became Noble Proize winners linked arms; another publicity stunt by Bono perhaps, but a significant political statement.  

With the recent outbursts of violence one wonders if things will ever change, and 90% of schools there are segregated. There are still walls separating the religious communities, but things are changing. By improving the economy, young men have an alternative to being terrorists, and civic society is thriving. One woman asked, wil people ever grow up? People are all the same. And throughout the troubles, there has been music, as a safe place where hate can be left at the door and young people learn that we are all the same. The peace in Northern Ireland is a fragile one, but it is holding. People are starting to see it as part of the British Islands, not a war zone. Comparisons have often been drawn between Northern Ireland and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; if there is hope here, then maybe there is hope for them, and for many others.

This is Billy Bragg opening up the story, with ‘Just Another Northern Town’


7 thoughts on “Winners Write the History, Losers Write the Songs

  1. Pingback: Irish massacre survivors demand justice | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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