Irish centres and communities in Britain have a long tradition of celebrating the country’s musical heritage. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann was formed in Ireland in 1951 by musicians who feared that their tradition was declining. Coordinating music, dancing, and language classes, Comhaltas also flourished among the Irish diaspora in Britain: in the early 1970s, for example, two branches were formed in Lancashire.


Traditional music flourished in diaspora networks: groups like the Newcastle Beggarmen delighted Tyneside Irish audiences with their interpretations of traditional airs and reels. Younger, second-generation Irish also formed Celtic rock groups like Toss The Feathers, who formed in Manchester in 1987. The children of migrants in musical households also proceeded to mainstream prominence in bands like The Smiths, Dexys Midnight Runners, and Oasis throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Meanwhile, for second-generation diaspora activists, music was often an important cultural gateway into a fuller, politicised sense of Irish identity. Groups like The Pogues fused a traditional Irish folk repertoire and a punk aesthetic. Their London-Irish cultural hybrid became popular, especially with the second-generation Irish in Britain. For example, writing in the Irish Post in 1988, a young second-generation member of the Manchester IBRG explained how early exposure to Irish music and culture infused a ‘strong sense of my Irish identity’ and underpinned political commitments: ‘I railed against anti-Irish racism and I developed a great interest in and concern about the injustices heaped upon Irish people in Britain and the North of Ireland’.

However, the politics of Irish music in Britain were highly contested, especially against the backdrop of the Northern Ireland conflict. Some exponents of traditional music explicitly positioned their medium as a vehicle for political intervention.


For instance, Bruce Scott, born in Anfield in the early 1940s, learned traditional Irish singing from his mother, and got involved with the Liverpool Irish folk scene in the 1960s. Having joined the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann at Liverpool Irish Centre, Scott began composing songs. In 1981, during the republican hunger strike in Long Kesh, he wrote ‘The People’s Own MP’, a tribute to the IRA prisoner Bobby Sands. The song was recorded by Christy Moore. Scott later wrote ‘Town of Tears’, commemorating the devastation of the Omagh bombing in 1998, when dissident republicans killed twenty-nine people. Scott also performed at the launch event for Liverpool’s Capital of Culture season in 2008. In 2015, he received the Comhaltas life achievement award.

Other Irish musicians overtly detached their culture from the politics of Irish republicanism, and insisted that their sole aim was to sustain a musical heritage. In the mid-1980s, for example, students at Manchester University revived the moribund Irish Society with a programme of musical and cultural events. Facing criticism in the students’ union, the Irish Society insisted that its cultural pursuits were entirely apolitical: ‘We’re doing our best not to be political’, the Society’s beleaguered organiser told the student newspaper. Similar controversies recurred in diaspora networks throughout the conflict.

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