Wake The Folk Up.

In #rabble10, Blog, Musicby Mícheál Platano4 Comments


Belfast born Harry Bradley’s flute playing has garnered huge praise, not to mention the 2014 Gradam Ceoil musician of the year award. He’s also probably one of the only Irish musicians you’re likely to find sporting a Subhumans t-shirt while teaching kids. Mícheál Platano caught up with the man for a quick chat about tunes, punk rock and how Gaelier-than-thou theocrats fucked up trad.

Apparently, Martin Carthy, the English folk legend, once stated that punk and folk music had much more in common than most people would be willing to admit. Having a background in the Belfast punk scene yourself, would you be inclined to agree with Mr. Carthy?

Yeah, I’d say there’s quite a lot of truth in that. Both forms are fairly accessible and, essentially, were/are not dictated to by jumped-up arbiters of ‘good taste’, music industries, and music institutions like colleges and conservatories, as is more the case in other areas.

This means that they retain some element of independence and the facility for a sort of do-it-yourself approach: you can just get your hands on an instrument and participate in the music community without having to worry too much about getting graded or sanctioned or awarded a crap medal.

Punk looks to me to function much like a type of urban folk music. I think folk music at its best, just like the punk movement, is basically anarchic: it seems to have an ability, and a socio-cultural positioning, that allows it to throw off attempts to codify and institutionalise it; it can absorb, and even subvert, such attempts by those presenting themselves as ‘authorities’.

This reflects its historical positioning on the fringes of ‘respectable’ society and is why folk song often gives a voice to the underrepresented and the dispossessed, as punk does. Many musicians I have met who have followed the music to late-night venues in otherwise obscure, rural parts of the country have lived lives quite different to that of their non-musician neighbours.

They have participated in a subculture that gives them an alternative perspective on mainstream society, just as the punk subculture and lifestyle provided alternative perspectives that spurred innovation and creativity.

On a similar note, you often refer to traditional Irish music as a countercultural phenomenon. Could you briefly describe what you mean by this?

Well, pre-20th century historical accounts tell us that what we now call ‘traditional music’ was once widespread in Ireland and that there was singing, music and dancing pretty much everywhere. It was a sort of national music and dance craze, the main popular music culture.

I think a significant change occurred with the advent of our curious brand of Catholic Irish cultural nationalism, and Catholic republicanism, and the formation of the culturally repressive post-civil war church-state theocracy. The Public Dance Halls Act of 1935 brought an end in many places to the enduring practice of house and outdoor dances that had been a socio-cultural staple of communities up and down the country, although ironically it was intended to protect Gaelic culture from ‘insidious foreign influences’.

The country house and crossroads dances, along with jazz dances, were seen as licentious and as giving rise to sexual deviancy by the newly installed theocrats, so they effectively banned them with the legislation (the Act remains in force to this day, by the way). The Act gave rise to the more formal, and larger, sanctioned céilí dances in parish halls etc. which could be overseen and controlled by priests and other such upstanding pains in the arse.

This gave rise to the more formal, and musically formulaic, céilí band which was required for the larger venues: in trying to keep traditional music culture morally and ethnically ‘pure’ they actually changed it considerably. So, for all his shiteing on about “comely maidens dancing at crossroads”, it was actually DeValera’s government who tried to ban people dancing at crossroads while socially and culturally engineering an ‘acceptable’ form of dance and music that was quite different in nature to what had been there previously. Indications are (from the earliest sound recordings) that the pre-existing music culture before this was very vibrant and highly developed.

The pre-Dance Hall Act era had given us some of our most renowned names from the heritage of early traditional music recordings, and we know of them only because they emigrated to the US and were recorded there in the 1920s and 30s for the burgeoning ethnic music market: big names like Michael Coleman, James Morrison, John McKenna and Tom Morrison would be among that rank. In short, the newly installed ‘Gaelier-than-thou’ theocrats couldn’t have made a bigger balls of it if they’d tried.

However, something of the enduring music and dance culture survived against the legislative weight of the church-state in what was clearly a subcultural relationship, if not a full-blown counterculture relationship, with the prevalent puritanical attitudes and designs of the church-state and its organs.

A few friends of mine are very into the strands of Irish music that managed to escape this institutionalisation process, Traveller musicians like the Raineys for example, or Donegal fiddle music. Would you have many preferences along similar lines?

Yes, and isn’t it interesting that Traveller subculture produced some of the most remarkable music of the last century including the Raineys, the great uilleann pipes genius Johnny Doran, and the travelling tinsmith and Donegal fiddle master Johnny Doherty? That is no accident. In having the freedom to be able to avoid assimilation into stifled, formulaic mainstream cultural-nationalist movements they were able to retain their distinct creative autonomy.

The contributions from the musicians mentioned are exactly the sort of brilliant music culture that needs to be appreciated and evaluated in its own distinct cultural and social context so that it’s not lumped in with the ham-fisted efforts of mainstream revivalist ideologues who really just didn’t want to ‘get’ the music in either its real content or contexts.


  1. Identity politics of any variety oppresses healthy, life enhancing society. Nationalism is the biggest curse on Irish people, on any people oppressed by Imperialism. Folk culture and nationalism are the antithesis of each other.

    1. Frankly, your a whackjob PNevin, and i think you need to get back on your medication. Also, stop confusing your own weird, idiosyncratic personalty with some kind of “leftist” idealism. Your an example of why ideology can be dangerous in the minds of the ignorant and the crazy

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