The world lost three great Irish musicians in 2023: Shane MacGowan, Sinéad O’Connor and Christy Dignam. While their music reflected their individual struggles and resilience, it also grappled with the evolving essence of Irish identity. Their work stands as a reminder of Ireland’s complex history.
In their absence, a new generation of Irish musicians is carrying forward their legacy, navigating the balance between tradition and innovation. They’re using music not just as entertainment but as a powerful tool for social commentary and cultural evolution. Here are just a few embodying that spirit.
1. The Scratch
The Scratch, a four-piece acoustic ensemble hailing from Dublin, manage to be both trad and metal. In tracks like Another Round, they showcase their remarkable ability to fuse these divergent styles.
The song opens with rich vocal harmonies and rapid-fire lyrics, drawing listeners into a narrative that feels familiar – a snapshot of an evening unfolding at the local.
Then, in a striking moment, the music transitions to crunching electric guitar, delivering a powerful mid-song drop that captures the essence of the night’s escalating intensity.
Lankum, an Irish folk ensemble, navigates the realms of traditional music with an exploration of harsher, darker textures. Their approach to traditional material is to emphasise the trauma embedded within the songs themselves.
In their rendition of Go Dig My Grave, Lankum immerse us in a song heavy with dread – a heartbroken young woman kills herself, leaving her father to find her body. Rather than softening the edges, Lankum purposefully stress the song’s horror and despair, employing an oppressive sonic palette that weighs heavily on the listener.
Their treatment of the music becomes an immersive experience, akin to encountering the textured layers of a harsh, emotional landscape – an aural Rothko painting in its intensity.
Unlike the poised and sympathetic renditions by artists like Joan Baez or Sinéad O’Connor, Lankum’s approach rejects restraint. Their unconventional, melodramatic execution demands attention, leaving little room for detached observation.
In doing so, they create a sonic realm that confronts and assails the listener, enveloping them in an unsettling world woven by their music.
3. John Francis Flynn
John Francis Flynn is another folk artist determined to infuse traditional music with harsher, more potent sounds. His recent album, Look Over the Wall, See the Sky (2023), offers a mesmerising reimagining of the classic Mole in the Ground, originally performed by folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
Lunsford’s rendition embodies an elusive folk song quality – an interplay between simplicity and profound depth. His performance exudes gladness, wisdom, and magnanimity. It’s a stark contrast to Flynn’s interpretation with its practically subterranean vocals and underground essence.
Flynn’s version, much like the other artists mentioned, emerges from an anti-establishment position. Notably, he emphasises one of the song’s most enduring lines as he concludes: “The railroad man he’ll kill you when he can / And drink up your blood like wine.”
This line, famously referenced by Bob Dylan in Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again (1966), vividly portrays a vampiric image of businessmen, leaving little ambiguity about its politics. In Flynn’s own words: “It’s about taking down the system, so I wanted to make it punchy and aggressive.”
4. The Mary Wallopers
Folk punk outfit The Mary Wallopers carved out a devoted following during the isolation of the COVID lockdowns, during which they live-streamed performances from a converted barn in Dundalk.
Among their standout renditions is Frost Is All Over. Their take breathes new life into the song with captivating percussion elements. Beginning with acoustic guitars, banjo and accordion, it initially signals an upbeat revisitation of a standard – so far, so folk.
However, the infusion of bass drum and snare soon escalates the tempo, injecting fresh vigour into the track. There are other novel touches, like the call and response between vocalist Andrew Hendy and the rest of the group.
5. Pauline Scanlon
Traditional Irish singer Pauline Scanlon’s haunting rendition of As I Roved Out is steeped in plangent, dreamy sounds reminiscent of Daniel Lanois. Her performance, characterised by a steady, deliberate rhythm, unravels the dark story of a young woman’s encounter with an amorous soldier.
The tale is capped off with her mother’s unforgiving response – she beats her daughter for bringing the soldier home with her – and the soldier’s indifference to her imminent death.
The rendition’s eerie beauty lies in the siren-like harmonies and the airy wisps of synthesizer juxtaposed against the underlying theme of callousness. Despite her undeniable victimhood, there’s an aura of equanimity and serenity captured in the young woman’s refrain and the music’s steady, unperturbed pulse.
Contrary to a version like that of the Clancy Brothers, who cast it as a boisterous, roguish song that favours the soldier’s perspective, Scanlon reclaims the song as an anthem of defiance, asserting a young woman’s determination to chart her own path, risk be damned.
For Scanlon, interpreting this song held personal significance. She saw in it echoes of her mother’s perspective, but also those of her mother’s contemporaries. Through her rendition, Scanlon sought to bridge the song’s narrative with modern sensibilities, intertwining personal and collective experiences to offer a resonant portrayal of agency in the face of societal pressures.
As she explained to Folk Radio: “I am intentionally redirecting these songs away from the traditional narrative, turning them to face the modern era, to reflect a new social outlook, and I am imagining the present as I sing them.”
Looking for something good? Cut through the noise with a carefully curated selection of the latest releases, live events and exhibitions, straight to your inbox every fortnight, on Fridays. Sign up here.