May 2017        

“To be Irish is to be political”

Part of the James Connolly Festival, 2017, will be the Irish premiere of Fanatic Heart: The Story So Far of Black 47. This is a feature-length documentary that charts the career of the legendary and extremely political band.
     Black 47 came together in the New York Irish emigrant scene in the late 1980s. Their music has been described as a “streetwise mix of rock, reggae, ska, and Irish music.” The subject matter of their songs was equally diverse, with politics alongside tales of hell-raising, excessive drinking, and sexual misadventures. However, even their name—a reference to the worst year of the Great Famine—put the political nature of the band centre stage. As Kirwan says in the documentary, “to be Irish is to be political.”
     He has a strong base for this outlook. Born in Wexford, he lived for some time with his grandfather, a staunch republican. Personalities such as Jim Larkin and James Connolly were not just historical figures: they were a real part of family and community memories. Wexford was an ITGWU stronghold and experienced its own lockout in 1911.
     According to Kirwan, “music is the perfect vehicle for protest and for political thought. It’s not easy, though, to write political songs. I know that for myself; I have a real background in it and I've done it for many years . . . The only way to do it is to use a story to tell it, almost like a parable . . .”
     Throughout the years of Black 47, historical figures—including Father Murphy of Boolavogue, Michael Collins, Jim Larkin, and Constance Markievicz—have been the subject of songs told “in character” or through the voices of those around them. The most popular and powerful of these is undoubtedly “James Connolly,” which features a spoken-word section, as Connolly addresses his wife:
                              Oh, Lily, I don't want to die, we’ve got so much to live for
                              And I know we’re all goin’ out to get slaughtered, but I just can’t take any more
                              Just the sight of one more child screamin’ from hunger in a Dublin slum
                              Or his mother slavin’ fourteen hours a day for the scum
                              Who exploit her and take her youth and throw it on a factory floor.
      More contemporary Irish figures have also been subjects, including Bobby Sands and Rosemary Nelson. But it wasn’t just Irish politics that concerned Kirwan and the band. “Perhaps our finest hour was outright rejection of the Iraq War . . . This stand cost us dearly, but was there any other choice for a political band?”
     The title of their CD “Bankers and Gangsters” (2010) summed up their attitude to the economic crisis.
     With the generous support of Home Team Productions, the Irish premiere of Fanatic Heart: The Story So Far of Black 47 takes place on Tuesday 9 May at the New Theatre, East Essex Street. Tickets are now available.

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