With each wave of emigration, Ireland has lost talented musicians. But many of them made an impact in their new homes. Some were even inspired by the emigrant experience.
In the 1920s, the likes of Michael Coleman and James Morrison contributed to the first recordings of Irish music in New York. Other members of the diaspora came together to form chart-topping bands. For example, Shane MacGowan first crossed paths with band mate ‘Spider’ Stacy at a Ramones gig in London. While The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem collaborated in New York’s Greenwich Village.
In other instances, musicians left Ireland specifically to seek out success. Ireland’s most famous tenor, John McCormack, launched his career at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition before heading to Milan for voice training. More recent examples include the likes Niall Horan and Una Healy who got their big breaks in the UK.
Over the years, musicians have left Ireland in search of larger audiences, record deals and more. Here are the stories of five Irish acts who sought success abroad.
1. My Bloody Valentine
Back in 1978, Kevin Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig met at a karate tournament in Dublin. The pair instantly hit it off and began playing music together. Five years later, they formed post-punk band My Bloody Valentine with vocalist David Conway.
Early on, Conway sought advice from another local, post-punk band who were gaining popularity at the time. Lead singer of the Virgin Prunes, Gavin Friday, shared this advice with him: “Get out of Dublin”.
At the time, the Irish music industry wasn’t open to their style of rock. So, with the help of Friday’s contacts, My Bloody Valentine secured a single gig in the Netherlands and decided to emigrate there.
According to Shields, the man who booked them panicked after realising what the band had done. But My Bloody Valentine found some success there and even opened for REM in Amsterdam in 1984.
According to author Amy Britton, the band relocated to West Berlin because they didn’t have the documentation required to stay in the Netherlands. The members then meandered around Europe for a few months before finally settling in London in 1985.
Here, they released an EP and began to perform more frequently. The band also recruited current bassist Debbie Googe and singer Bilinda Butcher.
In 1987, My Bloody Valentine signed with independent label Lazy Records and when their first full-length studio album Isn’t Anything was released, it debuted at the top of the UK Indie charts.
2. Johnny Patterson
Born in Co. Clare way back in 1840, John Francis Patterson demonstrated a flair for music from a young age. So, at 14, his uncle enlisted him as a drummer boy in the army.
During his five years of service, he began to compose songs and this helped him secure a job with John Swallow’s circus as ‘The Irish Singing Clown’. His act was made up of jokes and nostalgic songs, which harked back to happier times before the Great Famine. It was a hit with the Irish home and abroad.
In 1867, he began a tour of the UK which lasted several years. In Liverpool, he met his wife and began a family. But he left them behind when he set out to conquer America in 1876.
In New York, he was offered a lucrative contract with Cooper and Bailey’s Great London Circus. He became one of the best paid entertainers at that time and even performed for huge audiences at what is now Madison Square Gardens.
At the height of his popularity, Patterson received news that his daughter, Nora, died in a circus accident involving an elephant. Still, he did not leave his glamorous life in America.
When he eventually returned to Ireland in the mid-1880s, his fortune changed. His wife passed away shortly after his return and his riches quickly disappeared due to his heavy drinking. His popularity with the Irish public also faltered because he wrote nationalist songs in support of Charles Stewart Parnell.
3. Thin Lizzy
After recording their first album in London in 1971, Thin Lizzy decided to move there permanently.
Phil Lynott liked London, but he was unhappy because he felt he couldn’t stay in Dublin. According to his biography Cowboy Song, he later said: “To do what I wanted to do, I had to leave Ireland… I didn’t want to leave.”
Thin Lizzy had broken through to Ireland’s ballroom circuit, disrupting showbands with their popularity. They were one of the country’s most popular acts, but they wanted more and the only way to continue their upward trajectory was to move to a larger city. So they did some final gigs in Dublin and got the boat to England in time for their album’s release that April.
After an eight hour trip jammed in the back of a van, the band arrived in England where they were virtually unknown. They spent the next couple of years playing gig after gig. While fans at home thought they were living an A-list lifestyle, they often slept in their van and sometimes played for free.
Their early releases were unsuccessful but in 1972 ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ was released. It hit the top spot in the Irish charts and spent four weeks in the UK top 10. As a result, the band even got to perform on BBC’s Top of the Pops.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing after this. But 1975 saw Thin Lizzy tour the US with Bob Seger and then Europe with Bachman Turner Overdrive. One of their albums finally charted in the UK and they opened for acts like ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Styx, Kiss and Rush. When ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ was released the following year, it charted in both the US and the UK. It was soon followed by ‘Jailbreak’.
4. The Script
Growing up in Dublin, Daniel O’Donoghue and Mark Sheehan were best friends. As teens, they were both part of a boy band called Mytown which had a little success. But after the group disbanded, they continued their songwriting partnership and moved to Los Angeles to try hit it big time.
The pair worked hard writing and producing music for other artists like Britney Spears, Boyz II Men, Justin Timberlake and TLC. In an interview with The Guardian, O’Donoghue explains how they exaggerated their CVs and borrowed expensive watches to make an impression on music industry executives. But, in reality, they struggled to keep the lights on.
After doing this for almost a decade, they teamed up with drummer Glen Power to work on their own songs. They called themselves The Script in honour of their Hollywood experience. But the band didn’t make its name until they returned to Dublin.
They moved back to Ireland when Sheehan’s mother fell ill and here they used all they had learned in LA to create their debut album. It topped the UK album charts upon its release in 2008.
5. Rory Gallagher
Born in Donegal and brought up in Cork, Rory Gallagher began his musical career by performing the showband circuit with The Fontana. During Lent, when Irish dancehalls were closed, the group headed to England where Gallagher got his first taste of London’s music scene.
Once Gallagher finished secondary school, the band performed around Europe. But, by 1966, Gallagher was back in Cork to form his own band – Taste. Their plan was to perfect songs in Ireland, take them to London and then go international. This worked.
In 1967, Taste played throughout Ireland and then received a residency at Club Rado in Belfast. The following year, they permanently moved to London where they signed a record deal with Polydor.
They toured blues clubs and regularly appeared at London’s Marquee. They also opened for Cream at Hyde Park, joined Blind Faith on its North American tour and played alongside Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight Festival.
Despite this success, Gallagher decided to pursue a solo career in 1970. Retaining his south London base, he consistently recorded successful albums there until his untimely death at King’s College Hospital in 1995.
Want to hear more stories like these? Discover the impact Irish emigrants have had around the world with EPIC’s virtual museum tour.