The Pluck of the Irish

From traditional reels to Celt rave-ups, local Irish music addresses the troubled times of its homeland

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.

Smith jumps in with his Groundskeeper Willie diction: "It really bores the tits off me, you know, if I don't hear somebody singin' occasionally."

"In something other than Gaelic," adds guitarist John Sjogren with a laugh. Smith reports that he loves jigs and reels, but listens to them in the house, not in the bar. "He's our spokesman, right or wrong," Sjogren says of Smith.

"Yeah," says Stemple. "Because no one can understand what he says." Another round of laughs.

For Smith, the song's the thing, as it was in his native Scotland even before punk. "We went to school in the morning," he says, "and all the young guys on the bus, as young as 6 or 7 years old, would be singing old songs. We have our own Catholic-Protestant conflict, and we'd go by Protestant schools on the way and we'd be fucking hanging out the window singin' these songs. These songs have always been there. There'd be parties every week where everybody sings, and most often there wasn't even any musicians."

After moving with his family to rural Wisconsin four years ago, Smith worked on a farm driving tractors for six months before he moved with his wife to the Cities. Smith soon hooked up with bass player Neil Johnston, and within a few months the two were gigging in Irish bars around town with Sjogren, who still plays with another Celtic rock outfit, Bedlam. (For his part, Stemple produced the band's live album for St. Patrick's Day of '96, and was brought on board as a member three months later.) "When I met Brian," Johnston says, "I said, 'Let's do something a little bit different than anyone's been doing around town, something a little bit more contemporary.'"

If the band's punk ties are rooted in Johnny Rotten, the Irish Londoner who inserted an "IRA" mention into 1977's "Anarchy in the U.K.," then its political allegiances are firmly rooted in a long history of resistance to what songwriter Jack Warshaw called the "well-mannered thugs" of colonialism. "We all take a healthy interest in politics," says Smith, who points out members of Minnesotans for a United Ireland in his audience. "When we sing rebel songs, we know what we're singing about."

The group interrupts our interview to pose for photos with Skip Humphrey, who's launching his post-Democratic-convention campaign for governor, and whom Smith doesn't know from Adam. Fifteen minutes later, the band is singing the pro-IRA anthem "Boys of the Old Brigade" to a large crowd of middle-class American families. The Skipper's moved on.

While Brian Smith found his musical epiphany in the music of the Damned, traditional-music pillar Paddy O'Brien found his one night in the early 1950s back home in rural County Offaly, in the Republic of Ireland, when his father brought home a waylaid accordion player. "My father wanted to sober him up because it was winter time, and he was afraid to let him bicycle the rest of the way home. But the man had an accordion with him, and began playing these tunes. I was just fascinated by it, I couldn't get that sound out of my head."

Three years later, O'Brien got an accordion of his own and painstakingly practiced the jigs and reels he heard on the radio. "I didn't have a record player and there were no musicians where I lived who played this type of music," he says. "And because I was a kid, nobody took me seriously anyway. Once in a while, though, my mother would take me to a ceili [an Irish dance party, pronounced "kay-lee"], and I'd sit on the upper deck of the dance hall and listen to the musicians who'd come from out of town."

O'Brien later joined a ceili band himself, toured Ireland in the late '60s, and even made it to the States in 1968. The folk revival had been going steady for years, but an interest in traditional Irish tunes flamed up on both sides of the Atlantic in August of 1969 after the eruption of "the troubles" in Ireland, when pro-British marauders burned Catholic neighborhoods. "Traditional music was just about dying out in the North," O'Brien says. "Then the troubles started, and their whole lifestyle there, socially speaking, was put to a standstill. I was in the North a few times and was stopped by the British Army. You couldn't be mobile with all the roadblocks everywhere. And so people started having sessions [traditional jams] at home, and young people started getting interested in traditional music. I only knew one or two flute players before the troubles started. Now they're everywhere."

Meanwhile, in the Twin Cities, locals started holding ceilis to benefit the political cause of Irish nationalism, and the traditional-music scene blossomed as it entered the 1970s. Martin McHugh, a godfather of the current Twin Cities Irish-music scene, had emigrated from Ireland as a teenager in the '50s, and found a thriving traditional-music community in St. Paul. But by the early '70s, some of the old-timers he'd learned from had passed away, and he found himself surrounded by a new generation of traditional-music enthusiasts.

"It was the politics that actually got a lot of young people involved," says Tom Dahill, a Minnesotan who was in his 20s when he met McHugh in 1972, and plays with him to this day. By 1978, when O'Brien toured through the Cities and met his future wife, the circuit was well established. He's made the Cities his home ever since.

One of the younger musicians to join the scene was Ann Heymann, an American of Scandinavian descent who today is one of the world's foremost authorities on the Irish harp. "I heard the music and I just adored it," she says from her home in Winthrop, Minnesota. "It was like music I'd been trying to describe. I'd been saying, 'Why can't the rhythm be expressed in the melody?'" She and her husband Charlie Heymann, who together call themselves Clairseach ("klar-shuk"), are among the world-class talents you'll find hidden away in the Titanic, where they play this Friday and Saturday. "A lot of people don't even know there's a back room," she laughs. "They see people filing past and they think maybe they're on the way to the loo."

It might sound a bit odd, but for this Irish American rock critic, traditional Irish music is a lot like techno. Both are simple-sounding, (mostly) instrumental dance musics that, while immediately appealing, need refined ears and patience to truly be appreciated. In his South Minneapolis dining room, O'Brien plays me a tape he's making for beginning box players; he's slowed down the accordion melody so learners can avoid the headaches he went through to nail down tunes as a child. O'Brien, who put out a 12-tape collection of 500 tunes in 1996, makes no bones about traditional Irish music's jazz-like erudition. "It is a pretty sophisticated music," he says. "And I think it's only really understood among musicians. It can be played as dance music, but it's also a very profound listening music. And the better the interpretation by the players, the more the soul of a tune will be revealed."

While the popular pub music of the Tim Malloys et al. isn't O'Brien's thing, he does admit that many newer rebel songs may pass into the traditional-music pantheon. "There's an awful lot of songs we wouldn't have if the British didn't kick us around," he says. "And many of those freedom songs will become a part of Irish traditional music. I think that when you have oppression, there's a lot that backfires on the oppressors, usually within the culture, usually in the spirit of the people."

Back at Kieran's on a Wednesday night, I join the affable and hulking local multi-instrumentalist Tom Dahill over a plate of sausages and vinegar French fries and think maybe there's hope for my Irishness yet. Like Brian Smith, Dahill was swept up in rock 'n' roll at a young age, playing in a local band called the Chaotics. "At 14 I had a 100-foot guitar cord so I could jump out in the crowd," he recalls, laughing. "By the time I was 18, I figured I was too old for rock 'n' roll."

In the '60s, he started learning about Irish music and became a prominent local booster of Irish culture. He says that the growing popularity of Irish dancing, with three dance schools and at least one ceili a month, is part of a more general growth in the traditional-music scene. The Irish Music and Dance Association's monthly newsletter is a valuable guide to this cultural boon (call 721-7452 for membership information). Today, Dahill says, there are more than a hundred musicians in the Cities making their livings from Irish music.

Dahill, who is among the few musicians playing in both the "traditional" and "fun" fields, has just wrapped up his multiplayer session when a twentysomething woman asks if he knows a tune her grandmother used to sing to her, "The Wind that Shook the Barley." Without missing a beat, he sings her the entire song, a ballad from 1798--the year of the failed French-aided uprising--about a farmer whose wife was killed. The woman looks moved near tears, but smiles and thanks him when it's over.

When she's gone, Dahill says, "That's why I love this music: the power of those songs. You run into people like that who's been searching for a tune their whole lives. I know a thousand, but I'm still searching for them."

The Tim Malloys open for the Saw Doctors at First Avenue on Monday (call 338-8388 for information), and play every Tuesday at Half Time Rec (488-8245). Clairseach play the Titanic Lounge in Kieran's Irish Pub both Friday and Saturday (339-4499). And Tom Dahill plays Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at the Dubliner Pub (646-5551).

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