By Orlaith Darling
Throughout Ireland’s whole sorry Catholic history, art has been a mode of resistance and a vehicle of change.
From doomsaying the supposed “immorality” of popular music to Anti-Jazz Campaigns to Public Dance Hall Acts, the Church has historically done their utmost to create a homogenous and compliant Catholic people.
And yet, Irish artists through the ages have resisted. Diagnosing what they saw as a tumour on the freedom and creative potential of both individuals and groups in Irish society, they sang and wrote and played what they wanted in spite of the opposition. Who could forget Sinéad O’Connor ripping up a picture of the pope during a cover of Bob Marley’s “War” on SNL in 1992, or her searching, chilling unaccompanied rendition of “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” in 1993, or her dressing up as a priest for the 50th anniversary of The Late Late Show, her iconic buzz cut paired with a crucifix and dog-collar?
What we have here, for your consideration, is a timeline of this creative resistance – sparse at first, but gaining momentum from the foundation laid by artists like O’Connor.
Today, we see a generation of musicians emerging in Ireland who understand the necessity of representing groups previously marginalised by dominant modes of power. Many of the artists listed here were born or came of age in an Ireland where the Church still held vestigial – if rapidly diminishing – authority. Mostly born in the ‘90s or ‘00s, they were baptised to get into the local National School and probably had (as I did) regular calls from the parish priest in their primary school class.
But these Millennial and Gen Z musicians also grew up in a society characterised by growing levels of disgust at a Church who treated women, children, and minorities as subhuman. They are part of a generation who voted Yes Equality, Yes to Repeal and organised protest concerts at the pope’s 2018 visit. Put it this way: if Pope John Paul II had a comeback tour, if he tried his “young people of Ireland, I love you” shtick today, he wouldn’t get such a warm reception from this crowd.
The songs gathered here offer an alternative lens on the interlinked histories of the Church and the Irish state. Some are mainstream, some are not. Some are by established artists, others come from emerging voices. Some speak directly to injustices perpetrated on the innocent and vulnerable by the Church, channeling serious Sinéad O’Connor energy. Others completely ignore the Church, instead choosing to celebrate minority identities vilified by Catholic doctrine. Some seize hold of the religious iconography we grew up with and subvert it, and others simply sing about the Church in an irreverent way.
All of them, however, demonstrate the power of music and narrative to represent, reprehend and speak truth to power.
All of them represent – thank Christ – a changing Ireland.
“Gay Girls” — Pillow Queens (2018)
Dublin indie-rock group Pillow Queens frequently draw on Irish cultural, religious or political lodestones for topic matter – they have even been described as “Tayto punk.” The queer 4-piece’s 2018 single “Gay Girls” is no exception. From grass-stained Communion dresses, to brown paper chip bags repurposed as bishops’ hats, to the substitution of flying saucer sweets for the host, to Cadet red lemonade becoming Communion wine, this song and its video subvert the religious at every turn.
Playing on the trope of the First Holy Communion, the music video (dir. Kate Dolan) opens with a young girl in a white dress. Outside the bedroom, her parents argue, their hands paused in poses of prayer and open-palmed supplication. As the first verse closes, the girl escapes through the back door, stumbling on three other girls – also dressed in white – gambling with their Communion money.
As the multi-vocal choruses build, there is a heightened sense of collectivity in the “gay girls” and the sisterhood portrayed in the video. In this way, the song is a clever riposte to our societal construction of childhood, innocence and femininity – these chicks are far from silent, pious supplicants. As the lyrics entreat “Marie, Marie, Maria” to “Tell me where to find you when I lose my way”, the girls’ runners under their dresses and the craic they’re having totally contradict the idea that they’re lost. Instead, the connotations of “fallen” female sexuality – of “losing my way” – is repurposed as an intentional escape, an exercise in collective female agency.
Musically, as well as visually, the track draws on religious motifs and subverts them. We go from the plaintive Gregorian style melisma of the opening “Holy / Are we” to a group chant of the final chorus, amplified as though in a church atrium.
The generally easy, melodic rock vibe is occasionally broken by piercing, high-pitched guitar riffs and vocals straining through a megaphone – another reminder of the activism and protest movements on issues like gay marriage and abortion, both causes about which Pillow Queens themselves were vocal.
Ending with a key change, and an assertive descending arpeggio motif, the track is decisive and confident – a refusal by the “gay girls” to be defined by the iconography they harness and repurpose for their own ends.
“Nothing Compares 2 U” — Sinéad O’Connor (1990)
Did you know this was a cover of a Prince song?
It seems so much Sinéad O’Connor’s own, her plaintive vocals winding their way through all the sustained synth-strings and making it something new.
O’Connor is a well-known critic of the Catholic Church, and her run-ins with theocratic Ireland started young – at 15, she spent a year and a half in a Magdalene Asylum after she was caught shoplifting.
While her music is not always political as such, much of O’Connor’s public appearances, interviews and performances have featured overt criticism of the Church, particularly its dealings with women and children.
Is it too much to say that there’s a mixture of sacred sincerity and religious pastiche underlining everything O’Connor does?
She stares into the camera in “Nothing Compares 2 U,” looking like a nun without her coif crossed with a 1940s Hollywood starlet. In one breath, she tells Gay Byrne she would be a priest if she couldn’t be a singer, and calls the pope evil in the next. She is ordained as a priest, and then begs three popes in a row to excommunicate her. If O’Connor has struggled to reconcile different aspects of herself and the society she finds herself in, she’s not entirely wrong to link her issues back to a Church who, in her own words, consistently abused, undermined and distrusted women like her.
O’Connor is a complex woman, but she should occupy a special place in Irish music for her voice, her presence, and her consistent bewilderment of the expectations put on her.
“Take Me to Church” — Hozier (2014)
Ah, the single that launched a thousand anti-pope protests.
The endearingly shy, alluringly anti-Church poster child of the Irish millennial generation.
His ponytail, his Breton tees and nonetheless strangely feral appearance, his visceral guitar playing.
God bless Hozier.
I have heard some strange recitations of the lyrics of this, perhaps Hozier’s best-known song. Through and through, it’s an anti-clerical anthem, yet somehow “the shrine of your lies” translates to “every Saturday night” in the mouths of the baying crowds at his gigs.
The song will forever be associated for me with the gay marriage referendum of 2015 – shout out, as well, to “Nina Cried Power,” whose video makes me cry, remembering May 2018.
“Take Me to Church” spells out, in no uncertain terms, the hypocrisy of the Church. It pulls you into a sensual retelling of a relationship embroiled in the discourse of sin. It begs forgiveness and defies those who would presume to grant it. Hozier tells us to take him to church like he’s asking for a fight.
“Take Me to Church” is a tribute to the generations of Irish people who were steeped in the doctrine of damnation, who had the purity of love poisoned for them. But also, it promises hope, it reminds us of our humanity: “There is,” Hozier croons, “no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin.”
This is a song, in the midst of all we have overthrown and all we have yet to dismantle, which “command[s us] to be well.”
“Holy Grail” — Denise Chaila (2020)
From day one, Denise Chaila has not been shy about speaking truth to power. From blasting open misogyny in the music industry to tackling racist misconceptions of “Irishness,” the Limerick artist’s grime-y music looks right in the eye of those in charge, and then corrects them.
“Holy Grail” is no different.
From the opening brassy motif to Chaila’s supremely assured vocals, she is the boss here.
You only have to read her lyrics – or anything she’s written – to get a sense of her intense intelligence. Her rhymes are metaphorically rich and conceptually tight, flowing from one linguistic gem to the next.
Having already amply demonstrated her lyrical proficiency in her macaronic songs – easily melding Irish and English – Chaila builds on this with her effortless harnessing of religious imagery in “Holy Grail”. She is fluent in Biblical language, of “olive branches” and “chilling like Luke” – as she proclaims, she’s “got Genesis in my chromosomes.”
Her central hook is an entreaty to Galileo, the father of modern physics who was renounced on suspicion of heresy by the Church in the 1600s.
She coyly instructs the master of planetary observation to aim his telescope at her Holy Grail – but she’s not interested in just being watched. She wants to tell him all about it, too. If she opens the track by saying that she “lost the plot,” she still manages to “flip it.” Chaila has previously stated that she’s not interested in “self-flagellation” in her music, and her confidence is captivating.
She knows the language of religion, she knows the narrative of history, but she is in charge of her own destiny. When she tells us “I am the author / I am the / I am the –”, Chaila stops just short of calling herself the way, the truth and the life.
And what is there left to do but answer: all hail.
“Death Sentence” — Alien She (2017)
Released as part of the “Goodbye 8 Campaign”, Dublin experimental outfit Alien She’s track makes no bones about its beef with the Catholic Church.
True to its title, the single repeated note refrain “DEATH SENTENCE” is sung dozens of times. In caps.
And, just in case it wasn’t clear who was meting out death sentences to whom, the music video comprises a spectacularly creepy moving image of a nun, floating unnervingly in the foreground, backlit like a camera roll negative.
The song opens with a solo guitar, which sounds like it’s being de-tuned. This feeling of being cut adrift, of being unmoored, is continued throughout the track. The seemingly straightforward 1, 2, 3, 4 drumbeat is constantly messed with, with the result that, as the song trips from one section into the next, from jostling chorus to punchy verse, the listener has to focus to keep up with the changing terms of the rhythm.
This feels intentional.
It might appear raw and messy but, within the anarchic chaos, there’s real musical prowess on display here. Drumming diversions, shifting time signatures, counter vocal riffs, contrapuntal guitar – this track is richly textured. But there is also a strong sense of centre – a centrifugal (if frantic) force driving it home. This is not the type of song you hear playing in the background of a bar – it demands your full attention.
And Jesus, don’t get me started on the false end – you check whether the video has glitched and there’s a spectral nun slowly crossing herself on your screen.
A song that will linger on.
“Hungover at Mass” — Junior Brother (2016)
I wanna say we’ve all been there, but I have not (thank the lord Jesus).
The very idea of dragging myself through our national lip service – standing, kneeling, sitting, genuflecting – with rapidly souring alcohol swirling around the pit of my stomach makes me wanna vom.
Which, of course, is exactly the position Junior Brother finds himself in, pegging it down the aisle for fear of boking on the old biddy next to him in the pew.
I’m obsessed with the thrashing, brash acoustic guitar in this track. I am in love with his forthright, yet also self-abashed, vocals. There is something alluringly no-nonsense about Junior Brother’s approach to music-making – I give you the EP title, Fuck Off I Love You.
This take-it-or-leave-it attitude seeps into his performance. He makes no effort to disguise his accent, his face is steady and expressionless to the point where he could be the lad at school giving an ill-advised rendition of a risqué song in a music practical. His voice feels trad-sy; its condensed flatness sounds – dare I say it – sean nós-y.
But Junior Brother skimps on the grace notes and somehow delivers much more oomph.
One area, though, where he clearly draws on this folksy heritage is in his lyrics – the man is a consummate storyteller. Local idioms, colloquialisms and turns-of-phrases all find their way into his writing whether he’s “trying to get the head straight” or “nearly fucking sprinting.” Not to mention the Catholic guilt – “Does God want me embarrassed?” he wonders, “Does Jesus have me cursed?”
I defy you to listen to this song and not feel an acute wave of sympathy for the poor lad, a grimacing memory of a similar incident you’ve buried.
We’ll never know if he makes it out in time to throw up in a flower bed – “How long’s this fucking church?” – or whether there’s clean up in aisle six.
Whatever the outcome, I doubt the parish priest is impressed.
“Laundries” — M(h)aol (2020)
Socio-political commentary – particularly that of an intersectional feminist persuasion – has always been central to M(h)aol’s musical and conceptual project.
The post-punk four-piece released the single “Laundries” in October 2020, just three months before the release of the 2,865-page report into the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes.
From the off, the track is classic M(h)aol, the pulsing repetition of a single note creating an eerie feel which is only heightened by the addition of a waspish guitar drone.
When the rhythmic bass-snare combo kicks in, there’s a sense of momentum which pushes the listener through the singer’s forcefully realised sense of outrage at the legacy of the Catholic Church.
Unlike the steady progress of the drumline, however, there is – as the Commission proves and as the last lyric proclaims – no progress for the survivors: “A decade and a half is never enough / sometimes these cases need a woman’s touch.”
If M(h)aol does anything well (which they do), it’s the wholeness of their artistic vision, which melds politics, music and visual aesthetics to realise a bigger meaning.
“Laundries” as a song is brought to another level by the accompanying video by Zoe Greenway, which curates footage of women in Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Asylum in Dublin and an abandoned Laundry in Donnybrook. The black and white archive footage of women – dressed in white and dancing in religious pageants – is overlaid with swirling, disorientating washes of acid colour. Against the thrumming build of guitar and drum and the harsh vocals, the women twirl in a kind of dans macabre. This, the video seems to say, is the dystopia we created; this is the nightmare we can’t seem to wake up from.
M(h)aol wants to use their music to “redress historical violence.” But they know that this violence continues, and that we in contemporary society are cut off from the deepest depths of historic suffering. This is what the combination of lyrics and video seems to get at – with its multimedia interjections obscuring the archive footage, we cannot fully reach the women themselves.
But we, in the present, can still scream on their behalf.
“The girls are so pious,” the singer tells us of the women on screen:
“They shut up and put up.”
But these women won’t.
“I Love You, Sadie” — Wyvern Lingo (2017)
“I Love You, Sadie” is an undeniably boppy song, the type that makes you want to dance in a small smoky venue, ginger beer and bitters in hand.
The opening snappy drum machine and perfectly pitched, layered vocals are what this Bray all-female trio does best. Shimmery guitar reverberates around every chorus like a peal of laughter. The band members are smiling throughout the music video – they bounce their shoulders and nod their heads along to the music.
It feels like a celebration.
And this is part of the song’s genius.
Any expectations we have around female vocal music are utterly subverted by this track. The backing vocals may be swoony, and it certainly wouldn’t be amiss to add some hip sways and finger snaps. But, as the lyrics remind us, Wyvern Lingo is “no ceramic doll.”
Against its poppy aesthetic, the track’s topic matter is deep and dark – Sadie is “undercover,” she “dare[s] not show your colours off,” she’s scared of “what they might say of you.”
But against this fear is a joyful confidence.
The speaker knows what it’s like to be “paranoid” – she tells us “she was just a little girl / who wanted to be a little boy.” But after all, she says, you can’t let people’s expectations “bother you at all.” You’ve “got to let go.”
Against the soft, panning vocals, then, and the serious themes of the song, the ending refrain “Yes, I wanna give my love to you” starts lower and more insistent. The repetition of the word “Yes” feels joyous in the context of the queer topic matter and the legalisation of gay marriage in 2015.
As the lyrics flash across the screen in the pop-arty music video, we are reminded of the power of narrative and personal stories in the context of testimony-driven activism in Ireland recently. When people speak to their experiences, silences are broken and oppression is lifted.
And then, like Wyvern Lingo, we can dance.
“The Kids Are All Rebels” — Lenii (2020)
Lenii’s 2020 single totally contradicts the artist’s Insta bio: “Nothing really matters.”
The song’s lyrics read as an anthem to Gen-Z activism across a range of issues, especially in the context of sweeping social liberalisation in Ireland over the last five or so years.
“We’ll take to the streets,” Lenii warns the powers that be in her (again to the Insta bio) couldn’t-care-less tone.
Her vocals are fluid and ethereal and the track definitely has mainstream legibility. The simple, muffled guitar triad recalls ‘90s grunge, and the goth pop vibes evoke the likes of Billie Eilish.
But this mix of references doesn’t do justice to Lenii’s fundamental defiance to those “in your ivory tower[s]” “getting high off a power trip.”
The TikTok generation is vulnerable and compassionate – “feeling kinda helpless” – but they’re “breaking your rules, baby / we’re making history.”
Bishop Brennan definitely would not approve of Lenii’s defiance. But he’d better watch out, ‘cause Lenii is gonna kick him up the arse.
And what’s even better?
She couldn’t give a fuck about you and your outraged sense of moral decorum.
“Say that we’re young, dumb and being too aggressive?” Lenii asks.
Ireland’s Whole Sorry Catholic History: A Brief Synopsis
In 1934, Bunreacht na hÉireann – whose drafting was presided over by the patriarch of modern Irish Catholicism, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid – enshrined the “special place” of the Roman Catholic Church in Irish society. For the following decades, Ireland operated as an effective theocracy, the distinction between church and state perilously thin.
In 1946, Pope Paul VI called Ireland the most Catholic country in the world.
In 1979, Pope John Paul addressed 2.5 million Irish faithfuls at events in Dublin, Drogheda, Clonmacnoise, Galway, Knock, Limerick, and Maynooth. At his Mass in the Phoenix Park, he rhapsodised about “how Divine Providence has used this Island on the edge of Europe for the conversion of the European continent.”
In 1992, it emerged that Bishop of Galway, Eamon Casey, had had an affair and a son with an American woman, Annie Murphy. In 1993, she appeared on The Late Late Show with Gay Byrne, where audience members accused her of lying about the father of her child, of depicting the Bishop “as a villain,” and of bringing “rubbers” into Ireland. In response to her allegations that Casey “harangued” her to have her son adopted, Byrne put it to Murphy that Casey did so because “he didn’t have faith in your capacity to look after the child.” The interview closed with Byrne telling Murphy: “if your son is half as good a man as his father, he won’t be doing too badly.”
From the 1990s, revelations of the systematic abuse of children in Catholic-run schools, industrial schools and other institutions mounted.
In 1996, the last Magdalene Laundry for “fallen women” shut its doors on Sean McDermott street; in 1997, the last Mother and Baby Home closed.
In 2005, the Ferns Report found that bishops in the diocese of Ferns, Wexford, failed to keep known paedophilic priests away from children, and that sexual abuse of children had been treated as a moral – rather than criminal – issue by the church hierarchy.
In 2009, the Ryan Report found that the Department of Education had failed to investigate allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse as well as neglect at Church-run educational institutions from as early as 1936.
In 2013, the Irish government agreed to pay €58 million to survivors of the Magdalene Laundries. The four religious orders responsible for operating the Laundries stated that they had no intention to contribute to the compensation fund. In 2014, the UN Human Rights Committee demanded that the Vatican compensate the Magdalens, who had performed free labour for the duration of their internment in the Laundries.
In 2014, historian Catherine Corless’s work shot to the top of the national media agenda. Corless had, since 2011, been attempting to draw state and media attention to the former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, having uncovered 796 death certificates for babies born there. Noting the lack of corresponding burial records, Corless later found that these children had been interred in a mass, unmarked grave in a septic tank on the site.
In 2017, it was reported that the Vatican had failed to pay the €1.3 billion owed to the Irish state for compensating survivors of child abuse in Church-run institutions.
In August 2018, it was revealed that, of the 1,300 priests accused of sexual abuse of children, only 82 had been convicted.
In 2020, the archive of records pertaining to the Mother and Baby Homes were sealed by the Irish government, making it virtually impossible for babies born there to access information about their birth mothers.
In 2021, the Commission of Investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes Report was released and subsequently widely criticised for ignoring the testimony of survivors and alleging that there was no evidence of forced adoptions. Taoiseach Micháel Martin subsequently blamed “Irish society” for the horrors meted out to survivors by the Catholic Church.