Think of any major event in Irish history and a song or two will spring to mind that describes the emotions of a people. Except, that is, for the Great Famine, which left its sufferers at a loss for words to describe their anguish and devastation. With the exception of “Skibbereen,” the musical dialogue between father and son about the 1848 Rebellion, until recently few Irish spoke of the Famine let alone wrote music about it. “‘Skibbereen’ is one of the few songs, and I think that was because they were such believers in God that when this devastation came, they just couldn’t believe it,” says Larry Kirwan, frontman for New York rock band Black 47. “It changed Ireland. It changed the Irish character, and part of that is reflected in the fact that there are no songs.”
While not all of Black 47’s or Larry Kirwan’s work is about the Famine, his most recent work – impressively, a book, a Black 47 album and a musical with Schindler’s List author Thomas Keneally – is all about retroactively giving voice to the voiceless, breathing some life into forgotten or untapped histories here in America as well as abroad. The musical, Transport, which enjoyed a popular reception at the Irish Arts Center in May, is based on the story of Keneally’s wife’s great-grandmother, who was sent from Ireland to Australia as a convict in 1838 for stealing a bolt of cloth. According to Kirwan, who researched Australian history to write the music for Transport, many women and men were sent to penal colonies for seven years for petty crimes such as stealing a sheep, bread, or in the case of one Wexford man, a hat. The political prisoners were sent for upwards of fourteen years. “In 1798 they transported a huge amount of United Irishmen who were involved in the uprisings in Wexford and Wicklow. They caused another uprising themselves in 1803 and called it the Vinegar Hill Uprising after the same one in Wexford.” Similar arrests were made following the Rebellions of 1848 and 1868.
Most of the women and many of the men stayed in Australia once their sentences were served, settling down and marrying or giving up hopes to move to Ireland or America due to poverty. This, however, did not deter prisoners from keeping up on the news back home, especially as petty crimes such as food theft increased during the Famine. “One of the interesting things that happened was that most of the crimes took place during the summertime because even though the potato crop hadn’t [yet] failed, the supplies would’ve dwindled by the summertime. So in early summer they would’ve been waiting for new potatoes and run out of the old ones.”
If Transport seems like a departure for Kirwan from his usual subject matter, it’s only due to geography. Black 47 has done for America what Keneally wanted to do for Australia: to describe what happened to the people from around the time of the Famine whose stories were never recorded. When asked what Black 47’s role is in portraying the Famine to Americans who continue to be compelled by its tragedy, the answer is clear to Kirwan. “We knew what our role was exactly. We were formed to be a political band. To me, Black 47 meant ‘never again,’ the same as in the Jewish cry. . . . I’m not one of those people who believe the British did it on purpose; in fact I know they didn’t. But what they did do was they allowed millions of people to starve and leave the land because they didn’t want to change the particular economic system they had at the time.”
Black 47’s namesake is not a random political statement but a surprisingly personal one with origins in Kirwan’s own family. “I was raised by a very old grandfather who was the youngest son of a man who had escaped the famine by becoming a stonecutter on one of the great Anglo-Irish houses in County Carlow,” he explains. “So he had actually seen the famine and passed on the stories to my grandfather who passed them on to me. He made me promise that these people would not be forgotten. Because they were. In the Ireland I grew up in, there was no talk of Famine. . . . It had scarred the consciousness of the country.”
Kirwan and Black 47 have clearly taken this history to heart, using music as a bridge between not only Ireland and America but also between past and present. He cites the song “Black 47” as one that still has a “chilling effect” on him. Working with Ric Ocasek of The Cars on the track, Kirwan went into the recording studio laying voice over voice, trying to recreate the sound of famine victims. “Some are women’s voices, some are men’s voices, some crying, some muttering, some talking. And I would come out after each one and say, ‘Was that it?’ and he’d go, ‘Nah, that’s not it, got to keep going,’ and then we did this collage of twenty voices with instruments over them. It had this huge effect on people because in a certain way we were channeling those voices of people who were never heard.” The song contains the same stories Kirwan’s grandfather had told him growing up, but with the inflection of rock and roll “so that young people would actually hear it and feel it viscerally.” The song caused a stir when it was released in 1993 because, according to Kirwan, many older fans had a close link to their Famine ancestors. Despite the subject matter being nearly 150 years old, “Black 47” still struck a chord for many Irish Americans who had simply never discussed the Famine before.
If there’s anything to be said for Black 47’s legacy, it is that music still influences and describes our understanding of what it is to be Irish. Though the Famine issued only silence for many years, Kirwan’s work today is indicative of the desire of other Irish Americans to add their voices to the chorus.