The first half of Ian Maleney’s two-part interview with Allen Blighe of The Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock.
Spook started off as an idea that I had on my own when I was really getting into Irish folk music and traditional instrumental music, the ballad tradition and I suppose Sean Nós, the different strands of Irish folk music. My own band at the time, Holy Ghost Fathers, had kind of run out of steam and I was looking for something to get me back into playing music. A new outlet.” Catching the last of a sunny Holy Thursday’s heat outside Trinity’s Pav student bar, Allen Blighe is supping slowly on a pint of Heineken in a plastic cup and recounting the early story of the band he founded somewhere deep in the middle of the last decade.
Despite starting Spook as a solo effort, Blighe was soon in search of some friends to help him out. These initially came in the form of Enda Bates, Donnchadh Hoey and Brian O’Higgins. “We started off with the remit of doing a gig to support Josh T. Pearson,” explains Blighe. “I put him on in the Ballroom (of Romance) years ago and I was a huge Gift Of Experience fan so I thought that the idea of opening up for him was a big thing. So we had this deadline of putting together a live set. It sort of worked but it was just me with the lads accompanying me on a few songs and the best parts by far were when the lads were accompanying me so it was kind of obvious that it wanted to go in a band direction.”
Once the band settled into a more solid format, it wasn’t long before an album appeared. The group’s eponymous debut was released on Transduction records and they followed it up with some shows around Ireland and a trip to Japan. After a little break, they reconvened and this time around things were slightly different. “This time around it’s very much more all a full band effort,” says Blighe of their second album The Brutal Here And Now. “I guess I might have come up with some of the ideas but it was very much a collaborative process throughout, everyone throwing in their ideas and working out.”
One thing that was solely Blighe’s responsibility was the contents of the lyric sheet, something that was of great concern for him. The album deals with the malleability of memory and history, exploring their interdependent relationship and the ways in which both can be manipulated, for good or bad. “Memory and history are constantly being re-evaluated and revised as time moves on,” says Blighe. “You see a lot of instances of that, even in the Queen’s visit and all these things recently, just that the perception of history and perception of memory is as a dynamic, living thing. I went back, taking ideas and vague concepts about memory and then looking at and thinking about different Irish folk stories and different instances in Irish history and pulling them through to make a cohesive piece.”
Among others, this exploration of folk tales lead Blighe to the figure of Roger Casement and the story of his Black Diaries. A re-working of a song by Blighe’s former band, Holy Ghost Fathers, ‘Black Diaries’ explores the story of Casement’s diaries, a case in point for the manipulation of memory and history. “The whole thing about the Black Diaries is it’s sort of true, not true, we’re not really sure,” says Blighe. “At the time he was almost a folk hero he was vilified for being I guess a pervert, or a gay man with a proclivity for young men, teenage men. So there’s a big argument whether they were actually written by him or a forgery. The accepted thing is that he did write them but matching the time line of events in his life with what’s in the diaries, there is some suggestion that some of it is actually fictitious and it was more a work of fantasy on his part. So he’s an interesting guy because he’s been manipulated and used in history and his memory has been tampered with many, many times depending on what way the political winds were blowing.”
The colonial element of Casement’s life also forms a key part of the track. “He would have served in Congo and would have been a model part of imperial Britain,” says Blighe. “He was heavily disillusioned by what he saw and he was a good friend of Joseph Conrad so I always kind of link in Heart of Darkness and Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now and this sort of idea of someone going into a particular dark place through the misery they inflict on another country and the process of colonialism or imperialism. So, he turned against the British Empire and was ultimately caught trying to run guns into Banna Strand in Kerry and executed.”
Another unusual element on the album is the inclusion of songs written in English, Irish and Italian. The songs in Irish provided a particular challenge for Blighe and the meanings behind them are as complex as the wordplay itself. “There’s two songs we wrote in Irish, one is called ‘Bothar Crua Iorthair’ or ‘Hard Road West’,” he says. “It’s about the Siege of Limerick. ‘Bothar Crua Iorthair’ is kind of a play on ‘Rocky Road To Dublin’ so it’s about going back the way. So what I was trying to do with this was say that there’s a point where memory is not important, about needing to forget to move on, to carry on.”
“I’ve heard it argued in books that the Cromwellian invasions were a means of Cromwell paying off his armies by rewarding them with land for their sustained effort in the war in Britain,” continues Blighe. “So obviously all these native Irish and confederates who were older English who had settled there, were forced or given ultimatums a lot of the time, like “To Hell or to Connaught”. I know it didn’t quite work out as simple as that, a lot of Irish stayed behind but I suppose the idea is that sometimes you need to forget in order to get on with your life and start anew somewhere else. The song has a point where it changes from Irish to English and I suppose that’s a key thing as well, it’s forgetting about the past and moving on in a sense.”
The album’s form also follows a set path, one with typically socially aware origins. “The concept initially,” says Blighe, “was to have a sort of downward arc, starting fairly upbeat and up-tempo, getting progressively darker, going to a very dark place and then coming back out. I suppose when you look around at the state of the country right now, it’s a very confused place, you’ve got to visualise and you know, start thinking yourself out of a hole I suppose. That’s a little bit of where that concept came from.”
As if the title of the album didn’t tell you already, it is clear the the current “state of the nation” is of major concern for Blighe and it’s something that comes across in conversation with him. That some serious thought has gone into these issues is also obvious so any idea of viewing the older traditional influences as something escapist or innocent is quickly dashed. “Do you know Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine? It’s very interesting. Obviously she’s a very left-wing writer but I tend to agree with a lot of what she says! In The Shock Doctrine, the central premise is that if you put a country in crisis, you have people who in such a high state of panic that they are unable to recall historical precedence that inform their lives and how people in the past overcame their problems. In other words, when people are in a state of shock like now, that now is the time when people with power or bad intentions have the opportunity to really manipulate people because they are in such a shocked state. I think it’s something that people have to be really conscious of.”
The possibility of a numbed nation does worry him. “The whole reaction of Irish people to this situation, maybe it’s unusual in its own way, but it’s been so measured it’s almost like a state of denial,” he says. “It’s very odd because if you look throughout the history of Irish popular protest, there are so many forms of protest both violent and non-violent that are epitomised in the arc of Irish history. Yet it’s kind of very strange that, maybe the whole property tax thing is showing things are changing a little, but it’s like that anti-authoritarian spirit has been killed off in Ireland. Obviously it’s too early to say, you never know what will happen.”