Instant expert: Music and politics

November 26, 2004

Conference: 'Songs of Experience: Music and Irish Political Traditions', University of Limerick, December 4.

What it's about: This is a one-day interdisciplinary conference looking at the interweaving of music and politics in Irish history. "Politics has provided a rich subject material for musicians, and music has been a valuable tool for different communities in supporting various competing traditions."

Biggest cliché to avoid: As G. K. Chesterton once said about Ireland: "Where all the wars are merry and all the songs are sad." Someone will say it, but you have been warned.

What type of bands?
When they say "competing traditions", the music could include the tunes played by Orange marching bands, Republican rebel ballads or songs - in English and Gaelic - that recorded uprisings, repression and exile. This political greatest hits collection could include songs from the Civil War, which divided nationalists, with lots of warbly 78rpm choruses reviling "Free Staters".

Not to be confused:
Daniel O'Connell and Daniel O'Donnell. The first was known as the "Liberator" for his role in Catholic emancipation in the 19th century - and has numerous songs and streets named in his honour. The second is Daniel O'Donnell.

Intelligent-sounding questions to ask:
Why are there no songs saying: "When you come to think of it, I'm not sure we were always entirely right"? And why are there so many songs on the theme: "We would have won easily, and not have been heading for exile in America, had we not been stabbed in the back by X"?

Rare old times:
Although there will probably soon be degree courses in Troubles studies, don't assume that this is a subject that dominates Irish politics. Down south, a booming economy has brought more contemporary anxieties of drug abuse, violent crime and traffic congestion.

Favoured look:
Craggy. Whether you're talking about recruiting songs that were decommissioned and buried in the mountains of Kerry in the Twenties or the traditional dance music encouraged in de Valera's era, it always sounds better if delivered by someone looking a little weathered. So work on that slightly sepia-tinted, hollow-cheeked look, as if your day job is tending sheep rather than tutoring them.

Important distinctions:
In Northern Ireland, the marching bands commemorating ancient grievances each year are the Unionists, while in the south, the marching bands commemorating ancient grievances each year are the Nationalists.

Whiskey in the JCR:
No matter what you're drinking, thanks to the smoking ban in Ireland's pubsyour hangover won't be as bad and you won't wake up smelling like someone emptied an ashtray over you.

Pro Bono?
If anyone asks whether U2 counts as political music, the answer is no - in the same way that Sting does not count as a philosopher.

What not to say to the locals:
"Stab City? That's an unusual nickname." The newspapers gave Limerick this title after a crime wave and, while the city would be keener to talk about its Viking heritage and historic battles, that's the name that has stuck.

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