Black 47,”Touched by Fire”

In the mid-1990s, my social life revolved around Irish music. It’s been a long time since I joined a Whiplash mosh pit or did the weekend rounds of Melbourne’s many Irish pubs, but the music that I loved and lived in my twenties stays with me.

Irish folk-punk, to me, was something that was live and local. I owned albums by The Pogues of course (doesn’t everybody?), but that was geographic necessity. So it makes sense that I missed Black 47, even though they were signed to The Pogues label in 1990 and toured with them back then. I am making up for that now, though…

About Black 47

I have written before on this blog about the peculiar international nature of Irish nationalism, and the way that comes up in music. Wherever the Irish migrate in numbers (pretty much everywhere in the industrialised world) their (very republican) culture and music intertwines with that of the local working class. That’s the story I immersed myself in all those years ago in my home town, and New York has a similar history, only more so.

Hence Black 47. Mostly they write about Irish republican history and the American working-class experience. Their audience was a strange mixture of left and right-wing punks for just that reason, which must have made for an interesting dynamic at live shows.

“Touched by Fire” belongs to the first topic. It is a biographic song about one of the most fascinating (and historically neglected) leaders of the Irish nationalist movement; the Countess Constance Markievicz. If anyone deserves a song, this woman does, so I’m very pleased to point you in this direction. It includes not just her story, but her voice, a first person story. It’s not simply a tribute; it’s also history in song. There’s also a great horn section.*

About Constance Markievicz

Constance Markievicz (born Constance Gore-Booth), was raised on her father’s Irish estate in Sligo.

Sir Henry Gore-Booth stands in history as an enlightened land baron… His children mingled among the local Irish, learning Irish songs and stories, as did Yeats. The father’s example – he was an Arctic explorer–may have led to Con’s risk-taking disposition and her advocacy of causes on behalf of the powerless. The Countess’s last days were in a ward in St. Patrick Dunn’s, a charity hospital in Dublin. There a woman left a bottle of Lourdes water for Madame, saying, “She’s given up everything for us and she thinks what is good for us is good enough for her.” (John Walsh)

Constance trained in France as a painter, and there she married a Polish count and artist (hence the title and Slavic surname). She joined the Dublin artist community in founding the United Arts Club. Ostensibly dedicated to preserving Irish language and culture, the Club included members of the Gaelic League, and so the Countess was introduced directly to Irish nationalist politics. In 1908 she joined Sinn Fein and the Daughters of Ireland. She became a suffragette, performed in plays at the Abbey Theatre, and inevitably started getting arrested and jailed for political activity. The first instance was 1911, when she spoke at a protest against George V’s visit to Dublin.

During the Dublin lockout of 1913, she joined James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, and ran a soup kitchen at her own expense while helping Jim Larkin lead the struggle wherever possible. (They became friends and comrades in 1913; they got along famously. Peas in a pod, Jim and Constance).

She participated, very competently, in the Easter Rising of 1916. In the lead-up to the Irish Spring, she not only equipped her militia at her own expense, she took responsibility for their training. She poured all of her resources into the cause, and died virtually penniless, in fact. She must have been an awesome (and scary) drill sergeant. She commanded a position during the uprising that held out longer than any other. Of the 70 women jailed after the uprising, she was the only one subjected to solitary confinement. It didn’t noticeably reduce her effectiveness.

In 1918, she was the first woman ever elected to the British House of Commons, running in Dublin on the Sinn Fein ticket. (Like all of the Sinn Fein MPs, she refused to take her seat, and became Minister for Labour in the republican parliament at home). She was re-elected while “imprisoned by the foreign enemy”, as Sinn Fein described it, in 1921, and resigned from the party the following year in protest against the Anglo-Irish treaty.

The Countess made a great speech, was very direct and well-organized, and clearly didn’t hold with people dithering or mucking about. Her whole life, she did what needed to be done. Hers was, as Larry Kirwan writes, a life touched by fire. It was a life that was sadly cut short in 1927, when she died of complications from an appendicitis attack.


*The lyrics to this were written by Black 47 front man Larry Kirwan. Kirwan writes novels as well as punk rock lyrics; he actually organized a tour called “Rock and Read”, which is such an awesomely nerd-punk thing that I just had to mention it.

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