Upon reflection, it’s surprising to think that nobody’s yet made a study of the experience of Irish immigrant children in the context of English music. Studies of Irish music, English music, and the influence of one upon the other have been made repeatedly. Yet, the immigrant experience and how it related to the children of those who came over, and how they chose to express that which resulted has never been investigated. So, it’s not without a little excitement that I cracked the cover on Sean Campbell‘s new book for Cork University Press (distributed in the U.S. by Stylus Publishing), Irish Blood, English Heart: Second Generation Irish Musicians in England.
Campbell takes his title from a recent song by former Smiths frontman, Morrissey. The Smiths (and, specifically, its frontman, Morrissey and guitarist, Johnny Marr) are one of three groups Campbell examines in his overview of the Irish diaspora, specifically the bands formed by children of Irish immigrants in the late ’70s and early ’80s. In addition to the Smiths, Campbell looks at Dexy’s Midnight Runners and their frontman Kevin Rowland, as well as the Pogues and singer Shane MacGowan. Each act represents a different way of interpreting the duality experienced by the second-generation Irish in England.
As is explained many times over in Irish Blood, English Heart, the children of Irish immigrants to England were neither/nor in terms of identity. To the English, they were “drunken Paddy,” yet, when they would holiday in Ireland over the summer, their accents set them apart from those possessing the Irish lilt. They were like a mixed marriage joined by tungsten wedding bands but separated by cultural differences. Thus, they were forced to forge a new identity. In the case of the Pogues and other punks, they’d be the “London Irish,” based around the Kilburn area and the various pubs and social clubs located therein.
The way each group took on their identity was unique. Dexy’s Midnight Runners attempted to subvert the “drunken Paddy” paradigm and present something else entirely, going so far as to ban drinks at their performances, choosing instead to project an image of Irishness based more on Brendan Behan than anything else. The Pogues, on the other hand, re-appropriated the drunken stereotype as a matter of pride, thumbing their nose and issuing a “feck ye!” to those who would attempt to pigeonhole them. The Smiths took on that sense of “neither/nor,” and spoke from a position of the “other,” as evidenced by their eventual embrace by such disparate groups as Latino youth.
Campbell pays close attention to lyrics and instrumentation, noting Irish influence where many might not have otherwise seen or heard it. The lyrics are given especially interesting and new connotations when viewed through the lens of the Irish immigrant experience, as are the tunings and song structures when placed alongside traditional Irish music.
Irish Blood, English Heart provides a wonderful addition to the academic examination of both English and Irish music, placing as it does musicians like the Smiths – long considered to be prototypical “English” – in their proper context. Opening up as it does the idea of “Britpop” being a distinct misnomer (another act held up as quite English is Oasis, with the Gallagher brothers being Irish), there’s the possibility of further research and writing to be done. Campbell might give himself a bit much credit, handing over the better half of page 152 to pat himself on the back regarding the importance of the book, but Irish Blood, English Heart is certainly one of the more perspective-shifting pieces of writing to come along in ages.