Connecting to your past can be a long walk. Appreciating it can be even longer. I don’t think any of us ever think we’ll be embodying it. And then, one day, you, your art, your message is a rallying point for people all around the world. People who are turning their eyes and ears to your country, its heritage, its culture, its art, its politics because of the music you make.
For Ian Lynch, one of the 4 members (Daragh Lynch, Cormac MacDiarmada and Radie Peat) of Dublin folk group, Lankum, nothing probably seemed further from reality in his teenage years; a time when he had written off the notion of Irish tradition, language and culture.
But now, over the course of three albums, the most recent being The Livelong day out via Rough Trade, Lankum are an integral part of the new messengers for Irish music. Sonically they’re quite apart from their contemporaries like Junior Brother, Ye Vagabonds, Lisa O’Neil and more. Lankum combines tradition in its truest form drowned in elements of sludge, drone and ambient music. Their billings range from low-key pub gigs to acclaimed Dutch heavy metal festival, Roadburn. They count among their fans, famed Irish traditional singer Luke Cheevers, actor Cillian Murphy and even pop superstar Hozier. In 2018 they cleaned up at the BBC2 Folk Awards winning best group and best original song.
Their popularity and relatability might seem surprising on paper: “Irish drone metal folk band does good”. But there’s a universality to Irish folk music, perhaps that’s why it’s adored the world over. In the fanzine that accompanied Wild Rover pre-orders, Ian writes, referring to Irish songs, “the song speaks so directly to the human condition.” These human conditions, or at least the ones Lankum gravitates towards the most; melancholy and sadness, strife and struggle, resolution, acceptance or complacency, are something everyone can connect with.
Over the phone I pose to Ian the notion that Ireland’s core identity is one of darkness and sadness through which glimmers of hope appear. I thought it was a stretch and too prejudicial. No one wants to hear that their country’s persona is as bleak as its weather. But to my surprise, he agreed. “It’s a pretty spot on observation. It’s something that’s there and not something everyone realizes. It’s underneath most expressions of Irish culture and it’s what we’re more drawn to as a band.
Unfortunately, it’s not always the struggles that Ireland has gone through for centuries that find their way to the international narrative. A brief history of Ireland’s tragedies include the centuries of English occupation, two famines, a civil war, a schism, mass emigration, an economic boom and an economic crash. But if you attend St. Patrick’s day parades across the USA (Chicago and Boston especially) there’s an idiotic, celebratory, drunken, buffonary that permeates the streets. It’s a romanticization of the Irish identity that’s been accepted abroad that’s not necessarily reflected in Ireland or Irish people.
This notion of Irishness drunken buffoonery was most successfully displayed in the short-lived, landmark Irish sitcom, Father Ted. It’s silly and absurd to a sometimes nerve-rattling degree. But what Father Ted accomplished, as said by show co-writer Graham Linehan in the Guardian “is that Ted replaced the old, hackneyed Irish joke with Irish humour”. Father Ted, despite being broadcasted by the English Channel 4, gave a platform for Irish writers to own the narrative. In the same piece, Irish actress Pauline McLynn who played the incorrigible Mrs. Doyle is grateful that Channel 4 ran the show. “I thank the Lord that it was made by an English company, because otherwise we just wouldn’t have been allowed even the mild swearing that we had. It would have been utterly toothless.” Irish broadcasters at the time still controlled the narrative of Ireland. And it was the power to re-take that identity that made Ted so important even still today. For Lankum it’s a similar battle. They have developed the capacity to tell the story they want to tell in the way they want to tell it, and that story is the human condition through an Irish lens and voice.
The brevity amongst sadness is apparent in all of Lankum’s songs, even the instrumentals. The standout single from Wild Rover, “The Young People”, a song reflecting on suicide and depression is juxtaposed with an uplifting chorus reminding listeners just how fleeting happiness and life, especially youth, can be. The commonality of death and loss is rampant. Whether it’s echoes from the Great Famine which claimed the lives of 1 million Irish or the constant exodus of young Irish people, who leave the island in search of work or a better life even to this day. Lankum expresses this sentiment of emigration even further on “Déanta in Éireann”, a poetic statement juxtaposing the continuation of Irish diaspora against the current state of political affairs in Dublin and Ireland.
I tiptoe around Irish politics and the impact its tax haven status has had on the island, especially Dublin, which has been suffering from a serious affordable housing crisis. But Ireland recently had elections with leftist nationalist party, Sinn Féin winning the most firs- preference votes, beating out the long standing rule of the conservative Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. However, since Sinn Féin did not run enough candidates for the 160 Irish Parliament, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil still have the majority there. Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are historically at odds with one another and at the time of writing the possibility for a coalition still looks bleak. Coupled with Brexit, the housing crisis and a country still struggling with youth unemployment outside of Dublin, Ireland can’t seem to catch a break to catch its breath.
It inevitably comes up with Ian, who’s coincidentally taking the call from his parents attic where he’s had to move back into last year with the cost of housing just being too high. He sees no relief but the elections make him optimistic; at least the results came as a surprise to him. “This last election has been a landmark with the powerblock of Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil being broken” he says.
There’s a power to folk music for political change. Although recently the dominance of forward thinking electronic acts who couple social discourse with dystopian sounds seem to be carrying the torch higher. Lankum channel the heritage of Irish folk music as political music that’s of course been turned up as loud as it can go. “We’re just another entity in a long line of what always was a protest tradition,” says Ian. Growing up a DIY punk, he eventually found the parallels between the bands he was listening to and Irish ballads, some hundreds of years old. He references the song “The Shamrock Shore” and singer Christy Moore. “Here’s somebody using pretty much the only means they had available to voice these protests and concerns about what was going on at the time. I think that’s the power of traditional song. You’re looking at people who had nothing else apart from the power of their own voice to write these songs and sing these songs at the time.”
That ordinarity of singing in Ireland is still the bedrock of traditional music, the idea that anyone can sing and everyone is allowed to sing. It’s a truly democratized form of expression. Ian refers back to post-famine writings that told tales of a musical land where songs rang out across the moors and over the hills. Of course, that sentiment of the “good ole days” needs to be taken with a grain of salt he notes. But whether it’s hope or truth, you want to believe that the Irish singing tradition is nothing but set in its stony cliffs.
As aforementioned, like Father Ted, reclamation of ownership over one’s identity is crucial to ensuring the narrative is honest. It’s what led Ian to re-discovering Irish tradition in the first place, the ability to tell your story, not have other people tell it to you or tell you how it should be told.
His disconnect from Irish tradition and culture lasted until his early 20s. He had problems with the way Irish culture was presented to him growing up resulting in an instinctive reaction to the Irish language, music and culture. After getting kicked out of school, paradoxically, is when he connected with the music and language. From there he started studying modern Irish on his own and went on to University College Dublin to study early Irish and folklore. “To me it seemed like Irish culture was in the hands of a certain part of society or a certain type of person and that had caused me to throw out the whole lot all together. But these people didn’t necessarily need to have a monopoly to Irish culture.” he says.
The experience of having a bad teacher is a great motivator to go back and become a good teacher. That’s what Ian wound up doing, going on to teach Irish music and folklore at UCD, working in their library and working at the Irish Traditional Music Archive. He blames bad teachers who turned generations away from the Irish language but that’s changing with new primary school teachers having a more open approach to teaching.
He’s not in the classroom anymore, Lankum just started to take up too much of his time. But now he and his bandmates get to be ambassadors for Irish music and culture and he appreciates the jump from 25 students to 300 people. He doesn’t consider himself a missionary but he feels fortunate to have the opportunity to share their interpretation of the tradition. Something he thinks makes the music more accessible to people. The audience gets to see how the members of Lankum have grown to connect with, grow with and re-imagine these songs. It’s not just a recital. It’s a revival.
If you’re looking to better understand the genre’s roots, Ian’s show on Dublin Digital Radio, a newer station to the online radio community ecosystem is a crash-course history lesson in Irish tradition. Only two shows in, he runs through a diverse slew of numbers adding context to all of the songs he plays. He’s every punks dream literature teacher. Tattooed, a rebellious past, plays in a band and will probably join you in the pub after class to continue discussions about Yeats and Joyce to Strummer and Fugazi.
Lankum’s journey has been natural and Ian stresses that. From their evolving sound, their level of confidence with the songs and the emotion they put behind them. The jolt of fame that The Livelong Day has injected into their career doesn’t seem to phase Ian. There’s a lot on the horizon for the quartet as they depart for a short USA tour and come back to a European spring jaunt. But Ian notes, he’ll be turning 40 this November and Luke Cheevers will be turning 80 the same month. There’s talk of a joint birthday party / performance at The Cobblestone in Dublin. You can bet some 20 year olds will be there, absorbing the voices and readying to pick up the torch as well.
The Livelong Day is available via Rough Trade. Dig deeper into Irish traditional music through the Irish Traditional Music Archive portal