“If you cannot find your way
& you live nowhere each day
Dig your roots and culture man”
Benjamin Zepheniah, Roots & Culture
Following their comprehensive victory over the Spanish-Irish Alliance at Kinsale in 1601, assisted by the traitor Earl Donogh O Brien, the Crown forces wished to press home their advantage & turn rout into annihilation. They understood something which I sometimes wish was understood better by the opponents of oppression, rather than by its proponents. They understood that a people’s identity, the historical experiences and set of common ideas and practices which bond a people together, is contained in its cultural practices, especially In Ireland’s case in the bodies of work preserved and generated by its poets and musicians & poet-musicians.
Without our songs and our poems we don’t exist, we have no idea who we are or where we come from and we become easy targets for absorption into the culture of the conqueror.
Accordingly, in January 1603, Queen Elizabeth thru her Conquistador Lord Barrymore issued a proclamation to ‘’execute by Martial Law in and throughout the whole province of Munster all vagabonds, harpers, Rhymers, bardes, and all manner of vagrant and maisterles persons…”
The Irish had been defeated Militarily and were in the process of being abandoned by our indigenous nobility. We were at our lowest ebb, victims of a century of slash and burn, imposed famine, mass executions, continuous genocidal pressure from the Empire. The rout at Kinsale could have been – was meant to be – the end of us.
But to defeat a people militarily is only a temporary solution to the problem of resistance. Resistance is mostly a thing of the spirit, which occasionally expresses itself in militant resistance in line with the strength & endurance & inspiration of the spirit, and the spirit too is practical, real, apprehensible & made up of songs, stories, tunes, poems… Physical resistance can lie dormant for decades, even centuries, as it did so over and over in the course of Irish History, but if the spirit is preserved the next rising is only a matter of time, as is proved over and over by irish history. Knowing this, the English, expert annihilators of distinction and difference, went on a murder hunt all through the hills and the valleys of Munster, hanging and gutting poets wherever they found them. Many’s a Lorca hung from an old Munster Oak in the months following the extermination decree.
But not all the Lorca’s were caught. Despite incessant hardship and murderous hostility, our native musical and literary traditions not only were preserved but continued to improve and expand down through the centuries of occupation & attempted genocide, becoming and remaining the clarion call and the soundtrack for every act of militant resistance carried out in Ireland down to this day.
For the true religion of the Irish is not Christianity, nor is it pre-christian Druidry. The true religion of the Irish is resistance and we will resist to the death and beyond any attempt to regulate us or limit us according to the dictates of annihalitory Imperialism. In the 20th Century British Imperialism suffered a major, world-historical defeat in Ireland at the hands of a peasant army marching to songs half-a-millennium old. We drove them out of three quarters of the country – the most significant defeat yet suffered by the gigantic British Empire.
But the failure to win the six counties had enormous negative effects, allowing conservative forces on both sides of the border to pitch politics along sectarian rather than class lines and leading to a ‘carnival of reaction’ everywhere from Antrim to Ahakiska. When DeValera eventually came to power in the 1930s in the Southern statelet it was as a representative of a replacement foreign power – The Vatican – which also had it in for the irrepressible creativity of the Irish.
The 1930s to the 1960s, when Ireland was a viciously ruled Catholic Theocracy, were the lowpoint for the administration of culture in Ireland, and not only in the area of Anglo-Irish literature, which is what gets most of the attention in discussions of censorship & cultural repression. It is true that many novels were banned – but the practice of writing novels was not banned. Irish traditional culture was the object of a whole other level of repression and an attempt to ban outright, to annihilate altogether the age old practice of community dancing and music making. The Dance Hall Act of 1935, introduced by FF at the behest of the higher clergy (like so much FF legislation) was aimed specifically at the common rural past-time of house dances. Queen Elizabeth was an amateur compared to Bishop McDaid ad DeValera – she went after individual artists, whereas the Theocracy went after the conditions which gave rise to such brazenly popular performers, attempting to change things at the root and so produce an entirely different flower altogether.
These community dances were neighbourly events held in larger living rooms or barns or local halls and often for the purpose of raising money for poor or sick neighbours. They were unregulated by any outside authority and were often late-night events with plenty of commingling and plenty of craic as can be imagined. But they were nothing like what the clergy made them out be – basically pagan orgies. The clergy, hostile to any community activity or ritual which was not strictly christian and strictly under their oversight and control, could not abide what they saw as the challenge to their spiritual, moral, and political authority represented by people having innocent fun the way they had done for centuries and without any need for a priest to bless it. With the introduction of the act, only events which were licensed by a local judge, priest, or cop could go ahead. In effect this meant that priests and sometimes cops became central to the organising of community dance events from now on, were always present at them and often MCs. This moral oversight had the effect of ushering a new and previously unknown formality and rigidity into traditional music and dancing. Multi-instrumental Ceilidh bands (again mostly under the charge of priests, cops and other conservatives) playing strictly formalised versions of traditional airs, replacing the one or two fiddlers and whistlers speeding up and slowing down according to changing demands of the ongoing dance.
This attempt to reconstitute indigenous culture as a conservative, backward, reified tradition, against the grain of centuries of development and dynamism was perhaps doomed to failure in advance, although we should not underestimate it’s freezingly negative effects either. Gatherings, which we now call ‘sessions’, outside the purview of the Priest continued in snugs and private houses, on a smaller but no less widespread scale, and new songs and poems and even new instruments were being added to the great tradition all the time, in contradiction to the attempts to set ‘Irish Culture’ as something settled & forever frozen in the past.
Many thousands of Irish musicians were also forced abroad along with every other kind of irish worker, encountering and absorbing the influences of multiple global traditions while proudly displaying their own to the world, eventually feeding these dynamising influences back into the performance culture back home. Both because and despite of Vatican Tyranny and economic devastation then, the incredible wave of Irish musical creativity from the Clancy brothers in the 1950s right up the Pogues in the 80s and 90s was unleashed.
This in turn has inspired hundreds of thousand of people in Ireland and all over the world to participate in learning and generating tunes & songs old and new to the extent that what can be broadly called Irish traditional & folk music and songwriting forms far and away the leading cultural tradition in Ireland. One would be a fool to seek the story of the Troubles and the Triumphs of Ireland and the Irish in our ‘Anglo-Irish’ novels and book poetry, focused as these so often are on impressing bourgeois audiences and critics in London and New York. If you want to know what happened to the majority of us, what it felt like to be an Irish worker in Belfast, Boston or Ballydehob anytime in the last half-century, one has to look to the folk traditions, to the songs collected and written by our true folk laureates.
Irish music and songwriting, Irish Bardry, in 2020 is in a stronger position than ever before, despite and because of all the hostility endured and overcome. Until Fine Gael and their partners in cultural crime get going, that is. Now, speaking in the Dail of the crisis in the arts caused by Covid and FFGREEN Policy, and referring in particular to musicians, Heather Humphreys, Philistine, tells us that she has asked her officials
‘to ensure that a sensible approach is taken for those who cannot return to work and who are waiting for their job to come back. It is best that we help people to reskill, retrain and look at other jobs they can take up.’
Aside from the intentional deep & troll-like discouragement of artists contained in Humphreys’ well-pondered words, the mortal threat to Irish artists is obvious. Musicians and other artists on the PUP will be offered a training place in some field they have no interest in, or a low paid entry position in in a profession they have nothing to do with, and if they don’t take up the offer, they will be cut off their welfare payment. It’s part of an overall ‘shock doctrine’ strategy of FFGREEN which will attempt to use the current crisis to reset the Irish economy as even lower-waged, even more insecure, even more weighted in favour of the 1% , even kore ‘attractive to foreign investors’ than ever before. Targeting & annihilating ‘harpers, Rhymers, bardes, and all manner of vagrant and maisterles persons’ is the idea, just as it was in Elizabeth’s day. Because just as in Elizabeth’s day and DeValera’s day, our rulers have correctly identified irish musicians and poets as bearers and generators of a culture of militant, unbending, age-old resistance to oppression. Were we to give up on the airs and the elegies, & take up accountancy and life-coaching instead, it would make the job of delivering the Irish worker into the hands of the bosses for endless unresisted exploitation – the dream of all Blueshirts & Barons – far far easier.
But they forget resistance is our religion – it is the reason we Irish poets and musicians exist, and that we are not given to blasphemy or betrayal – not in this green land. The songs and the airs anf the poems will continue, by any means necessary, as they always have done before, and as a vital part of the general fightback against the new austerity, the new imperialism, until the likes of Humphreys and her ilk are long cast away, into the blank land of unsung obscurity, where we alone have the power to cast them.