Forget Boston or Berlin-are we closer to Bilbao or the Balkans?

[Image is open source from

What does the music of London born Andy Irvine teach us about Irish identity today?

We had an interesting discussion at the MA Irish Studies class on Irish identity on Tuesday the 8th of March. They way I took the discussion was to focus quite a bit away from the usual ‘boring’ politics, and I was keen to explore whether there were any substantive connections between a European tradition (broadly conceived) and say Irish traditional music, traditional dance, and literature and theatre. The assumption is always that Irish identity has much stronger connections with the Americas, or even with a wider post-colonial ex-British empire world (such as India).

I think the connections with a wider European tradition may be actually much stronger than we realize.

I’m not really sure pigeon-holing Irish identity as one or another thing (either Boston or Berlin) is accurate but I think the key revelation that comes out of it is that cultural identity formation is much more fluid and complex. The assumption that we have always been ‘Irish’ and that such a description means an obvious list of attributes (such as Catholic, red-haired, etc.) down through the ages needs to be seriously looked at.

Having said that, it may well be there are surprisingly historical continuities-we mentioned in class Sean Nós singing as something seemingly quite ancient and distinctively Irish (or perhaps it enjoys a connection to a hidden Atlantic-African link as film-maker Bob Quinn has suggested: see:


If Irish identity is anything it seems liminal-in the sense of a boundary identity-always between larger cultural tropes: partially European and partially America; partially modern, pre-modern and post-modern; partially colonised and part coloniser, etc.

Unfortunately the internet connection in the room was not working. What I hoped to show you was some music clips from You Tube.

That is why I put Andy Irvine up there at the start as a photograph. You can check out his own official site at: On that site he explains how he got interested in Balkan music in the late 1960s and you can see that he brought in that influence to what became a great revival and also evolution of Irish traditional music in the 1970s, with bands like Planxty and the Bothy Band to the fore. I made the point by the way that reception and popularity of such bands was often seemingly stronger on the continent of Europe-they were of more limited success in the USA it seems.

In the early 1990s Channel 4 the BBC made a documentary called ‘Bringing it all Back Home’. The argument of the documentary was that a special bond and link existed and exists between American folk music and Irish folk music and that the two have hugely influenced each other. I’m not a musicologist but that surely makes a lot of sense. You can see some clips from that series here:

What is interesting about the song is not least the obvious American context and setting, but that it seems referenced to an earlier time-maybe the 1840s or pre Civil War anyway, and to the American south. Race as an issue is implied. This is bit removed from the usual ‘Boston/New York’ Irish connection.

Bono & Co and end Credits from Bringing it all back home

Making connections with the states, which of course was instrumental in the success of U2.

Andy Irvine playing-Unquestionably Irish no?

Well yes, but you can see from the style of his playing and the composition of the tune a major east European influence-he spent a while traveling in the Balkans and eastern Europe in the 1960s-70s.

Andy Irvine playing a Bulgarian song

And now one step further, Andy Irvine and Co start playing an actual Bulgarian tune and the late 1970s pretty straight-laced audience are….well pretty gob smacked it seems……amazing……

And a Romanian song by Andy Irvine and Jane Cassidy

What is interesting here is the conscious attempt to merge an Irish and East European style into something different…….

And even when he and Paul Brady come back to sing a more obviously Irish song (the Plains of Kildare)…you can still hear that Balkan Influence……..

But what about Irish Dances you might say…where is the European connection there?

Well the Polka is the obvious give away…have a look at this (west) Kerry Polka…..

Then look at the Scottish band teaching the Polka to Italians!!!!

And then have a look at some Norwegians who can Polka in a more informal and down to earth way that might makes the ‘strict and proper’ west Kerry Polka look a bit boring…….

I mentioned the Bothy Band who today enjoy cult status in Ireland, but also remain popular in continental Europe…..have a look at this video where A tribute ban play the Bothy Band’s tunes at Mundo Celta 2010 a festival based in Galicia which identifies Galicia and Asturias as ‘celtic nations’ (which is debatable as a matter of language group as far as I know)

And the Bothy Band as they were:

Maybe its not Boston or Berlin we are closer to, but more like Bilbao and the Balkans!

And very finally, back to politics. I mentioned some links between the 1863 Polish uprising and the Fenian 1867 uprising, and one common strand was Poles and Irish serving in the civil war era US army, although this was a recruiting base for the Fenians much more so that the Poles (their January rising occurring before the end of the US Civil war). I think the association was more as an example. For example Mathew Kelly has argued more generally that:

“the Polish rebellion of 1863 saw a great deal of attention paid  (by Irish nationalists) to the similarities in Ireland’s and Poland’s experience — though Russian despotism was thought feeble when compared with the real English article”.*

In fact there was also a common experience of Poles and Irish revolutionaries serving in the French army as well…to get experience in challenging their imperial masters. See: McConnel, J. and Ó Catháin, M. (2008) ‘A training school for rebels: Fenians in the French Foreign Legion’, History Ireland, 16 (6), pp. 46-49.

And very finally, although its old now and mostly ignored by everyone these days, Brian Girvin’s 1989 book Between Two Worlds: Politics and Economy in Independent Ireland, takes a line which has greatly influenced me here. Ireland, according to Girvin, for most of independence did not fit well as part of the industrial world but neither was Ireland much like third world post-colonial states either, instead he argued, Ireland was more like peripherial European states such as Greece or Spain, or more plausibly somewhat like Sardinia.

If only we shared their weather!

*Kelly, Matthew (2009) ‘Irish Nationalist Opinion and the British Empire in the 1850s and 1860s’, Past and Present, Vol.24, No.1, p.151.


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