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Punk Troubles Alternative Ulster 1
Alternative Ulster was a Northern Island Punk Zine.

How punk acted as a peacemaker for youth in Northern Ireland

Toby Mott’s new book traces the significant impact that punk had on Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and beyond

In 1976, among the bloody conflict of The Troubles, punk arrived in Northern Ireland. Operating against a backdrop of civil war, the scene threw down its anchor in the heart of Belfast and quickly set to work ruffling feathers – as was its way.

Spearheaded by home-grown bands such as The Undertones, Rudi, Stiff Little Fingers, and Ruefrex, Northern Irish punk culture was as suitably anarchic, loud and nonconforming as one would expect. What made it unique, however, was the manner in which it provided a crucial independent space among the violence and division of sectarianism. Punk, in all of its deviant expression, allowed working-class kids – from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds – to come together and create under a neutral umbrella. It was, if you will, a peace process that predated the peace process; a common ground.

For artist, designer and punk historian Toby Mott, the period is an obvious point of fascination. For someone as well-versed as any in painting the culture in the most positive of lights, stumbling across the history of Northern Irish punk as a unifying movement – within the context of conflict – was a particularly inspiring discovery.

“Punk is a creative space. I think that everyone agrees it's a creative highpoint in both British and DIY culture. But, in Northern Ireland it was much more significant” – Toby Mott

“My thing is that punk is a creative space,” he explains. “I think that everyone agrees it's a creative highpoint in both British and DIY culture. But, in Northern Ireland, it was much more significant. Punk, of all the sort of ironic places, was somewhere to escape the violence and to escape the sectarian division.”

Punk Troubles: Northern Ireland, an exhibition and accompanying book, sees Mott (whose credits include co-founding radical art collective Grey Organisation and designing album covers for groups such as Information Society and De La Soul) shining a light on such escapist qualities. Designed by regular collaborator (and Dazed’s Art Director) Jamie Andrew Reid, it examines the adoption of a radical, positive movement and culture, pitting its intention to create and mobilise against a wider landscape of split, distrust and destruction.

“You have the London bands posing with their revolutionary, military style, but when you’re actually living in a war-torn environment, you don’t borrow those clichés. You don’t get Northern Irish punk bands mimicking the terrorism that’s going around them, because this was real.

“You get an English band like The Jam, with ‘A Bomb On Wardour Street’, or The Clash with ‘White Riot’, but if you’re actually living in a state of constant fear of militarised strife, then you’ll more likely sing about your girlfriend not turning up than you would about the constant. I guess it’s hard to imagine as I’ve never lived in that situation, but if it is an everyday occurrence – the bombs, searches, military vehicles – it’s probably a bigger occasion in your life when you get laid. Which is exactly what ‘Teenage Kicks’ was about.

Punk Troubles features a range of punk and youth culture ephemera – record sleeves, posters, designs –vand pits it alongside with political material from the same period, setting up a dialogue between the music of the time and the troubled context within which it operated. For Mott, it’s addressing a void in documentation for a scene just as – if not more – important than its English equivalent.

“You’ve got this chaos, this war, going on, and you’ve got this blossoming punk scene – one which is acknowledged, but not as much as it should be. You’ve always got the Sex Pistols and The Clash, but (The Northern Irish scene) was very important – and it went on for a much longer time than the English one. The English scene developed and you got the New Romantics and stuff. But, in Ireland, the war carried on and the punk scene carried on… It’s got a real authenticity and grittiness; it was obviously largely ignored commercially, so it just developed on its own. It’s a subculture within a subculture.

“It was a learning point for us in conflicts that we’re all facing today: no matter what the background was, there was always this energy for creativity. I find that quite inspiring.”

Punk Troubles: Northern Ireland is available now. Punk Troubles: Northern Ireland, the exhibition, runs at New York’s American Irish Historical Society until 13 October 2017

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