The gaeilgeoir (Irish-speaking) Belfast hip-hop trio Kneecap, whose aggressive, funny, scabrous music has sparked controversy and enthusiasm on both sides of the Irish border and beyond it, recently told Vice magazine that they didn’t want to be seen as activists for language revival or for anything else, saying: ‘We’re not trying to save the Irish language, we’re here for a big fucking party.’ I like the tension this quote contains. Along with the tone of their records, which are sonically as indebted to punk as they are to older waves of rap and hip-hop, it’s this tension between hedonism and politics or between pleasure and activism that connects the group with the punk scene in the north of Ireland and with my recent book on that scene, Belfast Punk and the Troubles: An Oral History.
How did punk relate to the longer history of sectarianism and segregation in the North following its partition from the rest of the island in 1921?
The book is animated by questions like: What did it mean to take part in the punk scene in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the war that broke out in 1969 and continued for some 30 years, causing 3,600 deaths and many more serious injuries? How did punk relate to the longer history of sectarianism and segregation in the North following its partition from the rest of the island in 1921? And what did this history mean in the present, in the wake of the peace process and the ongoing contestations around identity, space, class and memory in the region? In particular, I was interested in how the image of punk in the North as being ‘non-sectarian’ – or as involving convivial relationships between young Protestants and young Catholics, who were divided by segregation, sectarianism and the threat of violence in other spheres of society – featured in people’s memories of the scene. How did young people meet in these circumstances and how do they remember it now?
I engage with those questions throughout the book by reading a series of oral history interviews with former punks that I conducted some years ago. Because I was interested in thinking about memory and subjectivity, and about how people narrated their encounters with punk, I worked closely with one or two interviews in each chapter rather than breaking them up into thematically or chronologically-arranged chunks. This choice was also driven by the strong impression each of the interviews and their transcripts made on me and my desire to convey some of that impression to the reader, by offering more space in the mix to the voices of the interviewees and the texture and richness of their memories.
The imperative to work closely with the interview material means that after two chapters setting up the historical context and the memory politics of punk in the North, the remainder of the book is structured around specific interviews. Alison discusses moving from rural Dungannon to Belfast and what it was like to be a punk in both places, suggesting that she felt much less surveilled by judgemental relatives in the more cosmopolitan space of the city. Petesy and Damien, both from working-class Catholic backgrounds, describe how punk shaped their political beliefs and the excitement of playing in bands. Claire and Hector, who have both left the North since their days in the punk scene, also told me about the exciting and pleasurable dimensions of their experience but were perhaps more willing than others to share other kinds of memories, of the atmospheric violence of Belfast in the ‘70s and ‘80s or of the hedonistic and often nihilistic use of drugs and alcohol that was a feature of punk in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. And Graeme, himself an unofficial historian of punk via his collecting of rare records and chronicling of the Stranglers, offered a vivid and moving account of what it meant for him to get involved in local music culture as a young man growing up in north Belfast.
To return to Kneecap and parties, I hope that one of the things that the book captures is the sense of pleasure and of possibility that all of the interviewees, in different ways, expressed beautifully in their interviews. As David Wilkinson explained in his excellent 2016 book Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain, thinking seriously about pleasure is a critical and necessary part of organising on the left today, and this is perhaps especially true in the context of the north of Ireland where sexual relationships, friendships and sociality in general have all been subject to various forms of repression and control by the state and the church. As formal politics continues to flounder in the North and the continued existence of the region in its present form looks ever more precarious, thinking with the excitement and joy of the punks I spoke to suggested an unfixed and hopeful horizon.
Belfast punk and the Troubles: An oral history by Fearghus Roulston is out now. Subscribe to our newsletter to get 30% off the RRP of this book, and all MUP titles.
Fearghus Roulston is a Research Fellow at the University of Brighton.