Sick of U2 and Riverdance? Listen to Kneecap, the Mary Wallopers, and Lankum this St. Patrick’s Day
U2. Riverdance. “Fiesta” by the Pogues playing as people drink shamrock-stamped pints of freshly-poured Guinness. The easily exportable side of Irish music hasn’t always had much claim to being radical. At the source, however, Irish music is flourishing.
While the media narrative would have you believe that working class cosplayers Fontaines D.C. and the Murder Capital – artists repackaging Oirish™ culture with all the mileage of a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe – are the best that Ireland has to offer, the island is thriving with socially-conscious scenes tapping into the essence of what it means to live here in 2020.
A huge, unknowable thing, ‘Irishness’ will always mean different things to different people. For me and many others, what informs the best of it, especially when wielded via song, is a rare kind of allegiance to what constitutes truth. It’s art that celebrates the good and the great, all while holding a mirror up to all that the nation is and was. It’s songwriting that pushes forward, commenting on – rather than curtseying to – setbacks and failings of the past. Yes, it’s often joyous and defiant, and sometimes nigh on mystical, but when steered right, it rarely steers far from darkness or the distinctly uncomfortable.
Whether taking aim at the housing crisis and years of post-Celtic Tiger economic unease, to staring down social inequality and the loosening clasp of imperialism and the Catholic church, Irish musicians right across the island are currently redefining Irishness for a whole generation. If St. Patrick’s Day had fallen on a different day, cities across the world would gleefully be playing host to some of Ireland’s finest musical talent. Instead, we have some free time to dig ourselves out of the sombre mood via the work of some of our very best artists.
There’s no musical configuration in Ireland more capable of mining a sense of the country’s relationship to its past than Lankum. Recent winners of the Choice Music Prize (essentially Ireland’s annual answer to the Mercury Prize) for their third album, The Livelong Day, the band began life as an “experimental-psychedelic-folk-punk-duo” headed by brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch. A few years and the addition of Radie Peat and Cormac MacDiarmada later, they are genre-warping torchbearers of forward-pushing Irish folk.
Authentic and ecstatic, earthy and aptly apocalyptic, Lankum’s droning craft carries with it the elemental majesty of what has always made the Irish folk tradition so compelling. But by furthering it and furnishing it with a fierce contemporary touch, droning and masterfully drawn-out tales like “Katie Cruel” and “The Young People” fare as modern takes on the likes of Irish patriarchy and the country’s suicide epidemic, all while being sonically enmeshed in centuries of turmoil and deliverance.
Having recently delivered a resounding set at the prestigious Other Voices in Co. Mayo, Limerick-based artist Denise Chaila describes herself as a “pocket-sized dreamer with a planet-sized voice”. An Afro-Diasporan MC, singer, and poet raised in Chikankata, Zambia, Chaila’s output to date is a singular meld of spoken word and rap that aims to give “a voice to a transatlantic odyssey exploring identity, belonging, and home from the heart and mind of a diasporan dreamer”.
Weaving Zambian culture with the reality of daily life in modern Ireland, Chaila's debut EP, Dual Citizenship, sees to that mission and then some. Challenging preconceptions and straight-up prejudices regarding nationality being a choice – in her case, to be either Zambian or Irish – her words, whether solo or with the likes of Limerick trio Rusangano Family, double up as a vital, forward-moving celebration of the glorious in-between.
THE MARY WALLOPERS
A rare breed unto themselves, Dundalk-based trio The Mary Wallopers comprise two-thirds of TPM, AKA brothers Charles and Andrew Hendy, a hip hop project whose punk-gilted anti-authoritarianism took aim at dole, depression, and anxiety. Joining Seán McKenna as The Mary Wallopers, the threesome zig-zag the length and breadth of the island, singing and collecting songs that forge their knack for generation-bridging balladry with a perfectly absurdist touch.
With a debut album in the works, debut EP A Mouthful of the Mary Wallopers comprises five tracks of tin whistle, fiddle, concertina, organ, bass, and vocals. Combined, it’s a rapturous, often reflective running commentary on Irish social and cultural mores, past and present. Sitting in this St. Patrick’s Day eve? Watch Stay at Home with the Mary Wallopers live on YouTube from 8pm. They’ve made a bar in their front room for it and everything.
Reared in the parish of Kilcummin, Co. Kerry, Junior Brother is cut from his very own cloth. The music-making moniker of Ronan Kealy, the name is increasingly synonymous with a brand of song that, defiant of being simply labelled alt-folk and resistant of descriptors like “off-kilter”, peers much further into the avant-garde, the surreal, and the downright unpigeonholeable.
Running parallel with that fact is another: despite going far beyond bankable notions of Irishness, the music of Junior Brother couldn’t feasibly be conceived anywhere else but Ireland. In dissecting a whole wealth of cultural and social phenomena on tracks like “Hungover at Mass” and “Full of Wine”, Kealy’s trademark Munster broque and keen turns-of-phrase feel equal parts familiar and bracingly unique. If you get a chance to catch Junior Brother live, do not pass it up.
POST PUNK PODGE AND THE TECHNOHIPPIES
Forget Dublin: Limerick is the epicentre of forward-pushing music and culture in Ireland in 2020. Bursting at the seams with artists and collectives (see DIY LK, Unscene, Lower Your Expectations, Out on a Limb, and PX Music) battling against the rising tide of economic dread and a very real mental health crisis, it’s home to a booming body politic of socially-conscious creatives. Nowhere is that more on display and in your face than with Post Punk Podge and the Technohippies.
Fronted by a rapping and fiddle-wielding frontman who dons a mailbag as a mask, the group have long laid claim to being one of the country’s most emphatic live acts. Underpinning it all is Podge’s dogged commitment to and downright flair for calling out and dismantling the country’s entrenched bureaucracy. Razing privilege, wealth, inequality, and lack of resources and infrastructure on songs such as “Mass Deception”, “Post Punk Election Party” and “Generation Xanax”, Podge and his merry clan possess authenticity, urgency and righteous indignation like no other.
From Rejjie Snow, JyellowL, and Kojaque, to Nealo, Hazey Haze, and God Knows, the very best Irish rap doesn’t hesitate to hijack what is habitually sold as Irishness at every turn. Setting themselves apart in the north are Belfast threesome Kneecap. Diametrically opposed to typical St. Patrick’s Day conveyor belt FM fodder, the trio – comprising Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap, and DJ Provaí – unapologetically rap in their native tongue. While they’re too young to remember it, since 2017, the trio’s bilingual blitzes often center around the country’s violent past, as well as the much bigger picture of centuries-old oppression at the hands of the British government. But it’s the social and psychological fallout of these realities, not simply in Belfast but throughout the island, where the trio sift their most inspired material.