Sunday, 10 March 2013

Dwellers on the Threshold: Dr Sean Campbell at HEART

Síle Moriarty writes:

Dwellers on the Threshold: Second-Generation Irish Musicians in England

On the ninth of March I met a lady who had attended this talk. She is married to an Irishman and she told me how the insights given by Dr. Sean Campbell had helped her understand her husband’s experience of life in this country more closely ‘because he would never talk about it himself’. Such was the impact of this humorous and knowledgeable speaker,  who started the evening with a roll call of second generation Irish musicians in popular music – Lonnie Donegan, Lennon and McCartney, Dusty Springfield (aka Mary O’Brien), John Lydon, Elvis Costello, Boy George, Oasis, the Smiths were some of the names mentioned. These people, the sons and daughters of Irish migrants, did not just perform popular music - they also had a huge influence on its shape and direction.

But Dr. Campbell, himself second generation Irish, wanted to look below the surface of pop success and explore how the complexities of being ‘second generation’ were expressed through music and in doing so he gave us a fresh insight into the challenges and opportunities faced by the second generation (of whatever nationality).

He chose three bands of the 1980’s (Dexys Midnight Runners, The Pogues and The Smiths) and through interviews with individuals in the bands - Keith Rowland (Dexys),Shane MacGowan and Cait O'Riordan (the Pogues) and Johnny Marr (The Smiths) - and wider research he showed us how these second generation Irish musicians used the duality of their cultural heritage as a creative driving force.

He chose 1980’s bands because, for him, this was the time when the children of the Irish immigrants of the 50’s and 60’s came of age. It was also a time when relationships between the UK and Ireland were strained because of the ‘troubles’ and it was the era of the ‘thick Paddy’ jokes.

These jokes rankled with many Irish people and Keith Rowland (Dexys Midnight Runners) hit back at them in Dance Stance where the chorus references great Irish writers: Oscar Wilde, Brendan Beehan, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Gene O’Neil, Edna O’Brien, Laurence Stern. Rowland said ‘Irish jokes make me sick’, I wanted ‘to show the other side of being Irish’ and to ‘correct the misunderstanding’. He wanted to address the British fans and said that it gave him great pleasure when he heard a young English student singing the chorus of Dance Stance to herself while walking through campus.

In another song, The Waltz, Rowland is more direct with the final line ‘Here is a protest’ being repeated. This song was originally called Elizabeth Wimpole and Katherine Ní Houlihan to point up the English v Irish nature of its subject matter but was renamed The Waltz because Rowlands was afraid of the reception the original would get – although whether this was from the English or Irish community was not clear.

In a sense Rowlands tried to mediate between cultures whereas The Pogues, in contrast, tried to evoke the experience of being London Irish. ‘The Pogues were the first people who helped define what you could be as a second generation Irish person in this country’ (Martin Mc Donagh). Their songs were very different from the songs of sentimental longing favoured by the first generation. They evoke the excitement of being here a sort of ‘love for the oppressor’ (Philip Chevron, guitarist with the Pogues) although Shane McGownan would deny this – he has moved from accepting the label London-Irish to calling himself Irish. However this love of London and rejection of sentimentality is demonstrated in Transmetropolitan which starts with a gentle traditional-music style introduction and then breaks into a fast aggressive, tour of London. The Pogues’ imagination was focussed on London, not Ireland and their musical style reconciled punk with traditional Irish music.

The Smiths launched in Manchester at the same time as the Pogues in London. Their experience of being second generation is encapsulated in the following quotes: ‘I’m one of us on both sides’ Morrisey, ‘I’m Mancunian-Irish’ Johnny Marr. Marr spoke to Dr. Campbell of the schizophrenic experience of having parents who were excited to be in England (the land of opportunity) but who ran a home immersed in Irishness where you sleep and swim in Irish life. Marr is repulsed by ‘...bullshit Irish romanticism’ – ‘The Smiths wanted to evoke the feeling but not the sound of the Irish in 1960s Manchester.
This ambivalence of melancholy and vibrancy is reflected in The Smiths songs e.g. Back to the Old House – I want to be here but I long to be there and Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want – originally called The Irish Waltz with the word Erin printed in the run-off groove. Morrisey’s lyrics – ‘When you walk without ease/on these streets where you were raised’ also express this ambivalence and lack of belonging.

Dr. Campbell showed that ambivalence ‘not quite the definite article ... more the floating article’ (Marr?) can be a well-spring of creativity. As McDonagh says ‘... the ambiguities are more interesting than choosing a strict path and following it’

During the lively Q&A session that followed - the discussion ranged from the extremes of nationalism to the policy of the Church in the 1960s/70s to educate second generation Irish children as ‘English Catholics’ - it was clear that Dr. Campbell had touched the sensibilities of his full-house audience many of whom were, like myself, ‘dwellers on the threshold’ in terms of being second (or even third or fourth) generation Irish. 

Dr Sean Campbell is Reader in Media and culture at Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge and author of 'Irish Blood, English Heart': Second-Generation Irish Musicians in England (Cork University Press, 2011).

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