Northern Ireland. The late 1970s. The violence and turbulence of the Troubles are everywhere, along with IRA hunger strikes and crippling unemployment. Meanwhile, the straight ahead three-chord punk model was already revealing itself to be generally unsustainable, and shrewder bands were looking to other forms as a way forward. And in Northern Ireland, a way forward could mean a way out of the turmoil. Against that backdrop emerged the Mighty Shamrocks: singer/guitarist Mickey Stephens, guitarist Dougie Gough, bassist Roe Butcher, and drummer Paddy MacNicholl.
Taking cues from a wide range of music—the New Wave that was ubiquitous at the time, country elements from the pub rock scene, and a hint of reggae (their moniker is a play on roots reggae group the Mighty Diamonds)—the Mighty Shamrocks made their regional name on the strength of songs that brought the political turmoil of the times to a personal level. In 1983, the group recorded an album for the Good Vibrations label, and it looked like the group might well be on their way. But as it so often happens on the road to rock glory, fate made other plans. The Good Vibrations label went bankrupt just as the album was due for release, and the band collapsed under the pressure.
Over the years, the Mighty Shamrocks became something of a local legend, and the songs—mostly penned by Stephens, who had settled into an academic career in the United States—made the rounds on bootleg cassettes. It wasn’t until 2012 that the master tapes found their way into the right hands, enabling Paddy to receive the official release that for nearly 30 years had been out of reach.
This would be a nice enough story even if the music were only OK, but Paddy (named in honor of drummer MacNicholl, who unfortunately didn’t live to see this release) lives up to its legend. Stephens has a reedy, punchy quality to his voice, which complements the lyrics well. “Everyone had PTSD during the Troubles”, Stephens writes in the disc’s liner notes, and with that understanding lines like “I can’t sleep because I’m afraid of nightmares / I can’t stay up ’cause I’m afraid of ghosts” from “Dance the Night Away” take on a new urgency. Even “Coronation Street”, Stephens’ ode to the long-running British soap opera, becomes a meditation on simpler times that recalls the more pastoral side of Ray Davies.
Throughout Paddy, the band demonstrates a nimble ability to navigate an array of styles while still maintaining their core sound. The pub reggae of “Breaking Up with Harry” (whose smooth façade masks the fact that it’s actually a chronicle of heroin’s pernicious influence on their scene) gives way easily to the proto-alt-country of “Cowgirls”, which features some clever chord changes and a blazing pedal steel solo. Odd flourishes like the mariachi horns in “Smiling Juan” help underscore the fact that the group was actively looking for every opportunity to set the songs apart. And when Stephens delivers a line like “our fate was a fait accompli” in the plaintive acoustic number “Marie”, you can’t help wondering what might have been if the Shamrocks had gone forward.
The Mighty Shamrocks have been getting together to play a handful of gigs here and there, offering a nice coda to the group’s saga. Meanwhile, Paddy offers the listener more than a simple feel-good story about a rock ‘n’ roll second chance—it also helps us gain a fuller picture of the development of roots-based music in the UK and a collection of songs from a truly gifted songwriter.
// Notes from the Road
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