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These Irish Eyes Are Smilin', I'm Buckwildin'

March 24, 2009

In the following presentation, Professor Thomas Conroy of the Lehman College Sociology Department explores how Irish Americans have connected to these genres through community-based issues of working class masculinity, race and ethnicity. His talk was part of a lecture series sponsored by the CUNY Institute for Irish American Studies.

Please note that this podcast contains explicit material.

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This is Scott Spencer of the CUNY Institute for the Irish American Studies. Punk and hip-hop have been a vital means for the expression of identity in American culture. In the following presentation, Professor Thomas Conroy of the Lehman College Sociology Department explores how Irish Americans have connected to these genres through community-based issues of working class masculinity, race and ethnicity. His talk was part of a lecture series sponsored by the CUNY Institute for Irish American Studies.



So this is called These Irish Eyes Are Smiling on Buck Wildin: Issues of Working Class Masculinity and Race Ethnicity for Irish Americans in Punk and Hip Hop. Very long title, but conveying a lot of what I'm wanting to do.

Basically, the purpose of this talk is to concern itself with the issue of meaning and practice of everyday life. And that is, to focus on the meanings and uses that people attribute to various objects and practices.

Part of my focus is semiotic, using such objects as songs and videos as signifiers of cultural meaning. The use of symbols, imagery, and music, for example, have long been used as a means of stirring our senses to draw out sentiments of national pride. So those are some background points.


So, in this talk, what I want to do is to explore using popular culture and some selected examples from popular culture, some insights into Irish American working class masculinity, with a particular focus upon possible cultural meanings and practices found in these examples.

Now, my talk focuses on two very specific examples or cases-- two musical acts. One is from originally from Queens, New York and then based in Los Angeles. And that is the Hip Hop group, House of Pain.

And then, a Quincy, Massachusetts, or Boston, Massachusetts-based band, the Dropkick Murphys. And so I'll just tell you a little bit about both groups. House of Pain consisted of three performers, Everlast, Danny Boy, and DJ Lethal.


Those are their stage names. But they were-- they were friends, basically, in high school, in Los Angeles. And they were influenced very much by kind of West Coast Hip Hop groups like NWA, Iced Tea-- some of the leading performers at that period of time.

Everlast's father was a construction worker. Danny Boy identified his as, quote, "A criminal. But I never really knew him. He was always locked up in jail-- in one jail or another." So though they originated on the East Coast, they wound up on the West Coast through family moves. And they were influenced by what was happening in music during that period of time, particularly and specifically the Hip Hop movement of the West Coast.

As a group, they've been very successful or they were successful. They lasted not for very long, but, in their time, they had commercial success. For example, they had a major crossover hit with the song Jump Around, in 1992. That was their first single and their biggest hit. Jump Around reached number three in the charts in the United States. It reached number six in Ireland and number eight in the United Kingdom.


So it was a top ten hit. They were signed to Tommy Boy Records, which is a Hip Hop specialty label. They released three albums between 1992 and 1996, as well as seven singles and one compilation album in 2004. They also made at least five videos that I'm aware of.

Rolling Stone Magazine describes them as, quote, "the first generation of white kids raised on Hip Hop, who speak its rhythms and lyrical codes as a first language." And one of-- one commentator noted the following: "House of Pain's first single, Jump Around, succeeded at combining cutting edge Hip Hop fashion with abundant references to Irish American tradition. The makeover worked. House of Pain unabashedly borrowed a pose from hardass rappers like Ice Cube and Iced Tea, and yet, claim their own gangster birthright, as well, the shit-kicking, liquor-soaked hoodlum stereotype of Irish American urban folklore."

When the debut album, also called House of Pain, was released in 1992, one critic noted that, quote, "Everything is dosed incongruously with nods to corned beef and cabbage, Mickey's and Guinness, the luck of the Irish, and assorted other Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra-lisms." Jump Around appeared in the midst of songs with titles like Shamrock and Shenanigans and Top of the Morning to Ya.


One reviewer declared the album, quote, "One of the best debuts out in a long time, not to mention one of the best-- the five best albums of the year," characterizing it as, quote, "an extremely raw record that kicks you upside the head." One of the few dissenting voices came from England, where Melody Makers' Stephen Trauss panned the album at the end of the year as, quote, "Esthetically paltry, mildly repugnant," he declared. "Little more than an ugly, pathetic emerald bile. One for the little people."

Nevertheless, the album went platinum. And then, in a European tour in the fall of that year to promote the album, the group wound up in Dublin, where they discovered the effect that they had on Irish youth, who very much identified with them and with their, you know, their use of kind of Irish symbolism.

Quote, "We played at a pub called The Dublin Castle Inn, in front of 200 people," Everlast told me in an interview. "Kids came up to me and said, 'Welcome home,' and brought me gifts. One even handed me a small stuffed Leprechaun. We got so many gifts, I started to feel like a game show host."


Alright, so the Dropkick Murphys. This group is a still existing band from Boston. I went to grad school in Boston, so I do remember them. I never saw them, but I remember they were kind of ever-present in the city at the time I was there, in the in the mid to late '90s.

So they are considered a hardcore punk and Celtic folk, believe it or not, outfit. They were formed in-- in South Boston, or "Southie," as it's known, in 1995. They had one original lineup. Again, a group of teenage friends kind of putting of bands together like House of Pain.

Vocalist Mike McCulligan, guitarist Rick Barton, and bassist Ken Casey comprised the original group. With a series of drummers passing through before the addition of Matt Kelly in 1997. So there's a little bit of shifting their lineup.


They were signed to Hell Cat Records and then released their first album in 1998, called Do or Die. In 2000, the band had a redesign. So they were originally a five-piece band. And they expanded into a septet and wound up getting a new guitarist. The original guitarist left the band to get married and to settle down and to give up the rock 'n' roll lifestyle.

So they got a new guitarist. They also added a bagpipe player and a mandolin player. So what they did is they built upon their initial kind of punk sound and became more Celtic. And so, when you listen to their later music, you hear a lot of traces of kind of Irish folk in their music.

The band, again, has been successful. They released eight albums between 1998 and 2007, two of which peaked at number two on the Billboard Top Independent Album Shorts. They were part of the very successful Van's Warped Tour in the summer of 2003.


Their version of the Boston Red Sox' anthem, Tessie, was recorded. And then, they also played the song at Fenway Park before a number of Red Sox games, including at the World Series. So they became an integral part of Boston Red Sox kind of lore. And they also played at the Red Sox World Series victory parade in Boston.

Also, their song I'm Shipping Up to Boston was used by Martin Scorsese in the film The Party in 2006. So, you know, they are very successful, they're very good at what they do. And, in Boston, they are considered a kind of beloved local institution.

First of all, for both groups, what we see being represented is toughness and masculinity as kind of mythical characteristics of working class, and specifically, Irish American working class culture.


And there's lots of examples of this kind of mythology. If we look at popular culture, going back to, you know, James Cagney, and performers like the, you know, Bowery Boys, or the Dead End Kids, as they were known. The film, Good Will Hunting, the television show, Black--The Black Donnellys.

And also the--the sport of bare-knuckle boxing, which was very much a sport engaged in by a kind of working class, tough individuals. And it's interesting that both groups, I'll just jump ahead, both groups make use of this kind of imagery.

So this is also, you know, I would say this is at the risk of, perhaps some stereotyping, which is the, you know, the notion of a kind of mythical kind of working-class toughness and masculinity, and the sport was seen as an embodiment of both conviviality, but also a sense of masculine honor.


Okay. Now also, a theme that I kind of would sort of-- want to-- emphasize or talk about, is the theme of the relationship of certain genres of popular music and the representation of violence or aggression. So punk and Hip Hop are certainly, you know, areas where we can find a lot of this.

You know, punk, particularly in the London punk scene of the 1970s, was, you know, very much about the manufacturing of outrage, and the manufacturing of a kind of defiance. There was also some overlap of the punk scene and the skinhead movement that is, British nationalists.

There was also an Irish, a smaller Irish skinhead scene, some of which is, you know, again, kind of nationalistic and sort of anti-immigrant. So, you know, and certain types of certain sub-genres of music that you know, that would be thought of as kind of skinhead-oriented.


And then, later in the 1980s, starting in Los Angeles, the hardcore scene has been multiply described as being very masculine, very athletic, expressing largely male kind of homosociality, we can look at things like mosh pits as a kind of catharsis activity, where basically, you know, young men are kind of piling into each other on the dance floor, to, you know, to the rhythm of the music.

And then, when we look at Hip Hop, you know, the relationship of Hip Hop and violence-- a couple of points. You know, one is that there has been some sort of glamorization of the gangster, the gangster ethos. And then, also, Hip Hop or the art of emceeing as a kind of braggadocio performance, and we certainly find that in the example of House of Pain.

Both of these bands offer us an example of some aspects of working-class culture. And it's a culture in which a large number of Irish Americans have participated.


So, for example, both bands embody very much the sort of rags-to-riches narrative theme that helps us to define class and helps to define the sort of the myth of upward mobility in a class-defined or a class-determined society. So this theme is very much a kind of microcosm of a lot of the Irish-American experience.

Paula Leary argues that there are complex ways in which class, gender, and ethnic identities intersect in Irish migrant institutions. And also, when we look at-- when we look at House of Pain, one way that class and kind of a working class identity expresses itself for them, in particular, is in and through the persona of the hustler. 'Cause that's very much about kind of what they are wanting to express, that is, one who lives by his wits, his toughness, his survival skills.

So you know, and when you read about, you know, just the way this band kind of made it and became successful and became celebrities and got to hang out with celebrities, and got to, you know, kind of live the good life, it really conveys a lot of these sorts of themes.


And also, it's interesting that, you know, for both groups, when you listen carefully to their songs and kind of look at their lyrics, you know, there very much are these kinds of expressions of, you know, "This is where I came from. And here's where I am now. And it's all very precarious. You know, it could be taken away from me at any minute."

For example, House of Pain has a song called Where I'm From. And it includes lyrics such as the following: "Back in the huddle, McLou's backyard, me and Dee was starving. And times were hard. And we didn't have no deal. But that was the point. We'd rock a funky joint; then we'd rock another. The only thing to eat was some bread and peanut butter."

The Dropkick Murphys also reflect on the world that they came from lyrically. So, for example, in the song Streets of Boston, they sing, "Got a bleak perspective on a streetwise man. Goin' nowhere with my life. Careering toward an early death, a streetwise man.


"On the corner every night. So brace for impact. Brace for impact. Brace for impact. Why don't you brace? The end is coming. No time for running. Dealing kid, dealing drugs to little kids, a street-wise man. Selling death and making cash. Pulling scams and moving bids, a street-wise man. Society has called my bluff tonight. So brace for impact. Brace for impact. Brace for impact. Why don't you brace? The end is coming. No time for running. The end is coming. No time for running now."

So there's a, you know, there can be, you know, you can find, you know, examples of rather sort of bleak outlooks in spite of the fact that these guys are, you know, getting to kind of do what they want to do, but they're, you know, certainly reflecting on a type of working-class world.

And then, also, this was a song called Eurotrash that they wrote. And it, you know, I think it expresses a kind of resentment by, you know, sort of working-class townies toward the privileged and pampered who were in their midst.


They write in the song, "This song goes out to all the trendy, spoiled bastards who listen to shitty music. Eurotrash, go away. So trendy, you're pathetic. You're a scumbag, champagne and caviar, techno bullshit blarin' from your daddy's car.

"You are such a mess. I hate you, Eurotrash. You try so hard you try hard to dress like you're the best. Why don't you, why don't you go away? Don't look down at me. Go away and stay. You go down to the M-80 tonight. See-through clothing, way too tight.

Euro jerkoff, who the fuck do you think you are? Spoiled rich boy. Fuck you, Euro bars. You're such a mess. I hate you, Eurotrash. You try hard to dress like you're the best. Why don't you just go away? Don't you look down on me. Go away and stay."


So a lot of anger and resentment there. And then, also, they sing a song called Hey, Little Rich Boy. "Hey, little rich boy, take a good look at me. I don't need a flash car to take me around. I can take the bus to the other side of town."

So they're, you know, there's that aspect of kind of a workin-class resentment in some of these songs, as well. Now, a second theme is a sense of place. And this is, I would say, intertwined with a sense of class, so each band deals with a sense of place, but in the case of the Dropkick Murphys, the sense of locality or localism is very much more explicit. So, you know, I would argue that they are the more local and the more parochial of these two groups.

And they are very much closely associated with the city of Boston, as I mentioned, and with Boston sports teams. House of Pain is somewhat more placeless and nomadic. But yet, they do invoke place. And sometimes it's a kind of imagined type of place or imagined type of communal origin.


So, for example, the Dropkick Murphys sing about Boston. "The city streets are where we roam, never alone. This is Boston. It's our home." And then they have a song called Caps and Bottles where they sing, "Barracudas, scally caps, barrel fires sing-alongs. Down in the park, where I belong, barroom brawls and Irish songs."

Now, finally, I just want to offer a concluding point. And it's a kind of a third theme. And that is to look at and to think about the notion of Irishness as a kind of signifier. Okay? So, that's the point I want to conclude with. I have a number of examples from some analytic works. So, for example, John Nagel in a paper called Everybody is Irish on St. Paddy's: Ambivalence and Alterity at London's St. Patrick's Day, 2002, refers to a quote, "nascent development of a globalized Irishness."

He writes that "Irish popular culture has become highly visible in the global market. Because global capitalism works not through the homogenization of world cultures, but in the fetishization of ethnic differences. The Irish are thus imagined as, quote, 'young, eloquent, romantic, tuneful, mystical, funny, and expert-- expert havers of a good time.'"


Okay. And in a book that is a review of-- it's a sociological review of a book called The Irish in the U.S.: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture, a book edited by Diana Negra, the central argument of the book is that there is currently a global identification with Irishness as an idealized ethnic identity.

"Irishness is a complex signifier which invokes a deep resonance within a multicultural cosmopolitan location alongside a cultural imagined remembering of an earlier way of living marked by authenticity and spiritual stability and community." Another author notes that the culture industry promotes a music tradition as a key symbol of Irishness.

"Just as the music of Tin Pan Alley portrayed the Irish in a certain stereotypical light, marketing the traditional music of Ireland for consumption leads to new, perhaps more benign stereotypical images. But most importantly, it places the music firmly in the hands of the culture industry, as well as the beverage industry, leading to economic profits for capitalists and a general exploitation of musicians, thus reproducing a system of inequality that erodes traditional culture even as it creates wealth for various individuals, groups, organizations, and industries."


And then, finally, in a paper, James McCarthy and Ewen Hague refer to "Celticness" as a, quote, "signifier of difference within Northwestern Europe." And that this signifier has had considerable stability around what are supposedly the central characteristics of Celtic peoples.

Celts are commonly depicted as, quote, "emotional, passionate, heroic, struggling with overwhelming odds, wild, and drunken. They fight for land and family, not conquest or gain." In defense of their localities, Celts are supposedly anti-bureaucratic and are prone to acting on instinct, reinforced by a penchant for, quote, "unprovoked violence." Now, they add to this that these are stereotypes and that these stereotypes continue to shape representations of Celtic identity.

And so, I just would close with a note that the Irishness of both the House of Pain and the Dropkick Murphys, the Irishness that they invoke or that they signify is done so in a variety of different ways. It's done musically. You know, it's done by, for example, incorporating kind of traditional, you know, instrumental motifs, or using traditional Irish instruments. And kind of enhancing their Moroccan kind of sound. It's invoked symbolically.


And it can mean lots of different things, I would say. It can be interpreted as a novelty. It could be, you know, used simply as a means for them to try to achieve commercial success. But I would also argue that perhaps more deeply the Irishness invoked by these groups and represented or embodied by these groups could be thought of as a means of creating an imagined communalism. You know, one that might even sustain the soul.



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