Irish Blood, English Heart

A 'meticulous and enthralling' exploration of Irish musicians in 1980s Britain

Growing up Irish – even second generation Irish – in the West Midlands in the 1960s and 70s was a tough station for musician, Kevin Rowland.

The singer-songwriter, whose parents had emigrated from Mayo in the late 1930s, bristled at the Irish jokes, the ‘pissed Paddy’ remarks and the insidious racism that permeated the British music press of the era. And that’s before you factor in the intense anti-Irish animosity that sprang up in Birmingham after the IRA pub bombings.

So, in what one critic described as an ‘act of catharsis’, Rowland decided he had had enough of being quiet. And with his new band, Dexys Midnight Runners, in February 1980 he went on Top of the Pops to deliver a ‘public riposte’ to the received anti-Irish wisdom.

His debut single, ‘Dance Stance’, memorably debunked the myth of the ‘Thick Mick’, stunning audiences with its chorus: ‘Shut your mouth ’til you know the truth/Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan/[They] Don't think about Shaun O'Casey/ Don’t care about George Bernard Shaw/Oh and Samuel Beckett/Don’t know about Gene O'Neil, Edna O'Brien/Don’t think about Laurence Sterne’.

No-one had ever tried anything like this before. And the song would become a Two Tone anti-racist anthem. As Charlie Reid of the Scottish folk-rock group The Proclaimers noted: ‘In 1980, in Britain, the Irish were despised. Now, everyone’s proud of that culture. Dexys led the way by championing Irish culture on 'Dance Stance'.’

Sean Campbell’s meticulous and enthralling new book Irish Blood, English Heart now chronicles the emergence of ethnic Irish musicians as a powerful force within British popular culture in the late 20th century.

A rigorously academic work – drawing from first-hand interviews with artists such as Rowland, Johnny Marr and Shane MacGowan, and also a huge bibliography of music journals and texts - it focuses primarily on the experiences of the three big 1980s groups: Dexys, The Pogues and The Smiths.

Unlike any other research this critic has ever read, however, it also features an array of colourful stories and apocrypha about dozens of other second-generation bands and musicians – from Paul McCartney to the Gallagher brothers, who went on to dominate ‘Britpop’ in the 1990s.

Analysed in some detail, of course, are Morrissey’s controversial comments after the Brighton bomb – in which he expressed his ‘sorrow’ that Margaret Thatcher had ‘escaped unscathed’. These remarks led to loyalist death threats.

But the internal politics of the Irish in Britain, which saw bands and musicians accuse each other of ‘stage Irishness’– are closely examined, as is the superior attitude of ‘homeland’ Irish musicians, who dismissed their London-Irish counterparts as ‘interlopers’.

The traditional musician Noel Hill is recorded as describing The Pogues’ style as ‘a terrible abortion of Irish music’.  Shane MacGowan pillories Kevin Rowland for walking round without any shoes ‘and straw hanging out of [his] hair’ as a ‘pathetic’ attempt to create a Celtic image. While the teetotal Rowland, in turn, accuses The Pogues of ‘playing the drunken Paddy for the Saxon’.

Campbell’s carefully crafted blend of reportage, research and anecdote makes for a hugely entertaining read – and offers great insight into the challenges faced by the ethnic Irish in end-of-century Britain. It captures succinctly the artists’ struggle to fit in, and their dissociation with both their country of birth and with their Irish heritage.

One tale about John Lydon of the Sex Pistols sums up their quandary neatly. Lydon was briefly in jail in Northern Ireland after a ‘scuffle’ in the early 1980s. ‘I would get IRA guys coming up and saying, “You’re with us", but then they copped my accent, and suddenly I wasn’t. Then the UDA came over and they said “But your name’s Lydon". I’d lost both ways because of my Irish name and my English accent. I was a doomed gang of one.’

Irish Blood, English Heart: Second Generation Musicians in England is published by Cork University Press.