The Dropkick Murphys - ‘The Black Velvet Band’ from Blackout (2003)
[I found this post deep in my draft folder, from sometime early last year… I can’t remember where I was going to continue it on to, possibly something about the song itself - I like it! - but what I’ve written so far matches well enough with what I mentioned earlier today]
First things first: the Dropkick Murphys are not an ‘Irish’ band - they are, at best, Irish-American (clue’s in the name, guys - nobody in Ireland knows what a ‘dropkick’ is, unless they follow American football… or, okay, rugby). I saw this problem of overlapping and contradictory definitions explained quite well by a genealogist recently: that for Americans, with their multiple strands of immigrant backgrounds, what we see as a national identity based largely on being born (natio) on the island of Ireland, is instead an ‘add-on’, heritage-based self-image. Which is cool, because it brings a lot of interest and a sizeable tourist spend, although sometimes the connections seem remarkably tenuous and selective (my great-great-grandfather was Welsh, but I don’t tend to identify myself as such - even though that’s a closer relationship than Obama to Moneygall, Co. Offaly).
It’s just that Irish-Americans often seem to omit what it is an ‘add-on’ to - American nationality and heritage. Which is understandable in a sense, because American-ness is perhaps both shallower and deeper than Old World nationality - shallower in that it seldom goes further back than two centuries, deeper in that it transcends mere nationality in a fireworks of patriotism, destiny and exceptionalism. So I can see why Americans might omit it both out of the more powerful attraction of a mysterious European past, and the assumption that it’s obvious that they’re as American as a certain fruit pastry. Just remember, though, when you describe yourself or someone or something else as ‘Irish’, there are those of us for whom it’s not an add-on to anything, but our primary identity (or for whom it’s a new, local identity in addition to being, say, Polish or Nigerian).
It’s a curious situation to be in, culturally, when ‘Irishness’ is the totality of one’s own identity - aside from an over-arching European quasi-citizenship, which I’m more aware of historically than linguistically or culturally, or a globalised English-speaking first-world privilege, or indeed the subordinated local identities of city and county and other, non-geographical identities. I’ve written before of ‘Irishness’ being an externally constructed concept, of how others see us rather than how we really are, or how at least we see ourselves - like a fish in the ocean, it can be hard to identify that which surrounds you or, more importantly, to separate it from the exports and influences of other cultures. We might say at this stage, why bother? But just because our words can be communicated globally in an instant, doesn’t mean our experiences can be, at least not with such ease of transmission. There is that part of us that is always concerned with place and people, and that cavils at misrepresentation, even though we know that everything about ourselves is already contested, by us. Such is life, in post-modernity or before.
In a way perhaps culture is just a symbology of that struggle - remembrances of times past, collective ideas to bind us together and against others - as much as having any kind of genuinely shared content. Maybe our celebrated interculturalism is nothing but a card-swap game?