The “Fail of Fianna Fáil” and the Triumph of Fontaines D.C.’s Post-Punk Imaginings
NEW YORK, NY- They hurl jokes about the IRA, tauntingly call him “Paddy,” and tell him to go home. Grian Chatten, the frontman of Fontaines D.C., is an Irishman living in London. Though the UK of 2022 is not the landscape of The Troubles, such epithets dog his steps. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Chatten reflected on these encounters and how the complexities of diasporic identity inform the songs in Skinty Fia, the band’s third album.
The record has lived on my turntable for weeks now; the frenetic energy of their Brooklyn show is still with me. My photos are not nearly as alive as what I see in my mind’s eye—Chatten pounding the mic stand against the stage, ecstatic fans crowd surfing, the sea of arms flung skyward, and down in the photo pit, feeling the reverberation of low-end notes in my chest. “Keep an eye on what’s going on behind you,” a photographer friend had cautioned me before the set. “People will crowd surf—yes, this early in the set—don’t get kicked in the head.”
Chatten intones dense lyrics in a manner alternately insistent, ominous, and frenzied. In expression and in delivery, there’s a stiff upper lip that feels deliberately at odds with the bruised heart he reveals, both of his generation and of a troubled land. The words are dagger-sharp, the drums and guitars build in moody, distorted waves that don’t quite crash down—the show was an escape in the way the very best concerts can be, but the songs are too socially aware and sly to be dismissed as escapism.
“Is their mammy Fine Gael and is their daddy Fianna Fáil?” Chatten snarls in “I Love You,” referring to the center-right parties that have dominated Irish political life through most of the 20th century. The foreboding bass line builds into a roiling arrangement, the imagery biting and unforgiving—“this island’s run by sharks with children’s bones stuck in their jaws”—a reference, perhaps, to the discovery in 2015 of the mass burial of infants on the grounds of “mother and baby homes” where unwed women were sent in the first half of the 20th century.
Fontaines D.C. played two nights at Brooklyn Steel—shows I did not expect to go forward as the band had canceled previous nights, citing the frontman’s laryngitis. The anticipation of the capacity crowd was palpable when the house lights went down, leaving the stage illuminated only by the glow of the band name projected in an old-style serif font (the same typeface stamped across the album cover). The lads walked out, guitarist Carlos O’Connell brandishing flowers that he flung into the audience. The band fired on all cylinders from the start. Tom Coll’s brisk percussion and the two-guitar attack from O’Connell and Conor Curley provided the architectural framework for Chatten’s exhortative, sing-speak delivery of “A Hero’s Death,” from the sophomore album of the same name. Clad in a black jacket and with an intense near-glower marking his features, Chatten paced the stage restlessly. He leaped onto monitors, hoisted the mic stand over his shoulder, and leaned out across the pit, nearly within reach of front-row fans eager to grasp his outstretched hand. Each time he strode to the edge, I thought about what it’d be like to make contact—like grabbing a live wire.
The band hardly paused for breath before launching next into the working-class swagger of “Sha Sha Sha” from debut album Dogrel, the angularity of the song made starker by the contrast to the steady forward drive of “Jackie Down the Line.” The latter starts with a “do-do-do” and “la la la” that is perfectly dissonant in its glib delivery. Conor Deegan III’s grungy bassline pairs well with the chilling indifference of Chatten’s confessional: “I will wear you down in time / I will hurt you, I’ll desert you / I am Jackie down the line.” (The line riffs on the word “Jackeen,” a pejorative term for someone from Dublin.)
The set was compact—barely an hour by my calculation—the band blazed with confidence and energy through their strongest songs from all three albums, with hardly any banter. The hypnotic, droning chord progressions of “Televised Mind” matched the mass media-doused numbness described in the song. The brooding, descending bassline of “I Don’t Belong” set the stage for a refrain that sounded more ambiguous with each repetition, conveying an alienation both liberating and lonely. (The song is the flip side, perhaps, of the strutting narration of “Big.”) Each song seemed to be a crowd favorite, though the energy was particularly high for “Boys in the Better Land,” buoyed by escapist flippancy: “If you’re a rock star, porn star, superstar / Doesn’t matter who you are / Get yourself a good car, get out of here.”
The closing song of the night, “Nabokov,” was slower, bordering on shoe-gazey, an exaggerated abandonment of one’s self in another. It was an outlier in a set that steered away from the relatively quieter, more inward-looking tracks from Skinty Fia. I’m thinking of the darkly nostalgic churn of “Bloomsday” and the solitary accordion undergirding “The Couple Across the Way,” which unfurls like a scene from a film as we peer in on the dissolution of a relationship. Skittering electronics and thrumming guitars lend a paranoid feel to the title track—as anxious as the deer on the cover art, standing at the foot of the stairs in a nondescript building, head turned toward the shaft of light coming through an open door.
“Skinty fia” is a throwback Irish colloquialism, a swear that translates loosely as “damnation of the deer.” The misfortunate deer is the Irish elk, which went extinct because, as one theory has it, their oversized antlers made them slow runners, more vulnerable to hunters. The deer is a metaphor, Chatten says, for diasporic identity—“how Irishness survives or mutates in a different environment,” a change “seen as a loss of Irishness, or a drowning of it.” But he simultaneously interrogates the idea that displacement necessarily makes the cultural evolution “impure” or “unlicensed”—“[j]ust because it’s diaspora, it’s still pure. It’s just a completely new beast.”
I found Chatten’s reflections surprisingly resonant—his musings on the metamorphoses that occur when a people are uprooted and resettle elsewhere, the unease of being in a place responsible for much of the suffering of the place you left, the guilt and doubt over leaving the motherland. His stories about being told to “go home” surfaced recent memories of being told by a TSA officer to “learn to speak English,” of a passerby yelling to my brother that “China is a sh*thole country” (the invective is problematic in itself, and never mind that we’re from Taiwan, a nation (or renegade province, depending on who you ask) with its own history of colonization and, in modern times, under the PRC’s menacing shadow). There’s something inter-generational and cross-racial, it seems, about the ethos and identity that emerges from struggle against colonial rule and the immigrant experience more generally.
This is borne out in musical cross-pollination—recently, when NYC punk stalwarts Eugene Hütz (of Gogol Bordello) and Jesse Malin chose a cover song to raise money for Ukraine, they landed on the Pogues’ (the Irish punk and folk band) “If I Should Fall From Grace With God,” with Ukrainian-born Hütz delivering the searing lines: “This land was always ours, was the proud land of our fathers / It belongs to us and them, not to any of the others.” (Incidentally, Fontaines D.C. has cited the Pogues’ 1984 debut, Red Roses for Me, as early inspiration in its “spirit … the carnage of it”—”raucous but at the same time so intelligent.”)
One reason Fontaines D.C.’s songs draw me in is that they’re not superficial screeds against The Establishment—rather, they engage with the countervailing forces at work when we define, both individually and collectively, the meaning of home, nation, and self. Chatten is a young man who speaks of “youth’s ungrateful hands” but also insists on the opportunity to thrive (“make flowers read like broadsheets, every young man wants to die”). He expresses a complicated sentimentality for Dublin (“Bloomsday” and the Pogues-y Dublin City Sky,” among others) while decrying the dark deeds littered through Irish history (the Tuam babies controversy discussed above, the slantwise jab of lines like “I loved you like a penny loves the pocket of a priest”). We assert who we are in part by saying what we are not—Skinty Fia’s opening track refers to the Church of England’s ruling in 2020 that a Gaelic phrase could not be inscribed on an Irish woman’s grave marker unless accompanied by an English translation, to avoid any political connotations of using only Irish Gaelic. But Chatten knows that not-belonging is not enough—for an ex-pat, “home is a pin / rusting through a map,” and the living is about more than the leaving.
Just as guitars and drums tangle in polyrhythms, so, too, does history follow a nonlinear path. These songs don’t take the easy road of glorifying suffering or advancing a simplified nationalist narrative. As James Wood opined in a recent review of Fintan O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves, Ireland’s “battle-scared unity against the old colonial aggressor, the romantic brilliance of its self-mythologizing,” were for a period of time “the very forces pushing it toward disruptive upheavals.” When the doublethink around contraception and divorce, the reflexive alliance of the Church and the Fianna Fáil party, all started coming undone in the 1990s, change came at a rapid clip. In 2015, Ireland voted in favor of gay marriage; a referendum in 2018 lifted the ban on abortion. (Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, we brace for the overturning of Roe v. Wade.)
The pace of change is uneven, though, slowed by the ossification of political institutions, and hampered by the center-right establishment’s confidence in their own power. Deegan takes aim at this in an interview with the Irish Examiner: “They’re [Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil] supposed to represent the public good. Instead, they’re representing their own private interests, which is staying in power.” The old order has proven untenable, and the younger generations know this. Earlier this month, Sinn Fein achieved a historic election win in Northern Ireland. And as the United States reckons with its original sin in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Ireland, too, has been taking a harder look in the mirror—no place seems immune from racism, even when a people have experienced discrimination themselves.
Fontaines D.C.’s songs are equally adept at turning the critical gaze inward. Though they’ve tired of the “erudite post-punk” branding, the band’s earlier work did reference, after all, literary giants like James Joyce. If novels arise out of the shortcomings of history—if Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus was a manifestation of a new morality and a new Ireland, perhaps songs like these—anxious, disillusioned, yet pushing insistently toward a better self and kinder nation—serve as the imaginings of a more radically inclusive future.
Pick up a copy of Skinty Fia here.
Thank you to Bryant from Partisan and Anna from Oriel for this opportunity.