The Irish ballad of John and Sean

‘Liverpool the capital of Ireland’ famous for its large Irish population and historic connections to the ‘Old Country’ is a popular and widely held image. In a lot of respects, this gives a false impression. Most people of Irish descent in Liverpool were defined by Catholicism, not Irish culture, history or politics.

Irish identity was always contested and denied. For many decades of the 20th Century, there was open hostility to the Irish in the city, despite or even because of the large numbers of immigrants and the continuing struggle for national independence.

One example of this denial of ‘Irishness’ is the Beatles, three of the band had very strong family connections to Ireland. 

Despite this, they were always identified as solely Liverpool/English until later in their careers when both John and Paul revisited those Irish roots.

Recently there have been academic studies to show that there was a determined policy, and coordination between the city authorities and the Catholic church, that the independence of religious schools would be respected as long as they encouraged identification with faith rather than the nationality of parents or grandparents.

Public celebrations connected with Ireland; marching through the streets with flags and bands were limited to the orange cohort emphasising its loyalty to Britain and the Union Jack.

In my school existence, I honestly can not remember a single lesson or reference to Irish, history, culture or even geography. Ireland was always the ghost in the room, as time went on in more ways than one. As a pupil at one of Liverpool’s best Catholic grammar schools, the only time Ireland was raised was when I wrote an essay at the age of fifteen. The essay said I didn’t blame the IRA for the death of my nineteen-year-old brother serving in British Army in Northern Ireland, but rather the government that sent him there. The essay was never returned, commented on or even marked. Not long after, I left that school for the local secondary modern where I felt much more comfortable, at least I was surrounded by my kind of people.

One area that could not be controlled so easily was music, and our house had my dad’s record collection. The Clancy Brothers, The Bachelors, and Val Doonican were some of the famous names who sang the old folk songs and sea shanties that were not political but were a favourite both at home and for singalongs in the pub. So as the Beatles were storming the charts, and Cilla, Sandie Shaw became the soundtrack of the kids, the old ballads were reminders of another culture.

So what was John’s favourite lullaby? The one he sang most often to Sean – Liverpool Lou – written and performed by Dominic Behan, covered by lots of other musicians including the Dubliners, The Scaffold and later The Pogues. We will come back to Dominic’s more famous brother and connections to the city in another post, but for now, enjoy.

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Published by jackbyrnewriter


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