Review of Irish Blood: English Heart, Irish second generation musicians by Sean Campbell, published by Cork University Press.
In this interesting, but flawed, book Sean Campbell discusses what it means to be second generation Irish. He argues that “the presence of the second generation at the hub of British popular culture became most striking in the 1980s”, the period addressed in this book.
He looks at some of the research from that period and correctly identifies the fact that the research “neglected to consider the possibility of second-generation cultural agency, and has instead assumed their passivity”. What makes this book difficult to read is the use of jargon such as “agency” when he means activity by political or community groups.
In the 1980s and 1990s I was involved in the Irish in Britain Representation Group and we actively and vigorously challenged the stereotypes about what it meant to be Irish. Sean quotes from the Irish Post, the national Irish newspaper during this period, and it is incredible that he has not included our organisation in his research.
IBRG was not about passivity but about activity. Many second generation Irish were involved with it and debates about Irish identity were constantly played out. One of our big issues (there were many) was campaigning for an Irish category on the census which was on our agenda when we started in 1981, and was finally achieved in 2001. He describes this as a backward step; “the British state… in the 2001 census forced the second generation to choose between accepting the notion of complete assimilation….or rejecting..the land of their upbringing…by asserting that they were unequivocally ‘Irish’”.
For IBRG gaining an Irish category on the British census was about the British state’s recognition of our existence, although ironically it was achieved at a time when many Irish (including the second generation) had returned to an economically booming Ireland. The government was only following in the footsteps of many other local government organisations who had recognised the Irish as an ethnic minority in the 1980s. Sean recognises the role of the Greater London Council and Ken Livingstone who included the Irish in their multicultural policies, but the truth is that it was the Irish communities in London, and particularly individuals such as Pat Reynolds of the IBRG, who lobbied the GLC to get recognition. Ken Livingstone was canny enough to see the importance of the Irish vote in London and he put his money where his mouth was and funded many Irish organisations until Thatcher abolished the GLC in 1986.
In the 1980s it was a common belief in the community that to assert yourself as Irish, particularly If you had an English accent, was to make a political statement. This comes through in his interview with Kevin Rowlands of Dexys Midnight Runners. In 1979 he brought out Dance Stance a record that challenged anti-Irish jokes by listing the greats of Irish literature.
“never heard about (Oscar Wilde)
don’t want know about (and Brendan Behan)
don’t think about (Shaun O’Casey)
don’t care about (George Bernard Shaw
won’t talk about (Gene O’Neil)
won’t know about (Edna O’Brian)
won’t think about (Laurence Sterne)”
and warns the ignorant, “shut your mouth ’til you knows the truth”. The song led a number of Dexys fans to find out more about the writers, something Kevin was pleased with.
Kevin went onto publicly challenge Julie Burchill and her racist tirade in the Face magazine. Today this might be seen as a media stunt, but it was a brave thing to do in the 1970s in the face of the ordinariness of anti-Irish racism at that time , plus the harassment and surveillance that the Irish community was facing from the state through legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act
The other interviews are not so interesting. Shane McGowan and the Pogues could be said to be influential in terms of some of the songs they wrote about the Birmingham 6 and the effects of emigration for the Irish. They do deserve credit for playing benefits for the Birmingham 6 at a time when it was seen as dangerous to do so but the families and supporters of the men really deserve our respect.
Other chapters on Morrissey and the Smiths are painful. Morrissey and Johnny Marr may be from Irish backgrounds, but neither their songs or actions could give credibility to their influence on the second generation. Marr changed his name from the distinctive Maher, and is only interesting when he gives credit to the influence of his family’s traditional Irish music background. The inclusion of the Gallagher brothers is an insult to the Irish community. They were never interested in their Irish background and brandished the union jack and their invites to Britpop events with pride.
By concentrating on the Irish impact on pop and rock music, I think Sean has ignored a vital part of the jigsaw about where Irish second generation young people felt able to express their identity. Looking at the role of second generation in the traditional music scene would provide a more interesting and relevant insight to definitions of Irishness. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann is the largest group that promotes Irish music, dance and the Irish language. It started in 1951 and throughout the years it has worked in community centres throughout Britain and Ireland. In the 80s it was little known and due to the environment in Britain many people kept their head down and hid the fact they were involved. But in the last thirty years it has flourished and part of that has been the influx of second generation young people into the organisation.
Sean Campbell should be given credit for being part of the debate about what it means to be Irish second generation but it is shame he failed to do any interviews with community activists.
In Manchester in the late 80s bands such as Toss the Feathers and Rattle‘nReel who drew on a mixture of influences from Christy Moore to the Pogues filled the clubs and dancehalls with people such as themselves and newly arrived migrants from Ireland.
The reality is also that singing songs is not enough and all communities, including the Irish, need individuals and organisations who will speak out and campaign for justice.
For a popular and readable book about the Irish community in Manchester read Michael Herbert’s The Wearing of the Green. more information about this here
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