In February of 2018, Hermann Kelly, now the leader of the Irish Freedom Party, organised an Irexit conference in Dublin’s RDS, at which Nigel Farage was the main speaker. The event received much coverage in the Irish media, and also drew much hostile comment from the great and good of Irish society.
The rock band Horslips, in particular, took to Facebook to condemn the use of their signature song “Dearg Doom” at the event, complaining that their permission had not been asked and would have been refused if it had been. Their critique was a familiar one: “Horslips stood for a hopeful, outward looking, inclusive vision of Ireland with plenty of drink and a Blue Range Rover. This lot stand for a diminished, fearful, xenophobic state. Little Irelanders.”
As a lifelong Horslips fan, I was so annoyed that I could no longer bear to listen to their music. Why, I asked myself, did their reaction have to be so extreme? Why were they so threatened by a different point of view?
It’s not that their attitude was a surprise. Yes, the lyrics and music of Horslips do indeed reflect a commitment to an “outward-looking, inclusive vision” of Ireland. The very fact that they had fused traditional Irish music to hard rock showed that they were keen on experimentation. Furthermore, the lyrics of many of their songs (like “Guests of the Nation” and “The Man Who Built America”) show an identification with those who find themselves crossing cultural boundaries, such as Irish immigrants to America. It was no surprise that Horslips would not support an Irexit movement.
At the same time, nobody could criticize the band for neglecting their own roots. Two of their albums, The Book of Invasions and The Táin, are entirely inspired by ancient Irish mythology. Another album, Dancehall Sweethearts, is loosely based on the life of the harper Turlough O’Carolan. There was probably no rock band who drew more extensively on Irish history and culture for their music.
Irish conservatives and nationalists might lament that, as Hermann Kelly put it very eloquently ― “Horslips’ music is great, and their views on politics are crap”. After all, isn’t there a limit to how “inclusive” any vision of Ireland can remain, before we reach the point where Irish national identity has become inclusive to the point of pure abstraction?
To be truly outward-looking, don’t you need to be looking out from somewhere? Doesn’t an outside imply an inside. Isn’t it legitimate to fear that continued integration into the European Union, and into a globalized world, won’t leave any distinctive inside to look out from? Did not the traditional Irish music Horslips drew upon arise in a conservative, traditional, insular culture rather than a cosmopolitan, outward-looking culture?
Perhaps one can answer “No” to all those questions, but they nonetheless seem legitimate. As such, it’s hard to see why Horslips should have such contempt for those who answer them differently.
Sean Ó Riada, the giant of Irish twentieth century music (who is perhaps best known for the spell-binding Ó Riada Mass), took a far more insular view than Horslips. This is what he wrote in his 1983 book Our Musical Heritage —
“The first thing to note, obviously enough, is that Irish music is not European… Ireland has a long and violent history during which she remained individual, retaining all her individual characteristics. Such foreign influences as were felt were quickly absorbed and Gaelicised… Our innate conservatism is responsible for this. This conservatism has maintained the basic characteristics of the Irish language for well over two thousand years. It has maintained the basic characteristics of the Irish literary tradition and of the Irish people”.
The Horslips attitude, therefore, is by no means the only attitude that an intelligent, sensitive, creative person can take towards national culture. Why, then, has the liberal left practically claimed ownership of anything we might term traditional Irish culture?
Why is the visual artist most famously associated with Irish mythological motifs, Jim Fitzpatrick, even more famous for the iconic portrait of his hero, Che Guevara?
Christy Moore is another example of an Irish traditional musician whose political views are very much liberal-left. He recently tweeted in support of the “Rally for Peace on Earth”, a counter-demonstration to the “Free Speech Rally” held in mid-December. Several people commented on the irony of the author of “Irish Ways and Irish Laws” and other patriotic ballads, opposing a pro-free speech rally held by Irish nationalists. But, as far as I can tell, his views would seem to be the norm in Irish folk and traditional music circles.
If we turn to the Irish language, the vista becomes even more depressing. Irish language discourse is overwhelmingly left-liberal– even more so than English-language discourse in Ireland.
For some years now, I’ve been reading through the archives of old Irish language journals (such as Comhar and Feasta), in an attempt to improve my own lamentably poor Irsh. The early issues from the nineteen-forties to the nineteen-sixties reflect a basically nationalist, Catholic ethos, but by the nineteen-nineties this had been replaced by a predominantly liberal-left outlook. Debates on Irish language radio and television tend to lean even further left than their equivalents in the English language media.
This is strange to me. Support for the Irish language seems inherently conservative and traditionalist — after all, there are really no utilitarian arguments for its revival. If a progressive can see value in holding onto this particular tradition, how can they be so dismissive of tradition in general?
The modern Gaeilgeoir generally supports cultural protectionism when it comes to Irish — compulsory Irish in schools, government funding of Irish language media, bilingual street signs, and so forth.
Outside of this single issue though, they tend to share the same zeal for social and cultural change as their contemporaries, although it’s hard to see how the Irish language will preserve its current official status if Ireland continues to grow ever more pluralist. Yet this special pleading for one particular element of tradition never seems to strike them as odd or inconsistent.
But the real question is, why do Irish conservatives cede this ground to them? I make this demand of myself as much as I make it of anyone else. I attended two all-Irish language schools, and I can barely manage a simple conversation in my native language. This is shameful, and nobody is to blame but me,especially since I have been a declared conservative and traditionalist for well over a decade.
Meanwhile, I have an acquaintance who holds all the usual Irish secular-liberal opinions, and expresses them at every opportunity. This acquaintance is also a fluent Irish speaker who plays the uilleann pipes. Who am I to debate with her? She is doing far more to preserve tradition than I am.
A few weeks ago, I was following a debate on resurgent Irish populism on an Irish language Facebook page. The vast majority of those commenting were anti-populism, pro-EU, pro-multiculturalism, and so forth. One such commenter said something along these lines: “I notice that most of these ‘patriots’ can’t even speak their own language”.
Sadly, there is a lot of truth to the accusation. There is much talk on the Irish populist right of the importance of preserving Irishness, but very little discussion on what Irishness actually means — assuming that red lemonade, The Late Late Toy Show, and Fr. Ted references hardly constitute a separate culture. If we are to be serious Irish conservatives, serious Irish nationalists, can we continue to give the liberal left a near-monopoly on our cultural heritage?