The Rock of the Irish

irish rock bands

When it comes to U.K. rock, English acts have historically glommed the lion’s share of the headlines. But just because the Irish music scene doesn’t always get as much global attention, that’s no reason to assume it hasn’t overflowed with jaw-dropping talent down through the decades. As we prepare to run down a half-dozen of the greatest Irish rockers ever to trod the boards, let’s make it clear up front that there are tons of awesome acts whose inclusion was prevented by space considerations. So don’t get your knickers in a twist— just because you don’t see the likes of Horslips, The Boomtown Rats, or Fruupp popping up in this tally, that doesn’t mean we don’t love them. Oh, and before you ask, sorry, but The Pogues were actually British.

1. My Bloody Valentine

By blending the thickly textured guitar tapestries of the shoegazer sound with post-punk, noise rock, and what we would nowadays call “dream pop,” Dubliners My Bloody Valentine became one of Ireland’s most influential bands. Without them, indie rock as we know it today would have wound up sounding quite different. But they were also one of its most notorious vanishing acts. Fans waited seemingly in vain for a follow-up to the band’s 1991 masterwork, Loveless, but it took 22 long years before Kevin Shields and company finally got around to releasing it. Better late than never!

2. Planxty

Emerging in the early ‘70s, Planxty were the rock stars of the era’s Irish folk revival. They were also something of a supergroup, including titanic talents like Christy Moore and Andy Irvine, each an Irish folk legend in his own right. They dug deep into Ireland’s treasure trove of traditional music, taking an authentic old-school approach. But as the live clip below indicates, they put so much energy and intensity into their performances that they achieved an urgency and vitality most rock bands only dream of.

3. Them

Nobody needs to be reminded of Van Morrison’s place in rock history, but the first chapter, as the lead singer for Belfast band Them, is chronically under-explored. If anything, they get grudging acknowledgment as the originators of the much-covered garage-rock anthem “Gloria.” But between 1964 and 1967, Morrison and Them covered plenty of ground, cutting the definitive rock version of blues standard “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” covering contemporaneous folk-rock pioneers like Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, and delivering transcendent marriages of sweat and spirituality like “Mystic Eyes.” Even after Morrison left, the band made several damn fine records.

4. Thin Lizzy

Everybody knows Thin Lizzy for their classic-rock staples “The Boys Are Back in Town” and “Jailbreak,” but there’s a lot more to the Dublin band’s oeuvre than those two titanic riff fests. A closer listen to early cuts like the contemplative, almost Tim Hardin-like folk balladry of “Dublin,” the prog-rock weirdness of “Old Moon Madness,” and the sophisticated textures of “Shades of a Blue Orphanage,” just for a start, will correct any misconceptions about Phil Lynott and his merry men being strictly a hard-rock machine.

5. The Undertones

Blasting out of Derry in the late ‘70s, The Undertones crafted the perfect blend of hook-laden power pop and raw punk energy. Just teens when they started, they were well able to relate to the kind of classic rock ‘n’ roll topics of tunes like “Teenage Kicks,” a song influential British DJ John Peel always said he wanted to quote on his tombstone (that wish was ultimately granted). But the lads grew up fast and in public; by the time they got to third album Positive Touch, The Undertones were expanding in multiple directions at once. They ended up being an enormous influence on the pop-punk world, among other things.

6. U2

Come on, you knew we’d have to get around to the elephant in the room sooner or later. The fact is that it’s pretty much impossible to talk about Irish rock history without including its most undeniably iconic figures. But even if U2’s ubiquity has put some of their hits into the “never need to hear again” category, never forget that in their heyday they made a wealth of passionate, powerful records that still resonate today. For instance, “A Celebration.”

Jim Allen

Photo: Thin Lizzy (Getty Images)

PS. One of U2’s most iconic works made our list of 10 Albums that Defined Being a Teen in the ‘80s. Plus, you may also enjoy Caravan of Morrisonour appreciation of Van Morrison.

PPS. We first ran this post way back in 2017, but it certainly seemed revisiting on another St Paddy’s Day.

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7 comments on “The Rock of the Irish

  1. John Massey

    “Ahem!” Rory Gallagher?

  2. Michael

    Pretty Things

  3. Andy Davis

    The Cranberries?

  4. John Smistad

    Powerful cross-section of vids….BRAVO!!

  5. David S.

    It’s always a great day when I see my beloved Thin Lizzy on a list! The Undertones were fantastic, as were the O’Neill brothers’ follow-up band, That Petrol Emotion (although the singer was from the US).

  6. Terry Hall

    Underappreciated and forgotten today – Horslips.

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