Gateways: How Lankum’s The Livelong Day Helped Me Embrace My Irish Identity

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Gateways: How Lankum’s The Livelong Day Helped Me Embrace My Irish Identity

Welcome to our Gateways column, where Paste writers and editors explore the taste-defining albums, artists, songs or shows that proved to be personal “gateways” into a broader genre, music scene or an artist’s catalog at-large—for better, worse or somewhere in-between. Explore them all here.

The music teacher’s disdain was palpable. His already whiskey-flushed cheeks had taken on an almost bluish hue of fury, as the eight-year-old before him mishandled his tin whistle with profound confusion and a touch of violence. If the aged teacher could swear at the child—if he could throttle him by the collar or have one of the other students fetch the cane—then perhaps he’d take his traditional music lessons more seriously? But this was a fresh millennium now, and Ireland had seen a swift change over the last two decades or so. To publicly berate a child for his inability to perform solemn ballads on a primitive instrument he evidently loathed had become taboo. These were bleak, bureaucratic days, but the music teacher could do nothing but accept them. He shook his head and returned to the front of the class, resolving to focus his attention upon the children with more dexterous fingers and a greater respect for the tradition he so deeply adored.

I wanted nothing to do with that tin whistle as a child. It brought me no pleasure to upset the music teacher, but I had neither the ability nor the inclination to play his ballads. I came from a family with no relationship to traditional Irish music—our taste, for better or worse, was largely British. I was born in England, having moved to Ireland with my parents shortly after my fourth birthday. My father before me was English-born, but his childhood was spent repeatedly hopping back and forth across the Irish Sea, as my grandfather feverishly sought his fortune through questionable business means. My mother was born in Belfast at the start of the bloody ethno-national conflict we euphemistically call “the Troubles,” but she was taken to England by my grandparents shortly after her birth—in large part because her disabled brother, a teenager at the time, was nearly shot as he stood by his bedroom window, as he liked to do each morning before breakfast. My mother consequently grew up in England, developing a taste for the 1980s synth-pop that has since been passed along to me.

My family’s story is not entirely unusual. The links between Ireland and Great Britain are strong, with a great deal of movement between the islands long having been a feature of our shared history. Yet I, unlike other kids with links to Britain, could never understand myself as truly Irish growing up, even though I fiercely rejected any notion that I might be English. It wasn’t just that I didn’t listen to old Irish music—very few kids at the time did, even if they could play the tin whistle when forced to in school. My accent bore traces of an English lilt. I watched more English television than I did Irish. I was more interested in soccer than I was in Gaelic football. My school friends referred to me, as they did every child with ties to England, as a “Tan”—a reference to the Black and Tans paramilitary force that persecuted Irish nationalists on behalf of the British administration during the Irish War of Independence. That, perhaps, sounds more mean-spirited than it was—it is largely a bit of fun to joke about British oppression in Ireland—but it did mark me as different. I wasn’t English, but I wasn’t quite Irish, either.

I was a young teenager when the Celtic Tiger, a period of rapid economic growth and lavish consumer spending throughout Ireland, died. The optimism and blind avarice that had taken root in the mid-1990s collapsed in 2008, in a recessionary process that, in hindsight, feels like it swept over every facet of Irish life overnight. The shutters fell on every high street, as the middle classes began to speak gloomily about their transition from branded cleaning products to supermarkets’ own private label offerings. The drop in quality, they insisted, was negligible, but the savings were significant. You could tell that their hearts weren’t in it.

By the mid-2010s there was much talk from politicians of a “recovery” in Ireland, but a maturing millennial generation wasn’t buying it. We were entering adulthood and a sickly job market, with a worsening housing crisis ensuring we could barely keep a roof over our heads. Fresh out of university, with a degree in my hand but little in the way of secure employment in sight, I was forced to take an unpaid internship in a magazine publishing house by day, while working shifts in an especially chaotic McDonald’s branch by night. I shared a tiny bedroom with a person I barely knew, in a horrible Dublin flat I despised, where the walls had gone soft from rot and the stench of the drains was covered only by the perpetual waft of weed seeping through the gaps in our decaying door frames. It was not a happy time.

I eventually secured a paid job from that internship, and, with the modest salary it afforded me, I rented a small bedroom of my own in a shared house down the road. Things, ostensibly, were on the up, except they didn’t feel that way. Dublin was fast being hollowed out. Beloved bars and cafés were closing all the time. Beautiful, storied buildings housing nightclubs and theaters were knocked to the ground and rebuilt by developers as bland hotels or too-expensive student housing blocks. One by one, my friends began to leave the country, and it didn’t take long before the loneliness had become too much to bear.

I moved to Greece at the beginning of 2019, a decision which brought with it an entirely new experience of social alienation. Finding myself immersed within a genuinely different culture to anything I’d previously known, I sought relief from the cultural output of home as never before. I tuned religiously into radio shows presented by Irish DJs, read more novels by Irish authors, and listened increasingly to the Irish folk music that I had so loathed as a child.

The folk scene’s popularity in Ireland had rapidly been reestablishing itself by this period, and the reasons why are hardly difficult to fathom. My experience of the late 2010s had not been unique—so many of my peers lived in shit housing they could scarcely afford, worked insecure jobs for poor pay and had seen their friendship groups torn apart by emigration—so it was perhaps inevitable that some of us would turn to this old tradition that gave voice to the very anxieties we felt. New bands like the Mary Wallopers and Ye Vagabonds were beginning to take off and breathe new life into the sound, but, for me, it was Lankum and their 2019 album The Livelong Day that most vividly captured the mood.

The Livelong Day consists largely of traditional songs, but it is not a traditional record. The folk numbers it bears have been pulled apart and twisted into something entirely new; its drone is relentless. In the hands of other groups like the Dubliners or the Pogues, the album’s opening track, “The Wild Rover,” has a boisterous and rousing quality, but through Lankum it expresses a frightening desolation. To listen to the group’s version of “The Pride of Petravore” is to fall into a barren fever dream. Even the album’s apparent moments of respite, like the gentle guitar of “The Young People,” conceal tales of profound human anguish at their core.

I was happy in Greece, happier than I ever had been up until that point, but I was still far removed from everything I’d once known. Lankum captured that sense of disconnect and sang it back to me. On gray, friendless nights, with nowhere to go nor anyone to see, I would put on my headphones and wander through the maze of Athens, listening to the group’s tales and pondering why they made so much sense to me. I started listening to versions of their songs that had been recorded by others, discovering how one person’s voice can imbue words with an entirely different meaning compared to the voice of another. I began to detect the sorrow that lingers beneath so many Irish songs, even beneath those that ostensibly sound joyous. I felt the sorrow within Irish culture more broadly, and I began to understand how I related to it. Like so many of the characters within those songs, I was alone, grieving for an old life that had been picked apart by the same economic bleakness that had ravaged generations of Irish before me.

The initial months of culture shock in Greece eventually began to ease. I made a couple of friends, met a girl and established something of a routine—soundtracked, in part, by a growing playlist of folk songs in my Spotify library. Athens was slowly beginning to feel something like home, just as rumblings began to sound from China about a terrible disease that was tearing through the country and was headed for Europe. The scale of what was happening only struck me in the days before Saint Patrick’s Day, in March 2020. In Ireland the parades were called off, interrupting the primary tradition by which the country punctuates spring, while in Greece we edged towards a total lockdown. My girlfriend at the time lived in a bigger and brighter apartment than I did, so I packed a suitcase and moved to hers to see out what we presumed would be one or two weeks of lockdown.

When Paddy’s Day came, we loaded up on cans of lager and Guinness and, by evening, were settling down on the floor for a drunken, frantic game of Monopoly. In the background we played a YouTube livestream beamed out by the Mary Wallopers, who had converted (what was presumably) their shared home into a makeshift shebeen and were planning to broadcast an hour or two of songs. Tuning in, I was tipsily comforted by the thought that I, my friends, and many more of my compatriots were all tuned into this same stream, bound by its music and the weird new reality we’d suddenly become stuck in.

The decision to leave Greece came quickly. We learned that the airports were soon to shut, and it became plain that this COVID thing wasn’t going to resolve itself as quickly as we’d presumed. At the time, my grandfather’s house was laying empty along the west coast of Ireland where I’d grown up, and its location, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, at the foot of a mountain closely associated with Saint Patrick himself, became increasingly irresistible when contrasted against our current whereabouts at the heart of a densely populated city in southern Europe. In a frenzy of rash decisions, arguments and tears, my girlfriend and I packed up our stuff and fled, hopping onto the last flight to Dublin, bound, from there, for a west of Ireland life I hadn’t lived since childhood.

In Greece, I had come to understand the melancholy of Lankum’s music as being part of a distinctly Irish sociology—but, as I listened to it now, in this beautiful, brutal place where I’d been raised, the sound took on a further significance. Their compositions, I realized, reflected the very mountainous and desolate landscape I had returned to. The music made sense to me, not only because of the themes it dealt in, but because of its very shape and texture. Within The Livelong Day lived the dismal beauty of the Atlantic Ocean that I was again gazing out upon. Within the album were the same moody skies I had grown up under, the colorless blacks and grays that always threatened torrents of rain but only ever delivered a ceaseless drizzle. Within the album swirled the keening, gale-force winds that relentlessly slammed into my childhood home and made the roof tiles shake as I lay in bed. This was a record shaped by the land, just as my own life had been shaped by the land. The thought was clear and, once it arrived, the childish insecurity that had long followed me, the sense of not quite belonging to this strange country, disappeared.

Last summer, my best friends and I spent a weekend together in a country cottage. Such occasions are rare enough these days, given that we still all live great distances apart, but amid the hours of shite talk and hard drinking that these yearly get-togethers entail, there will inevitably come time for some music. Two members of the group are talented players, both reared on trad from the moment they were born, so they will dutifully take up whatever instruments happen to be around to lead us all in a few tunes. It occurred to me, during this last session in the summertime, how fun it would be to join them the next time. I possess a terrible singing voice, and to describe my guitar playing as pitiful would itself be generous—but if I could pick up a cheap instrument and learn to string together a few notes, perhaps I’d soon be able to sit in and play along with them? It would seem that, 20 years after those music classes were forced upon me in school, I’d finally like to take up the tin whistle. If that old teacher’s still alive, perhaps I’ll seek him out.

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