Ten Albums That Get to the Heart of Ireland

Mean green machine: Irish music has had its finger on the pulse of the nation.

Mean green machine: Irish music has had its finger on the pulse of the nation.

Originally published in Rí- Rá, The Irish Post’s entertainment supplement

DOMINATING as we do in the field of literature for works that have reflected the society in which they were conceived- the plays of Brian Friel and Sean O’Casey, the poetry of W.B. Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh, the novels of James Joyce and John McGahern- Ireland has also consistently produced some stunning LPs over the last 45 years that have captured the Irish experience: life in small town Ireland; life in “The Smoke”; issues of identity spurned by emigration. Some records, quite simply, captured the spirit of the age.

1. Same Oul’ Town by The Saw Doctors 

Though more of a ‘Singles’ band than a band that one listens to album- by- album, the title track of The Saw Doctors’ best album to date anchors the mood of the entire record; a paean to small- town Ireland that almost everyone could recognise instantly (“same oul’ hanging around the square / same oul’ spoofers, same oul’ stares”).

Including as it does stompers such as ‘World of Good’ and ‘To Win Just Once’, the then unofficial anthem of the 1996 Irish Olympic Boxing team, perhaps the most striking song, apart from that of the title track, is ‘Everyday’. A Springsteen- esque tune chronicling as it does the journey of a young woman in “trouble” travelling across the Irish Sea for an abortion, the song is utterly chilling in its depiction of the perceived- shame of the subject and the clandestine fashion in which she seeks resolution: “She’s the girl you know from down the road / She’s your one from out the other side / There’s a rumour she’s in trouble / She’s all mixed up inside”.


2. Paradise in the Picturehouse by The Stunning

Steve Wall once claimed, with no short amount of wry humour, that The Stunning were “Ennistymon’s answer to The Saw Doctors”, referencing Keith Richard’s claim that The Rolling Stones were “London’s answer to The Beatles”. The Stunning’s feel good vibes and gang- like mentality had them pegged, accurately, as an Irish Squeeze: a band brimming with power- pop tunes drenched in sexual imagery.

Featuring ‘Brewing Up A Storm’, a favorite of almost every pub covers band of the last twenty years in Ireland and a favorite for ‘Best of Irish Rock’ compilations, the song is about a local lad gone wrong, morphing into a Frankenstein- like figure (“his eyes are wild / and it can’t go on”).

If anything, though, Paradise… is full of the type of rich, sexual imagery that could only be produced by a band of young men moving out from small town Ireland and playing gigs “up in the smoke”. Songs such as ‘Romeo’s On Fire’ and ‘The Girl with The Curl’ detail a generation pulling away from the sexually tame, church- controlled 1980’s and moving towards a more liberal lifestyle. Equally, one of the band’s best known tunes, ‘Half Past Two’ shows a band that can convincingly manage the soulful rhythms of Van Morrison while ‘This Happy Girl’, the spirit of the entire album, is the song that best shows the band’s chemistry at its most magical.


3. Hard Station by Paul Brady

Everybody knows Paul Brady. Without doubt the only Irish songwriter alive with a long, enviable catalogue of original songs spanning four decades, Brady’s first solo record since departing from The Johnsons, Welcome Here Kind Stranger, consisted of covers, the most remarkable being a definitive version of ‘The Lakes of Ponchatrain’, which inspired Bob Dylan to revive the American ballad during the 1980’s.

Hard Station, Brady’s first album of songs completely composed by the Strabane man, features many of the same blues, soul and old- school rock n’ roll references as The Stunning’s Paradise in the Picturehouse. Most of all, however, it is the sound of a singer- songwriter breaking out of the blocks; songs such as opener ‘Crazy Dreams’ and ‘Nothing But the Same Old Story’, one of the greatest songs about Irish identity ever written, have become set staples for the Tyrone man and, undoubtedly, successive generations of Irish songwriters will reference his songs.

4. Heartworm by Whipping Boy

As recently as 2013, Whipping Boy’s masterpiece, Heartworm, topped a poll of the best Irish albums of all time, conducted by Phantom FM, beating out competition from U2, Van Morrison and My Bloody Valentine. Heartworm’s status as Ireland’s Nevermind is still very much in tact.

Arriving as it did it in the mid 90’s, Heartworm, fittingly, has a foot in both grunge and britpop: the tsunami of layered guitars, angst and aggression of the former mixed with the direct, instant and focused pop craft of the latter. Guitarist Paul Page and bassist Myles McDonnell built musical canvases that took the best from The Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Spacemen 3 and Echo & The Bunnymen. Vocalist and lyricist Fearghal McKee wrote of an Ireland that seemed uncharted and uncovered, describing in terms befitting of an Irvine Welsh novel the seedy side of life in Dublin, crooning as he does in a Dublin accent.

McKee’s lyrics, though dark and claustrophobic, have an inclusive strand that made fans feels part of a gang: ‘We Don’t Need Nobody Else’ became a raison d’etre for the band and fans alike, while ‘When We Were Young’ meant to The Pope’s Children what The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ had meant to the generation before. If Heartworm is the sound of a band in transition, moving into the next dimension, it’s also the sound of a generation in transition between the early- 90’s hangover from the recession- stricken 80’s to the Celtic Tiger years, which really began in 1997, by which time the band had, sadly, imploded and run out of steam.

5. Turf
by Luka Bloom

Having signed to a Reprise / Warner Bros. in the US, New York- based Kildare man Luka Bloom (that’s Barry Moore to the taxman) crafted a collection of songs that, although somewhat over- produced and over- laden with reverb and chorus effects, gave a voice to New York based Irish immigrants in the 80’s and 90’s when they didn’t have a voice. Indeed, it was a time when the 90’s, New York coffee- house singer- songwriter schtick was alive and well, to which Moore brought a uniquely Irish twist.

Like any number of songs about travelling or emigration, sea imagery features strongly in Bloom’s songs: in ‘Diamond Mountain’, “The cruel sea calls the unwilling traveller / Who would look for the road to survival”; penned by Waterboys legend Mike Scott, the excellent ‘Sunny Sailor Boy’ finds the singer gazing “Over the western sea / startled and struck, / frightened to look / when a mermaid called to me”; ‘To Begin To’ finds Bloom at his wanderlust best, starting out in Properous in 1972, taking in Paris, Amsterdam and, finally, California; all, as the great Tom T. Hall might say, in search of a song.

6. Shots by Damien Dempsey

Drenched as it is in Irish history and social commentary observed from Dempsey’s native northside Dublin, all of which Dempsey infuses with his own blend of Irish folk and reggae, the Donaghmede man’s third studio album- and his best to date- finds a songwriter who articulated the conscience of an Ireland very much marooned between the its past and its present.

Recorded and released in 2005, songs such as ‘St. Patrick’s Day’, ‘Colony’ and ‘Choctaw Nation’ feature a reading and understanding of Irish history that leaves many of his Irish contemporaries looking tame and unremarkable. Similarly, Dempsey’s understanding of where Ireland was at his time of writing and recording of Shots, that is, still riding the wave of the Celtic Tiger, Dempsey is equally attuned to the culture of the day: album opener and set staple ‘Sing All Our Cares Away’ is full of piercing portraits of characters who didn’t benefit from the Celtic Tiger and who were blighted by despair, domestic violence and addiction; similarly, ‘Party On’ describes the ugly aspects of Ireland’s drug culture, which intensified during the notoriously decadent Celtic Tiger years.

A statement of intent and his most fully realised collection songs, Dempsey caught the spirit of the age on his own terms, or as he sings in ‘Patience’, “From my room in Donaghmede / I’m ‘bout to kick all your asses / stick your pink champagne / and fuck your backstage passes”.


7. Planxty by Planxty

Referred to as “The Black Album” among Planxty fans, you get a sense of just how important Planxty’s music was to a generation of Irish music fans in Ireland. Featuring the classic Planxty line up that would reunite for a series of gigs in Vicar Street in 2004, the band’s 1973 début, according to biographer Leagues O’Toole, “crystallises the 1972 set” of Planxty’s tour. The band’s remarkable début opens with ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy/Tabhair Dom Do Lámh’; the former a ballad of a rich woman who leaves her life of luxury for a life to live with itinerants, the latter a tune of joy and, in the context of ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’, freedom. Both offer, perhaps, the most appropriate introduction to any band: while the rich lady is joining the itinerants on a journey, you, the listener, are joining Planxty.

‘Arthur McBride’, a live favorite at the time of recording and performed heavily by Andy Irvine, Paul Brady and, indeed, Planxty, was a song steeped in the Irish tradition, yet it also chimed well with those singers, songwriters and listeners of folk music, energised by the protest songs of the 1960’s, particularly the songs of Bob Dylan, who would later cover the song for 1992’s Good As I Been to You.

The most tender ballad on the album, Ewan McColl’s ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly’ feels like a song that Shane McGowan, at the peak of his powers, could have written and performed, written as it is with the tourist’s eye for London.

Perhaps the only song that dates the album in any way is Kerry- based Fermanagh man Mickey McConnell’s ‘Only Our Rivers Run Free’, written as it was to reflect the social and political crisis in the north of Ireland; that song aside, Planxty remains a timeless and unforgettable document of Irish music, refreshing the genre as it did in the 70’s with a prodigious degree of musicianship that is all- too- rare.


8. Rum Sodomy & The Lash by The Pogues

If Planxty’s natural musicianship and live shows were keeping the flame alive for Irish folk in the 70’s, The Pogues’s fusion of punk and Irish folk energised the genre in the 1980’s. Through a series of records that have dated remarkably well when compared to records from the same period, The Pogues’ blend of Irish folk myth with punk and Irish trad was the sound of a band proud of their Irish identity at a time and place when public expressions of Irish nationalism could land one in trouble.

Of all The Pogues’ records, though, it’s their 1985, Elvis Costello- produced second record that finds the band stressing the extremities of their songs, veering from the romantic and sentimental (‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’, ‘I’m Not A Man You Meet Everyday’) to the explosive and raucous (‘Sally MacLennane’, ‘Billy’s Bones’). The duality of the Pogues sound, which could shift from romantic and elegiac to defiant and up- tempo within two tracks, was, as could only be the case for an Irish band from London, marooned between two different places.

The album starts with ‘The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn’, a song of transition that finds MacGowan at his most lyrically wry, with songs that blend as much imagery from blues lyrics as they do from Irish folk (“At the sick-bed of Cuchulainn we’ll kneel and say a prayer / And the ghosts are rattling at the door and the devil’s in the chair”). Without doubt one of MacGowan’s finest moments, ‘The Old Main Drag’ is a picaresque tune of adolescent destitution and addiction that, sadly, wasn’t uncommon (“When I first came to London I was only sixteen / With a fiver in my pocket and my ole dancing bag”).

If The Pogues are the undisputed band of the diaspora, then Rum, Sodomy and The Lash is the sound of a band comfortable with that tag.


9. For The Birds by The Frames

Half recorded with Nirvana/Pixies producer Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio studios in Chicago, half recorded in a house that the band had decamped to in Ventry, Co. Kerry, Dublin’s The Frames’ 2001 masterpiece For The Birds, as was the case for The Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy and The Lash, found the band at a musical crossroads, blending two distinct styles together: the homespun folk of flagship ‘Lay Me Down’ and the post rock bliss of ‘Santa Maria’, named after a shipwreck near where the band were recording. The Frames’ third album found the band moving away from the Pixies- influenced Dance The Devil… and towards what can only be described a post- rock influenced folk.

The entire record finds the singer seeking closure, assurance and progress from, amongst many themes, bereavement (‘What Happens When The Heart Just Stops’) and relationships (‘Giving Me Wings’).

If For The Birds belongs anywhere, however, it is in every small town and village in Ireland. What hangs over the songs are feelings of restraint and release. In ‘Fighting On The Stairs’, Hansard sings “But if I don’t get out of this town now/then something is gonna break/ ‘cause I gotta find my own way now/through this thick malaise”. Similarly, Hansard sings on ‘Disappointed’ “And I’m just ambling on in this town/I can’t get out and it drags me down/And these words don’t fit what I’m feeling now”.

The idea of restraint and release is given further emphasis by the band, influenced heavily by guitarist, multi- instrumentalist and producer Dave Odlum: the release of the brass section in the largely solo ‘What Happens When the Heart Just Stops’; the distortion pedals and the kitchen sink on the excellent ‘Headlong’; the band outro on majestic album closer ‘The Mighty Sword’. Those listeners who couldn’t release themselves from the grip of this stunning album attended a ten-year anniversary gig in Dublin’s Vicar Street in 2011, which celebrated this incredible achievement.


10. The Lion and The Cobra by Sinead O’Connor

Recorded when O’Connor was merely 20 years- old, The Lion and The Cobra takes its title from Psalm 91:3, in which God promises protection from danger: “Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.” That O’Connor repeats the Psalm, as Gaelige, with Enya, on ‘Never Get Old’ reinforces the themes of vulnerability and identity that run through the record (“Young man in a quiet place/Got a hawk on his arm/He loves that bird/Never does no harm”, sings O’Connor on ‘Never Get Old’).

One of the most auspicious debuts from a solo artist in the last 30 years, The Lion and The Cobra is, in parts, O’Connor at her most raw. On opening track ‘Jackie’, vulnerability, identity and loss, again, loom large in a song that tells the story of a widow whose husband died at sea, twenty years before (“I remember the day the young man came/Said Your Jackie’s gone he got lost in the rain”). It’s a haunting folk tale that, lyrically, is in the vein of Planxty, The Pogues, Paul Brady; in fact, any songwriter who has drunk from the wellspring of Irish folk. It’s all the more haunting with a ghostly vocal from O’Connor that escalates from a whisper to a scream.

Like Dempsey, O’Connor’s lyrics are high on rhetoric and social observations. In ‘A Drink Before the War’, restraint and violence and entwined like peace and war, past and present: “You refuse to feel/And you live in a shell/You create your own hell/You live in the past/And talk about war.”, which, as they say, “is more Irish than the Irish themselves.”

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