Celtic Kate: The Irish-Ness of Kate Bush

Updated on December 1, 2018
Dave Flynn profile image

Dave Flynn is an award-winning Irish composer and musician who has multiple published writings. He is also a life-long Kate Bush fan.

The Quintessential English Rose of Songwriting?

Examine a dozen articles about Kate Bush in the British media and you'll likely see the phrases 'quintessential English songwriter' or 'quintessential English rose'. To the British she is up there with Lennon & McCartney, Morrissey & Marr and Elvis Costello as one of the great 'quintessentially English songwriters'.

What does Kate Bush share with all those great British songwriters, aside from musical genius? The answer—Irish ancestry. Are the British press missing a beat when they label her 'quintessentially English'? Are they blind to the possibility that a vital part of her songwriting genius is due to her Irish heritage?

Kate Bush's Irish-ness comes directly from her late mother Hannah Daly, a native of Waterford. Those who like to claim Bush's talents exclusively to Albion overlook the fact that Kate Bush is half-Irish and proud of it, as she explained in an Irish Independent interview in 2014.

"I'm incredibly proud of being half-Irish. I really wanted to get that Irish blood in me to come through, so I worked very hard on it."

Fiddles, Pipes, Bouzoukis and Bodhráns

Bush acknowledged her Irish roots by integrating Irish traditional musicians and instruments into ALL her 1980's albums. Her 1980 hit 'Army Dreamers' gives the first strong hint of her Irish roots. Her lilting vocal is accompanied by her brother Paddy's mandolin playing and Stuart Elliot's bodhrán thumps. 'Violin' from the same Never for Ever album features legendary ex-Bothy Band fiddler Kevin Burke as the titular violinist.

The list of famous Irish traditional musicians that play on her subsequent albums is like a who's who of Irish folk music. The contributions of Donal Lunny (Bothy Band, Planxty, Moving Hearts), Liam O'Flynn (Planxty), John Sheahan (The Dubliners), Seán Keane (The Chieftains), Davy Spillane (Moving Hearts) and very characteristic arrangements by Riverdance composer Bill Whelan connect her to almost all the major Irish folk bands of the 60's, 70's and 80's and the Riverdance boom of the 90’s.

It's hard to tell from the sleeve notes how much of the Irish-style music is arranged/composed by Kate or Paddy Bush and how much is Whelan’s, however one thing that's unmistakable is the instrumentation and melodic content are like an angular, experimental precursor to Riverdance.

Dreaming of Irish Hounds

'Night of the Swallow' a single from the 1982 album The Dreaming (Whelan's first arranging credit on a Bush album) features Lunny, Keane and O'Flynn intoning a very Whelan-esque turn of phrase over Bush's dramatic story-telling. Bush even poses with a set of uilleann pipes on the cover of the single.

Perhaps the best known use of Irish musicians in Kate Bush's output is during The Ninth Wave, a concept piece that makes up the second half of her 1985 masterpiece The Hounds of Love. Sheahan lends gorgeous tin whistles to the haunting opening track 'And Dream of Sheep' before Lunny and O'Flynn join in on the climactic coupling of 'The Jig of Life' and 'Hello Earth'.

Another important Irish influence on the general sound of The Hounds of Love album is that of the bodhrán. Stuart Elliot explained in a BBC Documentary how Bush asked him to create the sound of multiple bodhráns on his drum kit. He did so by focusing on tom-toms and leaving out hi-hats and cymbals on most of the album's drum tracks. This drum kit sound is very unusual in the history of pop music. The fact that this innovation was influenced by Irish drumming is remarkable. Incidentally, a real bodhrán played by Donal Lunny is mixed in with Elliot's drums on 'The Jig of Life'.

A B-side of 'Cloudbusting' is Bush's singing of the traditional Irish song 'My Lagan Love' in an unaccompanied sean-nós style. If her beautiful version doesn't convince you of her Irish-ness nothing will!

A Sensual Riverdance

On her 1989 album The Sensual World, Bush and Whelan collaborated again. They moved even closer to foreseeing Riverdance with the Macedonian-Irish fusion melodies on the title track, this time featuring Davy Spillane as the piper alongside Lunny's pulsing bouzouki and Sheahan's dancing fiddle. Spillane also contributes to ‘Never Be Mine’ and 'The Fog' on the same album and Bush's cover of Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing', recorded in the 90's, but only released a decade later as a b-side to Bush's comeback single 'King of the Mountain'.

The lyrics of 'The Sensual World' represent Bush's strongest immersion into her Irish roots, based as they are on the character Molly Bloom from James Joyce's Ulysses. Initially Bush intended to quote Joyce directly but was refused permission by his estate.

When Bush was making the album DIrector's Cut (2011) she sought permission again. This time she was successful and so 'The Sensual World' became 'Flower of the Mountain', using words from Molly Bloom's soliloquy.

That Cloud Looks Like Ireland

Besides the tracks featuring Irish musicians it's novel to hear Bush occasionally bring out a lilting almost-Irish accent on tracks like 'Suspended in Gaffa', 'Army Dreamers', ‘The Red Shoes’ and 'The Big Sky' (where she sings some 'diddely dyes' for good measure). 'The Big Sky' also represents a direct lyrical reference to Ireland 'That cloud, that cloud looks like Ireland'

An Irish lilt is also very discernible in the spoken-word segment on 'The Jig of Life' written and narrated by Bush's brother John Carder Bush. Though he was born in England, there's an unmistakably Irish cadence to his narration.

For reasons that perhaps only Bush herself can explain 'The Sensual World' was the last original studio album by Bush to feature any Irish trad musicians.

Her final nod to her Irish heritage thus far is her recording of 'Mná na hÉireann' at the invitation of Donal Lunny for his Common Ground project in 1996. Learned phonetically due to her lack of Gaelic and coloured by a lush orchestration, this is not a recording for sean-nós purists. Nevertheless the impassioned beauty of Bush's voice on this recording is undeniable.

Quintessentially English or Irish?

22 years have passed since 'Mná na hÉireann' was released and nearly 40 since Kate Bush's first recorded forays into her Irish-ness. Since she made her great comeback with Aerial in 2005 she seems to have left her Irish influences aside.

Whilst it's tempting to think the Aerial track 'Bertie' might be an ironic tribute to former Irish leader Bertie Ahern (with its very Irish sounding chorus of 'Lovely, Lovely, Lovely, Lovely Bertie' set to Baroque strings) it is in fact a song named after her son. The Irish sounding lilt in the song is probably coincidental.

Kate Bush may never revisit her Irish-ness on record, nevertheless the huge impact Irish music and culture has had on her work can't be over-looked or denied.

By merging her deeply-felt Irish-ness with her innate English-ness and cosmopolitan spirit Kate Bush has demonstrated time and again that she is much more than simply a quintessentially English songwriting genius. Neither the English or the Irish can truly claim her as their own. Kate Bush's music goes beyond every border, her music is there for all of us. Kate Bush is simply a genius.

Now, take a listen to Running up that Hill again and see if you can hear Kate Bush's Irish-ness AND English-ness shining through together in perfect harmony.........

© 2018 Dave Flynn

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    • profile image

      Give me reggae please l lov it 

      3 months ago

      Impressed

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