The long-running Irish punk act fuse The Dubliners and The Clash in a memorable, brash, political barrage.
Earlier this year, trad-punks Blood or Whiskey spent a month touring the US. Playing 26 shows as a support act for Dropkick Murphys in just 30 days, they added to a growing reputation in American punk circles. Then they came back to Ireland to resume their day jobs.
It’s a strange aspect of the Celtic punk scene – which typically fuses trad tropes, tin whistles, Irish folk and harmonica – that the two biggest acts in the genre have only loose, emigrant links with Ireland. On our shores, it’s seen as very much a musical niche.
Dropkick Murphys are Boston Irish, while Flogging Molly – an act Blood Or Whiskey supported in the Olympia Theatre just two weeks ago – are led by Dave King, born in a pre-gentrification Dublin 4 tenement, but very much based out of L.A. In terms of home-brewed Celtic punk stylings, Blood Or Whiskey are as big as they come, and regularly tour with both the rowdy American acts.
They might be heading on their first punk rock cruise this summer, but getting by hasn’t proved so easy back home, as frontman Dugs Mulhooly explains: “we definitely get more offers from the US and central Europe. People don’t see it as a thing here, because it is us [as a nation], it is what we do.”
“We’ve seen Japanese bands play music with an Irish crossover, though, but in general, Irish music is saturated here. People know these songs. We remember when Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys weren’t filling big venues here. They’d be playing 4,000, 5,000 when we went out with them elsewhere, but grinding it out here. That has changed now, but it hasn’t always been like that.”
For Blood Or Whiskey, though, the punk DIY ethos – building it yourself – is important. “To record an even half decent album costs eight or nine thousand quid,” drummer Chris O’Meara, the other remaining original member of a band that formed in 1994, explains.
“it’s a costly adventure. If you have a record label backing you that’s one thing, but we do it ourselves all the time. We don’t believe in Fundit, in going to the fans. You shouldn’t be begging people to make you a rock star. We all go to work, and do jobs with our hands as well. The thought of asking someone to give me money to release an album… I don’t believe in fleecing your punters to bring out albums. You do it yourself.”
Mulhooly adds that it can be quite a limitation: Blood Or Whiskey could certainly have more than four albums out under different circumstances. “We have a lot of songs there, but we’re not a great recording band anyway, to be honest,” he admits. “We’re a live act. If we could get a producer who could capture the energy we have live, that’d be perfect. It’s very hard to capture that energy playing to a click track, as you normally do when you’re recording. I’d love to just put mics around each instrument and lash it out, like we do in practise, and then just touch it up.”
There is, undoubtedly, a certain amount of sneering towards trad-fusion acts in corners of Ireland. O’Meara and Mulhooly pick out Clare as a place that’s particularly superior about the purity of their music, and thank a notable Dublin act for their help on that particular front.
“The Pogues were the Godfathers of all this,” Mulhooly says. “Without The Pogues, we’d be nothing. What we’re trying to do is combine a bit of The Pogues, a bit of Dexys Midnight Runners, a bit of The Clash and a bit of The Specials. Some punk, some ska, some soul, all put together.”
“When we’re writing songs, we don’t write them because we’re a Celtic punk band. We write as a standard punk band, and then we add in the banjo the whistles, all that. We’ve squeezed banjo into songs that had no business having banjo in them, truth be told. But we’ve learnt from it, and now we’ll do what the hell we want.”
“We used to play trad in our local GAA club, for footballers or hurlers, just basically for a piss up. We’d come up and have a right old session, and play with some trad heads. But they weren’t snobby, we were just playing rebel songs. The Pogues dealt with the snobbiness around trad music thirty years ago.”
“There’s an interview from RTE with Shane [MacGowan] just being asked endlessly about it not being Irish. He just laughs it off. It’s a big celebration of being from Ireland, and we’ve nothing but respect for it. You’ll always get snobbiness, we’ve gone through the mill on how we’ve felt about it, but everyone can do what they want. It’s up to us. Music was never meant to have boundaries.”
At one point, though, it was definitely a bit of a party. “Back in the day, we played gigs and treated tours as holidays,” O’Meara says. “We’ve learnt, but we were young. It’s a completely different, more professional setup now. You can drink in your own time; we’ve realised there’s something in it for us now. It becomes very difficult to play when you’re partying every night.”
As for making some noise in Dublin? “If you play less regularly, you’ve a better chance of getting a good crowd in. What we’d really like to do is set up a regular Christmas or Easter show. That’s kind of the plan. We’re also thinking about bringing it back to the pubs, with more of a party, session kind of vibe. We’d like that to grow into something.” Maybe it will. Meanwhile, the American tour offers pour in.
This article is one of my weekly music columns for the Dublin Gazette, reproduced here with permission. Note: this column is published in the Dublin Gazette several days ahead of on this website, so at times, some columns may be slightly out of date. The Gazette is a freesheet paper available across Dublin, published on a Thursday. Pick up copies at these locations.
View this article as printed below: