“On Tin Whistles and Failure” By Carrick McDonald

I didn’t know much about my great-grandfather, my namesake. Still don’t, in fact. Growing up, I was told he hailed from Ireland. The promise of America lured him over. Before he left, he married a woman named Sarah. I dug a little deeper and dragged out of my dad something about him playing music and loving the odd drink (counting my name, we now had three things in common).

I don’t believe much in the notion of bloodlines but I would be lying if I didn’t say listening to a tin whistle or an old drinking tune stirs something awake in me. My first real investigation into the world of green-tinged folk music came via Flogging Molly. Their blunt-force take on Irish culture appealed to the bonehead teenager side of me who liked to slam into shit but the quieter songs won me over too, to the point where I began to prefer them.

There’s something to be said of the versatility of what we consider being Celtic music and culture. In Flogging Molly alone, you can find sea shanties, folk and country ballads, working class rock and punk sensibilities, and something very old and indefinable made accessible.

Maybe that something is the resilience of the Irish themselves. The Irish are not unaware of misfortune. To come of age during the invasion of Iraq was to watch dark clouds on the horizon and the Irish punk bands I loved were articulating the gloom and despair we all felt. Along with The Clash, a primary influence in the world of Celtic punk, I began to understand punk as a spirit instead of a style guide. Politically aware and active bands with tin whistles and bagpipes! I loved it, and it fit neatly into that wonderful Irish sense of catchall art; politics, class and religion aren’t separate subjects onto themselves but are ingrained into every aspect of life, like it or not.

Coming from a working class family, the sheer number of important worker’s anthems that came from the Irish or were easily co-opted into the Irish musical canon amazed me. Even as scenery and not as a political statement, the stories of factory girls and dirty old towns and boys on the docks made sense because they were scenes from my own life and experience. 

Riding behind all the hardships was that plucky Irish optimism, that sense that life was wholly worth living because of how godawful it could be. “And through it all, your spirit’s alive” was the reaction to death. “I dream of a man whose hopes never end” was the response to failure. On the other side of alcoholism, with all original teeth long since departed, is Shane MacGowan slurring along with the Dropkick Murphys so vigorously you can hear every drop of spittle and phlegm, no fucks given whatsoever. You can’t keep an Irishman down for long. 

The predominant character of Irish song is the lovable fuck up, someone who falls ass backwards into misfortune and out of it again just as easily. Our hero emerges with a shrug. All part of the wheel of life. To a teenager mopping floors and forgoing sleep and sanity, it’s inspiring to see yourself the hero of centuries-old songs, persevering and living, if only out of spite. There’s also a joy in knowing that somewhere in every city today, someone is playing the bagpipes and there isn’t a damn thing anyone can do about it.

A few months back, I did some more digging on my great-grandfather only to discover that my dad had been mistaken and he was actually from Scotland. We don’t have a drop of Irish blood in us, at least on that side. But everyone is Irish today and I still love tin whistles. So that’s something.


This post was originally featured on Omnibus Journal, Mar. 16, 2016.

Featured image via amazonaws.com

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