Cometh the Day: Lankum

Posted February 28, 2020 in Music Features


Fresh from a sold-out run of shows in the city and a showcase show at Eurosonic, Lankum are cresting the acclaim surrounding their second album and the reinvigorated trad scene on our shores. And the odds for them on winning the Choice Music Award are fairly short too.


“Now, it’s really like a cool thing. People are like ‘Yeah, I’m into folk and trad’ and it has some kind of subcultural, subversive status to it”


The timing of our meeting with Ian Lynch couldn’t have been better: following the first of two sold out nights in Vicar Street and mere hours before Lankum take to the stage for their second of what feels like particularly special pair of performances. One of the four multi-instrumentalists that make up the lauded folk troupe, Lynch is in a reflective mood. Understandably considering his own associations with the storied Liberties venue. “I love Thomas Street” begins Lynch. “I have a lot of associations with this place on both sides of my family. My Granda on my Dad’s side used to play music in the Thomas House way back in the day. He played accordion with another fella, we’re talking 50 years ago. Then, on the other side of the street, my Auntie sold fruit, my Granny used to sell fruit there too – this is going back four generations. I’m talking about right outside the door [of the venue]. For a venue this size, it feels – and I sound fucking wanky talking about a venue like this – intimate. When you’re sitting on the stage, you can see everyone; they feel very close.”


This notion of a rapport with an audience is of particular significance to Lynch and co considering their background. Punk and Trad are the two pillars of both Lankum’s sound and their ideology. It goes without saying that neither scene is particularly associated with the somewhat stilted, othering ambience that can come with a big room. This, of course, is by no means lost on Lynch. “When we started out playing, the backroom of The Cobblestone was the biggest thing we could imagine,” explains Lynch. “The kind of music we were playing belongs in pubs and belongs in kitchens, very small, intimate spaces. Songs you grew up singing with your family or your mates or whatever. So, to go to playing venues like this? The first time was definitely very alien. You get real imposter syndrome – what am I doing here, why have these people paid in? They must be expecting something else. You really do have this existential dread kind of thing going on.”


Lynch goes on, “Not that I do feel guilty, but I’ve always had this latent thing where I grew up for years saying that if a gig cost more than a fucking fiver the band are sell-outs and I don’t like them anymore. So, I had a little bit of latent guilt about that. The way I move around it is to max out the guest list and get as many of my friends in as possible. That way I feel ok playing gigs where tickets are twenty five quid or whatever. You know it’s always around these gigs that everyone leaves it until the last minute to get in touch looking for guest list. Our spots have been gone for the last two weeks or whatever and you still have people ringing you up, Ah man I haven’t seen you in years but…”


There might not be any shortage of chancers reaching out, but it’s far from just Lynch’s extended circle sniffing around for what were undoubtedly the hottest ticket of the last few months. With that said, up until very recently, the notion of a band playing traditional songs and brandishing arcane instruments like uilleann pipes, concertinas and wheezing Russian bayans, having garnered this degree of attention was – for all intents and purposes – unthinkable. Something has shifted in the last few years and, for what it’s worth, Lynch too is at a loss to unpack this renewed interest in traditional song.

“There’s something going on and I don’t think anyone has articulated exactly what it is. I think people have touched on different things about why it might be happening. But to me, I’ve had no satisfactory explanation for it. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect fuckin’ Blindboy to do a hot take on or something!” jokes Lynch before carrying on.


“I’ll start off by saying that when we started doing what we are doing, it definitely was not the case at all. I remember about 15 years ago – whenever I was getting interested in traditional music and started playing the pipes and stuff like that – I had a few friends who would have been more into punk and reggae. If you’d ever bring them to a session you could see their eyes glaze over, they wouldn’t really be listening to [the music] that much. It used to be like that. At best, people would kind of pay lip service. But even that was only a small number of people within those scenes. Now, it’s really like a cool thing. People are like ‘Yeah, I’m into folk and trad’ and it has some kind of subcultural, subversive status to it.


Likewise, Republican politics are getting some new kind of appeal in the Brexit era or whatever; it’s even a cool thing for people to be like ‘Up the Ra!’ If you said that in those kind of circles ten years ago, you’d have everyone jumping down your throat asking what the fuck are you talking about. It definitely seems to have something to do with the current political climate and what’s going on.”

Whatever the cause, it does seem like young people are engaging with their national identity in what feels like a new and meaningful way. This is a development that Lynch frankly couldn’t be happier about. “The Celtic Tiger years, from what I remember, were fucking terrible. It was like a cultural wasteland. We’re talking about fucking Riverdance and Riverdance is an embarrassment. It’s fucking horrible. I think it’s great that people have taken [traditional music] back and are making it their own again. Most of the people involved in the proper inner circles of Irish traditional music come from these family dynasties. Their kids would have grown up speaking Irish and going to Trad lessons from the age of five and playing in competitions and all that stuff. They’ve always kind of been there but what I really like now is that there seems to be people coming to it from outside of that and realising that you don’t have to be part of this inner circle. When you’re outside a scene it can seem much more elitist than it actually is; I just walked up to the door of The Pipers’ Club and said ‘I’ve been playing a bit of whistle and I want to learn the pipes’ and they were like ‘Yeah, grand. This is how you do it’. Everyone was really welcoming and I looked the same then as I do now, once they see you have a genuine interest, they’re really welcoming and open”.


“There’s a necessary conservatism in that scene” expands Lynch. His enthusiasm for the cultural history of the music plainly apparent, subversive as elements of the Lankum sound may be, respect for their forebears is deeply felt rather than merely performed. “If you’re playing straight-up trad tunes, you’re going to have to learn off an older person and you have to do it in a certain way because you want to hold up the standards of their tradition. That’s a brilliant thing and I think it’s wonderful. But now, I really enjoy that there are people coming to it from the outside. The thing is with that kind of pure, traditional stuff, there are people looking after that. If you look at uilleann piping in the 1950s, there was only a handful of pipers worldwide. Only one full time pipes maker, maybe two more doing it as a hobby. It was very close to dying out. In that kind of situation, obviously the thing needs to be treated with care. It’s a little fire that you need to guard so it doesn’t go out. But when then the thing is healthy, then throw a load of petrol on it and light the gaff on fire while you’re at it! We can do that because we’re safe in the knowledge that the culture is actually grand.”

To reduce the singular alchemy of Lankum’s homecoming shows to gushing, hyperbolic histrionics would be to do the occasion a disservice. Aside from what was going on onstage, the magic of night was evident throughout the audience; not least in the reactions of two of the aforementioned aunties I was lucky enough to be seated next to. From the stage, Lynch himself describes he and his brother’s first forays into music as “punk songs about drinking cider and hating the guards.”

To think that they are now leading a packed house in singing some of the same songs that soundtracked their family for generations is – now who sounds wanky – moving. Lynch lets out a knowing chuckle as soon as I mention my row mates, “Yeah like my Ma and Da and Aunties would have been singing stuff like Henry My Son [a traditional song performed the night before] out in the street. Over in the flats my Mam grew up in across town, that was a song they were singing just playing out in the yard in the ‘50s or whatever. It’s amazing. It’s heartwarming for us as well, to be up there singing and looking around and seeing all that. It felt like we’d done all the hard work and this was the celebration at the end of it all. This was the bit where we’re going fucking yes! And just playing in this room where you know everybody. There’s my Auntie and Uncle, there’s my Ma.”

Words: Danny Wilson

Photographs: Ellias Grace

The Livelong Day is out now on Rough Trade Records. Lankum are one of the finalists for the Choice Music Prize 2020 and will perform at its announcement in Vicar Street on Thursday March 5, €28.


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