As some of you are aware, I serve in the honored capacity of leading LG&M’s house band The Paranoid Style. Today, I have a new track to share with you from our forthcoming release A Goddamn Impossible Way Of Life. For those keeping score at home, this is the companion piece album to my Oxford American column of the same name and will be available later this year on Bar/None Records. The new song is called “A Marked Man On A Marked Occasion” and it concerns the socialist-led Irish Easter Rising of 1916.
Although I have lived my entire life in the United States, I am a dual American and Irish citizen and that has always been a central part of my identity. When I was young, my imagination was captured by tales of 1916, when a group of men and (importantly) women temporarily took over large swaths of Dublin and declared Ireland free of British rule. Within a week the insurrection was crushed, as the rebels were swarmed under by the massive and brutally employed armaments of the British military. In the end nearly five hundred people died, many of them civilians. More than 3,500 were arrested and half that number imprisoned in British internment camps for their role in the fighting. Nearly all of those who played a major part in planning the rebellion were executed. Despite the terrible toll, the reverberations of the Easter Rising set into motion events which would eventually make home rule inevitable. It is at once a great tragedy of history and a remarkable instance of self-sacrifice to a larger cause.
When visiting Dublin, it is unavoidable to feel the weight of the martyrs and their actions. They are depicted widely and celebrated each Easter with ornate ceremonies. I will tell you that without having any proof of it, I have often thought my Irish ancestors were part of this rebellious fighting force – in fact I feel it in my bones. That may seem fanciful, but it’s very real to me, and that is what was going through my mind when I wrote this song.
Having said that, I felt the need to check my own sense of history against the realities of those who grew up in Ireland and didn’t just visit. So I got in contact with the great Irish folk-provocateur Jinx Lennon and asked him about his own feelings around the Easter Rising, which are fascinating and perhaps predictably more ambivalent. Like my Oxford American column, the new Paranoid Style album is intended as an investigation into persona, history, commodification and memory both personal and institutional. I still love my song, but am also grateful for the context and perspective that Jinx provides below. Please check out the new track and also our conversation! And if you are not familiar with the Jinx Lennon catalog, do yourself a favor and get caught up to speed – he’s something else.
EN: I’m a dual Irish-American citizen who has spent her entire life in the United States. I’m aware that one consequence of living in a diaspora may well be a tendency to over-romanticize the experience of my ancestors. And yet the story of the Easter Rising does strike me as one of true bravery – men and women coming together against unmanageable odds to attempt to alter the course of history. Are you comfortable with that characterization?
JL: I was never comfortable with the way the Easter Rising was explained to me. The Northern Ireland situation was already gathering momentum when I was five and my family and I lived in close proximation to the border, five minutes away. Being Irish seemed like a strange anachronism because from an early age, the culture I knew was English and American. I saw the terrible atrocities beaming through the tube from across the border, made more vivid because we had just acquired color. The glorification of the 1916 event seemed to be futile when the country was still split in two. I felt dread instead of inspiration because living in the the late 60s and 70s seemed so apocalyptic compared to now. So much violence, plane hijackings, oil shortages, Patty Hearst’s sex exploits in a cupboard. So in 1976, the 60-year anniversary of 1916 we all diligently went on a school tour to Kilmainham Jail and Arbour Hill and were expected to buy this big commemorative book about it for ten quid. I felt oppressed by the way we were told repeatedly how significant it was rather than experiencing it. When I played soldiers as a kid it was the English against the Germans or U.S. against the Japanese. Ireland didn’t come into it. The second World War seemed to be a much more significant time and i resented the fact that Ireland seemed to be missing from the narrative. Okay, of course I understand why we stayed out of World War II.
EN: In your wonderful song “The GPO” you express ambivalence about commemorating moments like the Easter Rising with characteristic insight: “Instead of celebrating what happened long ago/ why don’t they chase who’s screwing us now.” I completely understand this sentiment, but is there any argument that celebrating revolutionary activity can be a useful enterprise in fomenting contemporary resistance? Or does this inevitably lead to comfortable nostalgia and complacency?
JL: I understand that the martyrs wanted the rebellion on that particular weekend because of the symbolism of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection to inspire the public who mostly saw the 1916 men as a nuisance. I’m sure the rebellion leaders were aware of the Mexican Revolution and Emiliano Zapata, and 1916 in turn inspired the Russian Revolution.There’s nothing here in isolation. It was the Fenians who came out of the American Civil War who started the IRB and began to finance the struggle at home and organize the GAA sporting organization.The two top generals of the ‘61 to ‘65 civil war were of Irish descent.
The general public saw the martyrs as part of the bourgeoisie, though. Teachers, poets, civil servants making unnecessary trouble. Not everyone in Ireland hated the English. It is only with the mists of time that the event seems much bigger than it was. I do think it turned the tide against Britain. There was resentment in Ireland for the executions and for killing innocent members of the public during the rebellion. I suppose I saw black-and-white photos of these heavy faced men with thick mustaches and saw them as semi-comical like they could have been in the Keystone Cops chasing after Buster Keaton. The Easter Rising I associate directly with Catholicism. I visualize a blazing sun and a cowboy movie with a scene straight out of Peckinpah.The Irish all love wild west movies and the Easter Rising is a bit like the end of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Your song about the Rising is like that.
EN: Well, as Pike Bishop says, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Your lyric: “See the pictures of the mustached men/ who were living a hundred years ago/ If they saw what the government was doing right now/ they’d probably want to cut their throats” seems to speak to a breaking of faith between the original Irish revolutionaries and the status of the government in its current conception. Do you feel that is the case – that the basic tenets of Irish freedom have been debased by institutions who have served the public poorly?
JL: I do think it’s time for new heroes. Maurice McCabe is definitely someone I admire who stood up against the powers that be. The Gardai nearly crucified him for being a whistleblower to corruption in the police force but he was vindicated in the end no thanks to the Fine Gael government. It just pisses me to high heaven that both the government, Fianna Fail and the overall Republican movement have elaborate commemorations each year while the real revolution needs to be directed towards the people lying on trolleys in hospitals because there is a lack of facilities and the 15,000 homeless people in this land. The Irish government are mostly all landlords and they enable banks and the big foreign vulture fund organizations to evict the vulnerable, and yet they use the 1916 event to elevate their role in history and the historical significance of it all. I do not see Ireland as a sovereign nation when CIA special rendition flights have been moving through the Shannon since 9/11. I do not see it as a sovereign nation while our own banking system and Europe piss in our faces and basically do what they like with the approval of our own government. The Easter Rising feels so long ago to me.
EN: I often feel similar ambivalence about America. Even though the country has very often – too often – failed to live up to the ideals of its founding, I nevertheless feel a deep romance for the radical notions of freedom of equality and opportunity that underpin its better impulses. The saying goes that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, but maybe it could also be the final bulwark against total cynicism. What is your view of patriotism as a concept?
JL: I was just getting into that. I see Bernie Sanders wowed the Fox News audience last week by just being himself and it is heartening to see even the Fox presenters couldn’t shake his self-belief. People need to be inspired. The heroes are mostly in sport in Ireland and that’s what seems to bring out patriotism these days. In my opinion the patriot is someone who will address the elephant in the room, who will speak the inconvenient truth. I think the time will come again that a whole society used to zoning off into Saturn or Netflix with their Galaxy devices may have to come together to face the impending crisis that is unfolding before our eyes. Ultimately, I wonder: Will self-sacrifice be something people are still capable of as a whole when the crux comes?