Rebel Music

Steve Potts investigates the growing cottage industry that seeks to profit from the 'peace dividend'.

While in Belfast recently I picked up a CD by Bik McFarlane and Terry O'Neil, Something Inside So Strong. McFarlane, leader of the IRA prisoners in Long Kesh during the '81 hunger-strikes and 'Cruncher' O'Neil, a well known North Belfast republican activist; have produced a mini album with a number of well picked songs including the title track that has become Sinn Feins' unofficial anthem and Song For Marcella, which Bik wrote in jail for his comrade Bobby Sands.

The songs are sung with a heartfelt passion and sincerity with the proceeds being donated 'towards campaigns highlighting the issues of Irish political prisoners of war.' It comes as a breath of fresh air against the backdrop of a boom in the production and sales of 'Irish rebel music' that is fast threatening to become a cottage industry.

Irish people have a long and rich cultural tradition of articulating their struggles through the medium of song, ensuring that their political heritage is passed from generation to generation. This is particularly the case in Glasgow where folk bands performing Irish ballads have played an important role in keeping alive the historical roots of the Irish emigrant population, especially amongst the young people who frequent the bars around Glasgow Celtic football club before and after a game.

Despite it's underground nature and working class audience, the potential has nonetheless always existed for large amounts of money to be made from this scene. In recent years, with the war in Ireland over and CD production technology relatively cheap, the scene has significantly expanded with more and more eager to reap the financial benefit of the 'peace dividend.'

Even long before the peace process had commenced though, a number of republican supporters had begun to express disquiet over the attitude of a number of the bands playing the Glasgow scene. At first this had centred around the issue of the fees charged for benefit functions. During the height of the bombing campaign in London, those working in support of Irish POWs had attempted to organise a benefit social within the 'belly of the beast.' Quotes for bands had varied from between £600 and £800. Charging £5 a ticket, it meant that organisers would have had to get 160 people into the venue before they could even think about raising any money for the prisoners!

Clearly, somewhere along the way the relationship between the bands and the wider struggle had become extremely distorted, to almost perverse proportions.

Afterall, the popularity of Glasgow's Irish bands centred around the fact that they sung about the Irish war, the IRA and it's prisoners. Yet at the same time they expected to be rewarded handsomely for playing in support of that very same cause. Some republican supporters asked why? They did not expect payment for organising or stewarding events. And certainly those in the firing line, the volunteers and POWs whom the ballads are written about, weren't making any money while they risked their lives. Yet many of the bands, who were little more than well-rehearsed covers bands, insisted that they had to be paid; it was afterall, how they made their living.

Finally the Celtic fanzine, Tiocfaidh Ar La, went into print criticising the band 'Athenrye' who had encouraged female members of their audience to come up onto the stage and remove their tops in exchange for a t-shirt. The arrogant and contemptuous response by Athenrye went some way to reveal the size of the egos that were now doing the rounds on the circuit; ironically probably aided by Tiocfaidh Ar La, who had previously dubbed them 'THE NEW IRISH SUPERGROUP' in a genuine attempt to promote the scene.

As questions continued to be asked about the funding of Athenrye's drug habit, their numerous exotic holidays abroad and their expensive choice of vehicles, the true extent to which they had degenerated became clear. When faced with the prospect of 100 republicans swelling the audience of their next gig they pleaded with leading Glasgow gangland boss, Paul Ferris (recently sentenced to 10yrs for gun-running) to 'mediate' between them and the incensed activists.

While many in Ireland are attempting to come to terms with both the physical and psychological scars of nearly 30 years of conflict, it is clear that others have 'had a good war.'

Lately an increasing number of Glasgow bands have begun playing republican functions in Ireland and others have been donating proceeds from CD's to POW welfare. Hopefully this will quickly become a growing trend.

If you want to pick up an Irish rebel CD my advice is go for the real thing. It may not be as well produced or slickly packaged, but why listen to those who profited from history when you can listen to those who made history?

Reproduced from RA Vol 3, Issue 4, Dec/Jan '98/'99