From Fallujah to County Antrim

It’s an inescapable truth on March 17th, inevitable as shamrocks and Guinness.  Be you Irish or not, you are almost certain to hear the distinct lilt of the Emerald Isle’s music at one time or another this St. Patrick’s Day. 


The affect Irish culture has had on American music is undeniable—from the raucous jolt of Flogging Molly to the bagpipe-tinged blue-collarisms of Dropkick Murphys.  But like so many of this country’s rich popular traditions, its true character is so often papered over, substituting substance with cheap stereotype. 


The tragedy of this is that in a time of war, inequality and economic collapse, a dose of Ireland’s insurgent spirit is more needed than ever.  The Land of Eire has a long history of strife and struggle, and there is no lack of acts willing to channel the country’s proud tradition of true rebel music.


Case in point: Black 47.  Named for the worst year of the Irish Potato Famine (1847), this NYC-based group has never in their twenty-year history shied away from its members’ radical views. 


“The band was formed to be political,” says front-man Larry Kirwan, a native of Wexford who emigrated to New York in 1970.  “Back in 1989, Bob Marley was dead, The Clash had broken up, the world was still political, but rock music didn’t seem to have anything that was saying anything political.  And we felt there was a need for it.”


At a time when anyone who stood on the side of Irish nationalists was likely branded a “terrorist,” Black 47 were unapologetically calling for a 32-county workers’ republic.  They penned Celtic rock anthems dedicated to figures like socialist icon James Connolly and H-Block hunger striker Bobby Sands.  And when the US invaded Iraq six years ago, Black 47’s opposition turned them into unlikely targets at their shows:


“Oddly enough, the invasion was set in motion on St. Patrick’s Day, 2003,” says Kirwan.  “And on that night at the Knitting Factory in NYC, we became a lightning rod in the resistance to the war: scuffles erupted, people walked out, CDs were smashed.  Forget about green beer, what a way to celebrate St. Patrick!”


With this experience in mind, Black 47 released their album Iraq one year ago, on St. Patrick’s Day, 2008—the fifth anniversary of the invasion.  Like countless anti-war artists, the group sustained a great amount of criticism for releasing this album—especially on a holiday that is widely regarded as part of American culture. 


But Black 47 are largely bulletproof against such criticism for two reasons.  One: it wasn’t too long ago that a significant portion of Ireland was itself occupied by a foreign army.  Two: most of the lyrics on the album are inspired by conversations with Black 47 fans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.


It’s on these tracks that Kirwan employs a rich tradition of storytelling that runs deep through Irish music.  Many of the stories are hard to listen to.  They are filled with IEDs, civilian slaughter and fallen comrades.  Some even reflect the virulent brand of Islamophobia that soldiers have drilled into their heads as part of their training—a controversial choice for a band that have stood against racism since their inception.  There is no doubt, however, that all these songs are impassioned calls against a senseless and violent war that can’t end soon enough.


Just ask the protagonist of “Stars and Stripes,” the story of a young soldier watching his friend die in front of his eyes set to a tense guitar riff, pounding drums and driving horns:


“So hoist up your stars and stripes

I’m gonna break out tonight

Johnny, hold on man!  Whatever you do don’t let go!

Hey President Bush

What are you doing to us?

We’ve been through hell, man, it’s time we went home!”


References to “President Bush” certainly make the album sound a bit dated (it was released a year ago after all).  With President Obama’s “withdrawal” program falling well short of actual withdrawal, however, the songs like this may only become more urgent.  


Black 47’s blend of rock, blues and Celtic folk lends itself surprisingly well to these tales.  Kirwan’s jerky delivery is reminiscent of Elvis Costello having a sudden relapse of give-a-damn.  The group’s horn section is nothing if not rousing.  Ultimately, however, this album is at its best at its most… well, Irish. Tracks like “Downtown Baghdad Blues,” “Last One to Die” and “Ramadi” feature prominent use of traditional instruments like uilleann pipes and the pennywhistle, giving each song the unmistakable feeling of literally soldiering on despite impossible odds.


By letting this strong folk tradition run through their songs, Black 47 have effectively lent their voices to telling a story that is still, even after six years, rarely heard: that of ordinary soldiers struggling to hold onto a shred of humanity in extraordinarily inhuman circumstances.  That’s perhaps its most pronounced when the group pay tribute to one of the best-known Irish-American rebels on “Ballad of Cindy Sheehan”:


“I didn’t want to be part of history

I was happy enough back home

If only I had my Casey beside me

Instead of hearing his voice forever on heaven’s telephone”


The countless green plastic hats and lucky leprechauns that accompany St. Patrick’s Day belie Ireland’s living legacy of anti-imperialism and working class struggle.  It’s a legacy that can be seen today in everything from the recent actions against the US military base at Shannon to the current factory occupation at Waterford Crystal and the increasing calls for a national strike at the end of March.


That vibrant legacy can also be heard in the music of Black 47.  To hell with the leprechauns.  This St. Patty’s Day, put on the Iraq album, raise a pint to Connolly and Sands, and join the protests against a war that should have never started in the first place.


Alexander Billet is a music journalist, writer and socialist living in Chicago.  He is a regular columnist for SleptOn.com, and a frequent contributor to ZNet and Socialist Worker.


His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a comment