The Irishness of British pop music

Since the BRIT Awards began back in 1977, the descendants of Irish emigrants have been well represented among the nominees. From The Beatles and Dusty Springfield through to Oasis and Kate Bush, many of Britain’s leading acts have been inspired by their Irish roots.

Bowie and The Beatles

In the past, Irish acts were generally slower to achieve international recognition than their British counterparts. But take a closer look at some of the UK’s biggest pop acts and you’ll find an underlying Irish influence coming from second, third and fourth generation migrants.

For example, David Bowie had Irish great-grandparents who emigrated to Manchester. While most of The Beatles also had Irish roots. Paul McCartney and George Harrison had Irish grandparents on their mothers’ sides, while John Lennon had Irish great-grandparents on his father’s side.

When the band played Dublin in 1963, Lennon declared, “We’re all Irish!”

Though Bowie’s heritage never came to the fore in his music, it did influence the later work of both Lennon and McCartney.

In 1971, shortly after the Troubles began, Paul McCartney’s band Wings recorded ‘Give Ireland back to the Irish’. When the BBC banned it, the band responded by releasing a children’s nursery rhyme ‘Mary had a little lamb’.

Around the same time, John Lennon and Yoko Ono also wrote ‘The Luck of The Irish’ and ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, which they sang at protest marches around the world. Profits from both songs were given to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement.

Lennon also began to discuss his Irish roots more, describing his hometown of Liverpool as an Irish place. In 1851, after the Great Famine, the bustling sea port had the world’s fourth highest population of Irish people – after Dublin, Cork and Belfast.

22% of the city’s population was Irish-born. “It is where the Irish came when they ran out of potatoes,” Lennon once said.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Cilla Black – another famous Liverpudlian and friend of The Beatles – also came from Irish descent. In fact, every single one of her great-grandparents was Irish.

Black and White images of the 4 members of British band, The Beatles

The Beatles in February 1964

Bands that took inspiration from their Irish heritage 

Some other popular artists in Britain felt their Irish heritage more sharply. Johnny Lydon, lead singer of the Sex Pistols, had Irish parents. In London, he experienced anti-Irish sentiment.

But, during summer visits to his mother’s family in Cork, he was also teased over his Cockney accent. His autobiography Rotten: No blacks, no Irish, no dogs describes how this fueled his creative output.

Back in 2006, there was talk of the band receiving a lifetime achievement trophy from the BRIT awards. Organisers were after a bit of bad behaviour to liven up the show but, in true punk rock style, Johnny Rotten rejected the idea saying: “We’re not a prop” 

This clash of cultures also influenced the work of The Smiths. All four members of the Manchester band are second generation Irish. One of their most well-known songs ‘Please, please, please, let me get what I want’ was originally called ‘The Irish Waltz’, because Irish ballads inspired guitarist Johnny Marr to write it. He says it captures an Irish migrant’s sense of longing and sadness.

Marr’s parents emigrated from Athy, County Kildare in the 1960s and continued to sing Irish songs throughout his childhood. He says his English-Irish upbringing offered the best of both worlds.

The band’s lead singer Morrissey, whose father Peter was from Dublin, once described himself as “ten parts Crumlin, and ten parts Old Trafford”. Later on in his solo career, he also drew hugely on his Irish roots when writing ‘This is not your country’ and ‘Irish blood, English heart’.

More modern British-Irish acts

In 1851, 13% of Manchester’s population was Irish-born. Though this figure fell in the years after, from the 1950s onward the number of Irish emigrants choosing to go to the UK instead of the US significantly increased.

In 1961, Peggy Sweeney moved there from Mayo and met Thomas Gallagher from Meath. They had three sons, two of which would go on to form the 90s sensation Oasis.

During regular trips to Ireland, Noel and Liam Gallagher connected with Irish culture and music. Their relatives didn’t own a television, so the nightly entertainment included listening to the radio and singing ballads. Noel’s favourite was ‘Dirty Old Town’. This experience later influenced his anthemic songwriting style.

The band’s Irish roots became a point of note when Oasis turned down the opportunity to record the English football anthem ‘Three Lions’. “When push comes to shove, I’m in the Ireland end,” Noel said at the time.

In Stoke-on-Trent, an hour south of Manchester, another pop icon was born. Robbie Williams holds more BRIT awards than any other artist: 13 for his solo work and five from his time with Take That.

His maternal grandfather, Jack Farrell, was born in Kilkenny. Although there is Irish heritage on his father’s side of the family too. His Irish roots haven’t made a clear impact on his music, Williams thinks of himself as part Irish.

Black and white photo of Morrissey, former lead singer and lyricist for The Smiths

Morrissey. Photo: Samuel Gehrke

What about female artists?

Some of Britain’s biggest female musicians are of Irish descent too.

Born to Irish parents in 1930s London, Dusty Springfield was originally christened Mary O’Brien. Though best known for her soulful music, she liked to sing some Irish numbers too. She was nominated for the best female artist award at the BRITs in 1977 and, then again, 1991.

Also born in London, English singer-songwriter Kate Bush is half-Irish with her mother hailing from county Waterford. Bush is best known for her hit ‘Wuthering Heights’ from 1978, but she also won the BRIT award for best female solo artist in 1987.

Since the 1980s, Bush has taken inspiration from Irish music, literature and language. Her albums often feature traditional musicians and instruments. Bodhrans and bouzoukis can be heard on the likes of ‘The Sensual world’ – a song inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses – and ‘Jig of Life’.

In 2014, she expressed pride in her Irish heritage and her mother’s influence, which inspired her work on ‘Mná na hÉireann’ with trad musician Dónal Lunny.

Final thoughts

At this year’s BRIT Awards, Ireland is still represented by the likes of Matty Healy and Belfast duo Bicep. The mark Irish people have made on music in Britain and beyond is staggering.

If you’d like to find out more, visit the Music and Dance gallery at EPIC.