It's a bustling Friday night in the dimly lit interior of Kieran's Irish Pub, where women at the bar sing along with tonight's band, the Banshees, between long sips of Guinness. This is the sort of joint where Americans go to feel more like Irish Americans. And in the buzz of conversations, you can hear accents straight out of Fargo blend with a few genuine articles out of The Commitments, as voices join for a cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night."
But the real deal at Kieran's is the quieter room in back, the Titanic Lounge. As you enter, you pass under a painting of its namesake--a tragic event that symbolized for Irish people the class arrogance of the British well before James Cameron got hold of it for his own hunk of hubris. Inside, a few drinkers wait for accordion virtuoso Paddy O'Brien to tap his memory's jukebox of reels and jigs. Tonight the "traditional" room is meditative, and when I ask someone at the bar what he thinks of the music up front, he says, "You mean that 'Whiskey in a Bottle' shit? Back here is where the real music is."
So runs the fault line that divides the Twin Cities Irish-music scene, between the "trads" in the back and the balladeers, rockers, and entertainers in front. This downtown venue, effectively the First Avenue and 7th Street Entry of Irish music, attempts to marry the two. But Irish America seems permanently divided between its Celtic roots and the sham-rock pop that's emerged after years of musical miscegenation with American rock 'n' roll. To put it simply, there's little crossover between the separate rooms.
In fact, if any one thing unites these camps, it's politics. Every earmarked page of Irish history, from the Great Hunger of 1849 that literally halved the island's population to the 1981 hunger strikes, seems to remain fresh in the minds and on the lips of musicians and fans alike. Old New Leftist Tom Hayden recently wrote in The Nation that Irish America needs to recover its collective memory of oppression in order to connect with the plight of subjugated Catholics in Northern Ireland, where a fragile peace treaty has recently caught the world's attention. And it should go without saying that many American-born Irish see music as an important way back into this past.
Still, as my stout kicks in and the bearded, bespectacled O'Brien picks up his squeeze box, I look around the room and wonder, for the first time, whether or not I'm Irish. Even as a grandson of people with names such as Doherty and Walsh, I don't hate so much as pity the Brits, a dreary lot I've grown up viewing through a lens colored by Monty Python, the Clash, and Christopher Hitchens. The scrawled slogan above the stage in the Titanic reads, "I am Ireland, and of the Holy land of Ireland. Come dance with me." The "come dance with me" part was used by Ireland's former President Mary Robinson as a call for unity, and I wonder how many of the Irish Americans in Kieran's recognize the import of the phrase, and can remember a time when the Irish in America weren't merely Irish Americans.
Obviously, you don't have to be "of Ireland" to respond to the front-room style of Irish music. The throng I came across the next night at the tightly packed Half Time Rec in St. Paul conclusively proved that fact. On a lively Saturday, not one of the pool-table jockeys is looking for a lecture from Bono about the connections between working-class pub music in Belfast, blues from the Mississippi Delta, and punk rock in South London. Still, they seem to enjoy a good whiff of roots-rock rebellion from the Tim Malloys, a hectic foursome whose brand of sing-along-ready rock is fast becoming a local favorite, despite the fact that not one of the four is from the motherland. The band now plays here every Tuesday, and they're always a good time and a reliable draw.
Like Rec mainstays the Irish Brigade, the Malloys mix their ballads and rebel songs with folked-up, drummerless popcheol (that's "pop-keeol," or "pop music" in Irish). But their habit of rendering the Pogues' songbook and the Undertones' "Teenage Kicks" with throaty harmonies ("This is Irish punk," they announce) has gained the boys a sizable local punker following.
During a set break, I pull aside Scottish lead singer/whistle player Brian Smith to mention the apparent gulf between "traditional" and "fun" Irish music. "Ugh, tell me about it," he laughs in a thick Glaswegian accent that finds a rolled "r" in the word "tell." With his short hair, bowling shirt, and disarming gap-toothed grin, the thirtyish Smith looks perfect for the role of rabble-rousing ex-punk, especially when contrasted with his Renaissance-fest-ready bandmates, all of whom hail from the States. "I like music fast," he says. "I got that from punk rock. I must have been 13 when I saw the Damned play in Glasgow, and I need to have that energy in my music now."
The following afternoon at Grand Old Day, the boys play just as hard for a crowd of curious onlookers and a more engaged group of dancers in front of Irish on Grand, the store that houses the Cities' largest Irish-music selection. Between sets, the group gathers to talk about Irish music's opposing camps. "Well, there's traditional, and there's traditional," guitarist Adam Stemple weighs in, making a distinction between traditionalist fans and unforgiving purists. Stemple also produces the band's CDs and plays in Boiled in Lead, the hard-rocking Celtic band responsible for getting many local yokels (myself included) interested in Irish music.