It’s interesting how music and the manner in which it is presented is so closely related to the politics and social mores of the times.
Take a look at Ireland in the 1950’s through the late 1960’s. Showbands dominated popular culture and large halls sprung up all over the country to accommodate dancing. People flocked in their thousands to these venues and danced the nights away, always three fast songs in a set followed by three slow smooches.
Up on stage showbands – all boasting roughly the same instrumentation: three horns, a rhythm section and a lead singer - played songs from Radio Luxembourg’s Top Twenty along with country staples from the likes of Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash.
Should the venue be a parish hall then the local priest trained an eagle eye on his parishioners thereby monitoring their conduct. Everything was controlled and conservative, and it seemed as though this state of affairs would last forever.
But by the mid-60’s times were indeed a’changing. With longstanding Taoiseach, Éamon deValera, kicked upstairs into the presidency, the economic reforms initiated by Seán Lemass, his successor, began to bear fruit. With more jobs available emigrants returned from the UK bringing with them new ideas - one being that alcohol should be available with entertainment.
This innovation coincided with the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and a renewed sense of national identity. Traditional folk groups like The Dubliners became popular and large new lounges were constructed wherein they might entertain their followers. Women were welcomed into pubs for the first time and abandoned their Babychams for vodka, gin, and the Lord save us, pints of porter and lager.
With more money flowing social mores adapted. Suits and ties were relegated to the wardrobe, and anyone who could strum a guitar or possessed half a voice joined the Ballad Boom. Luke Kelly and his socialist anthems replaced Dickie Rock and his Top Twenty imitations, dancehalls were abandoned, showbands faded away, and the parish priest retreated to his Sunday morning pulpit.
Meanwhile up North a generation of young Catholics who had benefited from the British free university system began to question their role as second-class citizens.
This led to the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, and in response the spiked fist of Unionism, unprepared to cede ground or equality, struck back. Armed revolt soon followed and led to the splintering of an entrenched sectarian system.
Music echoed and reflected the political sound and fury as Rory Gallagher, Horslips and Thin Lizzy came storming into prominence. All three bands contained Northern and Southern members and each outfit, to its credit, insisted on playing Belfast through the worst of the Troubles.
Though this era was marred by horrific violence it was a golden age for Irish music. Even traditional music was affected with The Bothy Band stretching boundaries by creating impassioned and adventurous ensemble pieces that still sound fresh to the ear.
The arts and creativity in general seem to flourish in unsettled and even violent times. Let’s take a quick detour to New York City. Was there ever a more creative scene than the Lower East Side - and particularly CBGB - in the late 1970’s while the area was dangerous and anarchistic?
One could even cite the music scene in Paddy Reilly’s during the recession of the early 1990’s when a host of new bands emerged from the collision of Celtic music and urban rhythms.
And what of U2? Well, ever since I first saw Bono performing to a paltry crowd in The Ritz circa 1980 I felt he epitomized the new Ireland that was finally shedding its dowdy uniform of inferiority.
The band’s music was not as yet innovative or particularly original, but a Rock & Roll Irish Napoleon strode that stage, and I had little doubt but that U2 would one day conquer the world of popular music.
Ireland’s inferiority complex is a thing of the past; the crassness and consumerism of the Celtic Tiger gave it the final boot. Irish arts are in the ascendancy. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another recession and further mass emigration to keep the scene flourishing.