Creating Celtic Rock: Hybridity, globalisation and finding Ireland’s new musical voices

On May 17, 2012

As the Irish diaspora looks for links to its homeland, cultural hybridity emerges, raising debates on Irish culture’s evolution into the commercialised commodity it is today (McLaughlin and McLoone 2000, p.181, Danks and Kennedy 2001, Basegmez 2005). This hybridity can be seen through the creative diaspora in Britain and the USA – popular emigrant destinations. The following highlights important moments in Ireland’s cultural history, while also looking at the impact of heritage, recorded music and hybridity in popular music during early globalisation, creating a foundation for the recreation of Irish identity.

In 1959, the USA witnessed a hybrid céilidh music scene (of American and Irish music), popular among the already well-established Irish diaspora, with the jigs of Irish traditional music meeting less traditional instruments and the faster tempo of the American bands (Bayor and Meaghan 1997, p. 488). Some of the most influential Irish musical artists of the 1960s were in fact emigrants, using traditional songs of their motherland to entertain both Irish and non-Irish abroad. Examples of Irish ‘hybrid’ recorded material by emigrant groups such as The Clancy Brothers (USA) were exported to Ireland rather than from with a innovative American/British twist (Wyndham 2006, p. 124).

Ireland’s musical heritage was undergoing hybridisation overseas (Featherstone 2005, p. 56), but traditional music was still “uncool” to younger generations. Sean O’Riada and his projectCeoltóirí Chualann attempted to revitalise traditional music with interesting scores and new instrumentation, but this modernisation caused outrage to traditionalists (Prosser and Sitaram 1999, p. 237). Similar musicians faced further resistance; Luke Kelly, a Dublin native who had emigrated to the UK, was a member of the re-emerging British folk scene whose music was banned. His popularity saw him returning to Dublin with celebrity status, later partnering with Ronnie Drew to form a band synonymous with Irish popular music – The Dubliners. The band’s most popular song, “Seven Drunken Nights”, was banned from Irish public broadcast by the state/church run media (Prosser and Sitaram 1999, p. 236). Much like the 1930s Anti-Jazz Campaign, radio still acted as a medium for cultural and moral control (McCarthy 1999, p. 110).  

1960s Ireland began to see influences of soul, blues, rock and roll and country mixing with Irish traditional timings and compositions to create a new varieties. The sudden surge in cultural imports offered examples of diversity and musical hybridity, including Van Morrison and his band Them. Morrison’s father was an avid record collector with obscure tastes for the Mississippi Delta and Appalachian music (Hage 2009, p. 1). Morrison himself was weaned on this music, but also had affiliation with traditional Irish music, notably the McPeake Family. The 1964 recording of “Baby Please Don’t Go” and its b-side “Gloria” provided an early example of how a Belfast-born singer raised on these sounds could himself become part of their history. Although this happened north of the border, the south – notably Dublin – saw similar trends. The selection of recorded music in Ireland was sparse, therefore showbands and live covers were the primary means of popular music. 

1968 saw the emergence of Celtic rock with Phil Lynott’s band Skid Row. After problems with illness (Byrne 2005, p. 24), Lynott left the band and in 1969 formed Thin Lizzy, a joint project between Lynott and two former members of Them – Eric Bell and Eric Wrixon. In 1973, Thin Lizzy released their take on the Irish ballad “Whiskey in the Jar” – a familiar Irish song mixed with the rock influences of Lizzy, providing just the right balance to break the UK market. Previous releases such as “Ray Gun” were almost ‘too Celtic’ (Byrne 2005, p. 30) to be successful.

The popularity of Thin Lizzy and Celtic rock counterparts such as Planxty, The Horslips and Sweeny’s Men allowed Ireland to create a new identity through its music. However, the political landscape had become more complex; by 1972, British-ruled Ulster was at crisis point. After the events of Bloody Sunday unfolded, Catholic Republicans south of the border began to sympathise with their religious brethren in the North. Songs by Irish artists such as Christy Moore highlighted the troubles. Paul McCartney, with his song “Give Ireland Back to the Irish”, was one of the few British artists to comment; the song went to number one in the Irish single charts in March 1972 and spent eight weeks in the British charts despite being banned by the BBC (Strachan and O’Malley-Younger 2012, p. 140). 

Although debate continues around Irishness, there is little doubt that this period of experimentation through cultural hybridity allowed traditional and modern influences to evolve into a powerful medium for expression of political ideas and building new identities through music. This new Celtic identity would be the foundation in which Ireland would build its commercialism through cultural exports and tourism.  



Basegmez, V. (2005). Irish Scene and Sound Identity, Authenticity and Transnationality among Young Musicians.  Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International.

Bayor, R. and Meaghan, T. (1997). The New York Irish. Baltimore: JHU Press.

Byrne, A. (2005). Thin Lizzy. London: SAF Publishing.

Danks, C. and Kennedy, P. (2001). Globalization and National Identities: Crisis Or Opportunity? New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Featherstone, S (2005). Postcolonial Cultures. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Hage, E. (2009). The Words and Music of Van Morrison. Westport: Praeger.

McLaughlin, N. and McLoone, M. (2000) Hybridity and national musics: the case of Irish rock music. Popular Music Volume 19/2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Prosser, M. and Sitaram K. (1999). Civic Discourse: Intercultural, International, and Global Media; Stamford: Greenwood Publishing.

Strachan, J. and O’Malley-Younger, A. (2012). Ireland: Revolution and Evolution. Bern: Peter Lang.

Wyndham, A. (2006). Re-Imagining Ireland. Virginia: University of Virginia Press.

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