AS I WRITE THIS, appearing at The Electric Picnic music festival in Stradbally, Co. Laois, are such superstars as Billie Eilish, who has a Bond theme tune behind her, Johnny Marr from the legendary The Smiths, everyone’s favourites The Saw Doctors, Rick Astley fresh from Glastonbury, and countless others. Including The Wolfe Tones.
Quite what The Wolfe Tones are doing at Ireland’s premier hipster festival I can’t quite figure out.
Are the organisers being ironic? Are the bearded, beanie hat crew suddenly going to be going to the same gigs as the lads in Celtic tops? Is it a riposte to the furore over the women’s football team singing Ooh Ah, Up the Ra?
We have to ask because however you look at it there is no one quite like The Wolfe Tones.
Back in the 1980s I went to see The Wolfe Tones a number of times in Birmingham and Cork. I can say without hesitation that in the context of the times they were the most incendiary band I’d ever seen.
This wasn’t a band provoking an anti-establishment image, this was a band singing about death and killing as that death and killing was occurring. “And you dare to call me a terrorist”, a line from the song about the IRA hunger striker Joe McDonnell, is one of the most politically charged lyrics it is possible to imagine.
The Wolfe Tones unashamedly tapped into and sang about an unapologetic Irish republicanism and I can only say that their gigs were truly an event. Being stopped by police on the way in, asking for your name, no band created an atmosphere like that. And I have to admit that in those days and in that place listening to The Wolfe Tones was both a stinging assertion of identity and a thrilling act of youthful rebellion. Rabble rousing? Yes, for sure, but my God, it was something to be part of that rabble.
But would I go to see them now? Honestly, I don’t know. My kids report that many a college night at a trad gig ends up with a bar room chorus of Ooh Ah without any kind of political content and I can’t imagine that the power of those songs has faded. But would I go and see them now? Again, I don’t know and I suppose in saying that I’m saying I probably wouldn’t. I’m not fully sure why but there is a little bit of, that was then and this is now.
In 1980s England being Irish and asserting that identity was a vital cultural point. It was worth making. It was worth ensuring people knew whose side you were on. Not that it meant backing the Provos. It meant that doing so or not was for us as Irish people to decide not, say, the British tabloids. It meant looking back at a wider British culture that constantly referred to the Irish as stupid and irredeemably violent and not blinking.
Of course it was complex. We were growing up, for instance, in a city where the huge Irish community was still reeling from an IRA bomb attack killing 21 people simply drinking in pubs.
The Wolfe Tones didn’t sing about that. But they did sing The Broad Black Brimmer and Come out Ye Black and Tans and singing those was one way of saying we’d gone quiet but we weren’t ashamed of who we were.
But that was then.
Now it’s different. Now there’s peace in the North, at least, peace of a kind. Now, the tricolour of 1990, say, at that beautiful, innocent World Cup, looks different. Now Irish nationalism, once, we liked to believe, simply anti-imperialist in nature, can look like any other kind of nationalism. Ugly, bigoted, resentful, exclusive. Now all that Green is good, Orange is Bad stuff, just looks a bit simple. A bit stupid. Now it doesn’t seem like a rebellion against the might of Empire but as seeing the accident of your own geographical or cultural birth as some kind of achievement.
Would I go to see The Wolfe Tones? I’d guess it would still be good craic. I’d guess the night would probably take off. Yet. I’m not sure. I’m not sure I could be bothered. I’m not sure about that stuff anymore. I’m not sure it would sizzle with the same danger anymore and instead might seem just full of yahoos and the gleefully ignorant. Of course, I could be wrong. But I’ll probably never know. You’ll have to ask the beanie hats and the Celtic tops.