beyond the cultural colony

I’ve been using the term “cultural colony” a lot more than I should lately. A dumb combination of the Yank elections, endless Twitter discourse, and my constant urge to annoy people has had me obsessed with how much hold American politics and culture seem to have over us all. Ireland was always doomed to some degree of East Yankery on account of our Anglosphere status – our shared language leads to an anaemic local press and an easier ability to completely opt-out of what’s going on nearby. However, I can’t help but feel that lockdown has accelerated things a bit further – a world where we’re stuck living online is one that can become extremely American quite rapidly.

I think this acceleration was seen most blatantly through our embarrassing obsession with the Yank election – you had insane anti-maskers droning on about QAnon on one side and middle-class weirdos getting concerningly horny for John King on the other. I’m reminded here of ‘Watching the U.S. Election While Irish’, an article published in the New York Times that seemingly depicts one of the most terminal cases of yank-brain humanly possible. “On Saturday afternoon our time, Wolf Blitzer crossed the spaceship floor of CNN’s studio to announce Mr. Biden as victor. The game, or this part of it, was over. We greeted the news like it was an acquittal for a crime we had not committed, gasped at the commentary for another hour or so, and promptly switched off CNN for the first time in four, long days”. How did we collectively get to this point as a nation, why do we need to break from it, and what does breaking even look like in an extremely online and globalized world? The answers are (somehow) more convoluted than you’d think.

fucking culchies

In order to understand our status as a cultural colony, we have to look back at our past as an actual one. One of the worst impacts of colonialism was the active repression of our culture and language – the things that made us distinct from the British were intentionally squeezed out of public life, leading to a slow strangulation of our identity. This asphyxiation reached breaking point following the Great Famine – speakers of the Irish language were disproportionately hit and the inevitability of emigration linked any future with a rejection of what made us disparate. Our identity went against the economic and colonial interests of our rulers, integration into the systems of imperialism and capitalism necessitated a break from our history and a rejection of our character. It could be argued that we’re still haunted to this day by Daniel O’Connell’s claim that the Irish language (and by extension our identity) was “backward” – we internally write-off our unique voice as being antiquated and associate anything exciting with countries far away. Bands have to make it big across the pond before we can admit to listening to them, writers spend their whole careers bragging about how cooler things get once you leave, and this weird attitude of self-deprecation (if not outright hatred) towards our culture takes hold. We cringe at ourselves, mainly as our former masters taught us to do as such.

I think one of the spiciest examples of this cultural cringe arose when Dublin band Fontaines DC were interviewed by Noisey back in 2019. The group annoyed the life out of people on Twitter with their claim that before noise rock outfit Girl Band arose, “the only way to sound Irish was to be fuckin’ ‘diddly-diddly-aye’”. This comment is obviously cringe-inducing (as well as inaccurate) but it hints towards something broader – a lot more people than we want to admit are raised to write off our cultural output as twee and irrelevant. That erroneous viewpoint expressed by the band is arguably what underpins our obsession with America – why pay attention to a collection of culchies and crusties when you can immerse yourself in our neighbours’ world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll instead? Something similar can be observed when you compare our local politics to those of America. A majority of people (understandably) perceive the goings-on in Leinster House and Stormont as mundane and block them out, rather choosing to submerge themselves in the neon lights and sheer bravado of American (and to some extent British) politics. This fear of being perceived as “diddly-diddly-aye” actively limits our collective imagination – political forms hostile to American imperialism are relegated to the realm of implausibility, success can only arrive once your art escapes the country, and any improvements in day-to-day life can only arrive through emigration. Our subservient status is best shown through the furore around the Taoiseach’s annual trip to Washington – the country could be shut down and on the verge of collapse yet we all have to lick the feet of our cooler neighbours. Cultural cringe prevents us from taking our own path, confining us to the grooves of our oppressors.

Exactly why have we been unable to break from this cultural cringe nearly a full century on from the formation of the Free State? I can’t help but feel that such a break never occurred due to the radical implications of us fully understanding our history and culture. The secular, free republic envisioned by Tone, the radicalism of Connolly, and the proto-Marxist agrarianism of Fintan Lalor have essentially been abandoned, something that clearly benefits those in power. Whatever that remains of our cultural identity has been neutered and pacified to the point of seeming performative and nearly alien – our language becomes something we half-learn in order to get CAO points, our poems become something we regurgitate pre-made essays on, and our history is something that is distant and irrelevant. We’re reduced to solely economic subjects, with our desires and self-perception being limited by the power of capital.

One of the poems that students are made study for the Irish Leaving Certificate exam is ‘An Spailpín Fánach’, a lament based around the life of an itinerant labourer forced to roam the country in search of work following the eviction of his family. The Spailpín tires of “selling and trading” his health **and “catching all the illnesses going around”, something that leads to his final decision to join the French army to enact revenge. “You’ll not see a hook in my hand for harvesting, a flail or a short spade, but the flag of France over my bed, and the pike for stabbing”. If you’re sat over a partitioned state where billionaires had their wealth grow by another €3 billion as thousands died unnecessarily, women were locked up against their will up until the 1990s, and the failsons of our bourgeoisie try opening luxury Airbnbs named after Bobby Sands in the midst of a housing crisis why would you want us to understand the Spailpín? Ireland remains a cultural colony as the alternative would make things uncomfortable for those holding power.

cold old fire

Lankum are arguably one of the most exciting Irish bands active today as their work feels like a blueprint for any potential break from our cultural cringe. The Dublin-based folk group initially formed in the early 2000s, releasing their critically acclaimed debut ‘Cold Old Fire’ onto Bandcamp in 2014. Their discography feels so mesmerizing on account of how refreshing their take on Irish folk is – according to a Reddit AMA they started out trying to capture the experience of “getting hammered at traditional sessions together” but over time shifted towards “pushing and expanding the sounds and textures” of folk. This shift is best shown in their newer material, with tracks like ‘The Pride of Petravore‘ and ‘Katie Cruel’ feeling actively menacing on account of their reverb leaden production and the haunting vocal presence of Radie Peat. Lankum’s work feels effortlessly relevant and pertinent – there’s nothing tokenistic or forced about their music and that makes their occasional forays into social commentary biting and genuine. The group wear their influences on their sleeves, creating work that’s heavily influenced by Sun O))), My Bloody Valentine, and DnD sessions but also remains thoroughly unique. Their work isn’t “Irish folk but relevant”, “Irish folk but with reverb”, or “Irish folk but with outside influence” – it’s just an instantly understandable glimpse of where we currently lie and where we should be headed. Lankum just are, which is exactly why I fanboy over them so easily.

One of Lankum’s coolest tracks is ‘Hunting the Wren’, a cut about a community of sex workers living on the Curragh that ends their 2019 record ‘The Livelong Day’. This track was penned as part of a songwriting exchange between member Ian Lynch and Lisa O’Neill – with both musicians challenging one another to write about specific chapters of our history ignored by the mainstream. John Murphy’s production skills are on full display in this song, with the sparse percussion and atmosphere vaguely reminding me of Bauhaus or Xiu Xiu. The influence of post-punk feels nearly undeniable but also understated – you can tell what brought the musicians to this point but the path they’ve taken after feels thoroughly distinctive and undeniably Irish. Lynch’s songwriting is empathetic and evocative, capturing the misogyny and hatred directed towards “unclean” women throughout our past and present. “Attacked in the village, spat on in town, they come from all over, to hunt the wren on the wide open ground”.

Lankum aren’t writing music for the Ireland of “comely maidens” that Dev was misquoted with – they instead write music for the Ireland of outcasts, the Ireland that broke from the norms of the Free State, and the Ireland of rebellion. This band don’t offer us what Mark Fisher termed as “desire for a restored organic wholeness”, they instead provide glimpses of a shared future far beyond those limits. Lankum are important as they understand the radicalism that runs through our culture, a radicalism that could arguably be condensed down into the closing verse of ‘Déanta in Éireann’“for it’s not too late to fight back and these tyrants eject, take back what’s ours from these primates erect, our purpose, our lives, and our own self-respect, then we’d have something to be proud of in Éireann”.

can’t stop the scauld

One of the main things that drive me insane when it comes to cultural issues is this notion that art and identity have to be exclusionary, either/or things. It feels like a lot of people are operating off the false assumption that the only way forward is a return to some mythical, pure past where nobody speaks a word of the devil’s tongue and the cultural impact of Network Two has been cancelled out. This exclusionary approach may seem romantic at first glance but serves as an analogue solution to a digital problem – we’re not going to be able to go back to the days where socialist republicans campaigned against the BBC gaining broadcast rights and we should adapt ourselves as such. Any successful cultural revival has to be nearly accelerationist in nature – in order to fully defend our unique voice we have to maximize it’s output, be it through defending existing communities that are being strangled by capital or supporting new ones into existence.

This accelerationist approach to Irish culture is best personified through the musicians loosely associated with Scauldwave and Dollar Pickle Records, internet netlabels that are niche to the point where they feel like a psyop targeting me in particular. Both use the term “culchie surrealism” to describe their (scarily prolific) output, an apt description for their anarchic take on Irish music and culture as a whole. Their records are barely-listenable, caustic, and impossible to explain to people from other countries – with previous releases including ‘Snackboxxx/Yer Wan Below’, ‘Dublin In The Rain Is Shit Craic Because Dublin Is A Shit City With Shit Things And The Rain Only Makes It Worse’, and ‘That One 1999 Techno Compilation Your Uncle Has’. If Burial’s “subdued bass” was the “the spectral echo of a roar”, the constant distorted gabber kicks that plague the two labels feels like the ghost of the Celtic Tiger being plugged into the Matrix. Artefacts from the cultural wasteland of the early 2000s are dragged into pirated copies of Ableton Live, exposing how utterly absurd they were in the process. A good Scauldwave or Dollar Pickle project isn’t necessarily listenable but instead thoroughly unrepeatable – nobody else could put these tracks together and that’s half of the appeal.

But what are we to learn from Lankum and Scauldwave (or alternatively, what is the point of this blog post)? One of the few things these projects have in common is a complete sense of urgency – both are inherently tied to this current moment and lose their impact when they’re taken in isolation. This urgency is something that can’t be half-heartedly implemented or forced, something I think is best captured through a comment made during Lankum’s recent AMA. “Having been subject to years of TG4 trying to make trad music ‘modern’ or ‘cool’ by adding electric guitars and synths and stuff it’s unbelievably refreshing to see [them] come out of nowhere and just do it effortlessly without gimmicks”. At its core all good culture is a living, breathing thing – any break from our collective cringe isn’t going to arrive from the confines of a classroom or the safety of an idealised past but instead from acts that take on and embrace the radical, inclusive elements of our identity.

Lankum and Scauldwave feel so fascinating as their work is like a mirror – Ireland may not be the best place to grow up if you fall out of the stereotypical (and/or neurotypical) world of Versatile listeners and people with boring 23andMe results, but both groups manage to both reflect and reclaim these struggles without baulking at them. Both are here to stay, and that means a lot in a place where those who live in the margins are raised to idealise leaving. Finding our own voice isn’t important for weird snobbish or separatist reasons, but instead as it enables us to imagine something beyond our current situation. We live in the country of Lankum and Scauldwave – that isn’t something we should be embarrassed of.