Arts: Why Irish culture leads by a head

In just a few decades Ireland, once almost a byword for parochialism, has become a world-beating brand name in contemporary music, film, theatre, comedy and literature. How did this happen?
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On the Saturday before last, more than 250,000 people filled Dublin's city centre for what was billed as Europe's biggest ever fireworks display. The event, which was part of the city's week-long St Patrick's Festival and followed on from a grand unveiling of the Millennium Big Drum (the biggest drum in the world), could be seen as a moment of triumphalism for Irish culture. In Ireland these days, however, triumphalism is hard to avoid, for signs of the country's cultural resurgence are everywhere.

After the fireworks, revellers could go home and watch an RTE broadcast of the chart-topping Irish pop group The Corrs at the Albert Hall, or stop off at one of the dozens of city centre pubs that feature traditional music. In the teeming bars of the Temple Bar district - which locals say is being ruined by the incursions of rowdy English stag-parties - Dublin has even created its own version of New Orleans' French Quarter, where tourists can enjoy a kind of Celtic theme-park experience.

The incredible success of The Corrs - whose second album has sold more than three million copies in the UK alone, and pulled their debut recording into the charts along with it - is just the latest chapter in the remarkable story of Irish popular music's rise to international fame. For two decades now, from U2 to Boyzone, with the Cranberries fitting in between, a small country whose pop traditions once amounted to little more than a baffling weakness for showbands has become a world leader.

Add to this the revival of all things Celtic, including "traditional" music in various forms, the Riverdance phenomenon and the continued success of Irish film-making, comedy, literature and theatre, and the swaggering confidence of the St Patrick's Festival can begin to be understood. Even without considering the dubious benefits of the Irish theme-pub craze, where putting a bran-tub in the window and having a couple of workaday musicians sing "Brown-Eyed Girl" every other night is sufficient to create a mythic version of a County Clare hostelry, there's no denying that all things Irish have become more popular than ever before in the UK and abroad. Despite this success, there are still murmurs of dissatisfaction at home. On the same day as the fireworks show, Dublin's Evening Herald newspaper included a front-page story complaining that the contenders for the Irish entry in this year's Eurovision Song Contest were not up to scratch. There were accusations that RTE was deliberately staging a "pathetic" EuroSong because the station did not want to win yet again.

It's against this background that "From the Heart", the Barbican Centre's second festival of Irish music and culture, takes place. Over the next two weekends there are concerts and events covering music, dance, literature, comedy and film, together with a series of workshops and lectures. Its focus has also widened to include the traditions of Northern Ireland, with Seamus Heaney reading his poetry (accompanied by the uilleann piper Liam O'Flynn), and songs and stories from the legendary folk-revivalist Tommy Makem with Davy Hammond and Arty McGlynn.

For Ted Barrington, Ireland's Ambassador to Great Britain, the reasons behind the rise of Irish music and culture are many and varied. "On the musical front, a complex of things have contributed to international success," he says. "On the one hand, there's a long, vernacular, tradition of music in Irish life, and not just in highbrow life, but in the day to day practice of music at home and in local communities. The influence of Irish traditional music also fed into the culture in the Sixties, along with the examples of American musicians like Bob Dylan, and the indigenous showband scene, which was a rural phenomenon. The cross-fertilisation between all these categories has been hugely important."

Contemporary Irish music also reflects widespread changes in Irish society, where half of the population is now under 30, and almost a third under 25. "The degree of social change taking place, partly through demography, has meant that along with youth culture has come a climate of experimentation and the working-out of ideas about what it means to live in Ireland today," says Barrington. "In the Seventies and Eighties, there was a huge outflow of emigrants, but now more people are returning than leaving, especially from the USA and Canada, and they bring an international pop culture back with them."

For the social historian Reg Hall, however, Irish music isn't what it was. Hall is giving an illustrated lecture at the Barbican on Saturday entitled "Paddy in the Smoke", which will look at the heyday of Irish music in London in the Fifties and Sixties. "The music in the pub scene of London then was a transplantation of rural music from the West of Ireland, and it began after the war as a new phenomenon, for traditional music was never played in Irish pubs at that time," Hall says.

"What you had then was tens of thousands of Irishmen living in London, mostly from the rural West and South. As mainly labourers working on the building sites, they evolved a whole social system in the Irish settlements of Kilburn, Paddington, Kentish Town and Dalston, and also in Hammersmith and Fulham, where they colonised run-down pubs. In those days, none of the Irish professionals working for Aer Lingus or the Irish banks would be seen dead there, for they regarded the musicians as louts. It was instrumental music, with fiddle, flute and accordion, and piano and drums added if it was a dance. There was no guitar, never mind a bouzouki, and the name "bodhran" hadn't even been coined. It was still a tambourine."

For Hall, the tradition of Irish music is comparable to that of American blues, with both forms suffering a similar dilution of their original power through commercialisation. "The original gutsy music that the Irish played was like Blind Lemon Jefferson or Leadbelly. Now, Irish music has been taken up by the middle-classes both at home and abroad and you can even go on Irish set-dancing holidays in Spain."

Hall is not nostalgic about the past, however. "The tradition of Irish music in London has been lost because the environment for it has gone," he says. "It couldn't survive once everyone was settled in houses, got married and had kids and stopped going to the pub every night. As a historian, I realise it was inevitable, and it's like the Great War: you might want to study it, but that doesn't mean you want it back."

From the Heart is at the Barbican, London EC2 (0171-638 8891) 27-28 Mar and 3-5 Apr