“We’re just here to make sure it’s not a misery all the time”

Sam Walsh looks at the artists and organizations blurring the lines between music and activism

On Thursday March 30, Meryl Streek will headline the main stage of Dublin music venue Whelan’s with support from up-and-coming Wexford band Peer Pleasure. The last time these two acts played on the same stage the setting was very different to that of the iconic venue on Wexford Street. On 20 September 2022, Meryl Streek and Peer Pleasure both took part in a concert organized by activist group the Revolutionary Housing League (RHL) at Parkgate House in Dublin 8, better known as Ionad Seán Heuston. The event was held in support of the organization’s efforts to use the vacant premises to provide accommodation for the homeless. 

On the face of things, the event harkened back to the nascent days of the punk music scene in Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when groups such as Crass and the Slits could be found organizing festivals in squats and vacant properties in Thatcher-era London. The concert was reportedly attended by between 150 and 200 people, a mixture of residents and outside supporters who paid a donation at the door. Both artists make music which is, to use a phrase from Brandon Murphy, guitar player and singer with Peer Pleasure, “punk adjacent” and both heard about the project through word of mouth and were keen to get involved. For Meryl Streek, whose debut album 796 now boasts tens of thousands of streams on Spotify, this was “a perfect first gig”. Fresh off the back of the release of his vitriolic single Death to the Landlord, the show in Ionad Sean Heuston was an ideal place for him to air his raucous and outspoken brand of punk poetry for the first time. “It was grim and it was real,” Streek recalls of that night, adding that the RHL “were doing great things for the people that were living there.”

Renaissance or evolution?  

To describe the event in Ionad Sean Heuston as merely a punk revival would, however, be highly reductive. For one thing, the concert also featured groups playing everything from traditional Irish music to modern Hip-Hop and for Meryl Streek, while the punk ethos was definitely palpable, it was not necessarily central: “it was punk but it wasn’t planned”. For another thing, it is not necessarily clear that anything was being revived that night in Parkgate House. Hannah Hogan, an organizer involved in a group known as Tunnel Rats which recently staged a DIY Punk Festival in Bohemian FC’s Dalymount bar, speaks about a “tight-knit community” which has been organizing and attending these gigs for well over a decade. She describes events which combine talks from anti-fascist groups and activist organizations with an inclusive and open-minded approach to live music. From talking to Hogan, one gets the impression that this culture is undergoing more of an evolution than a renaissance. 

Crises both personal and political 

When it comes to organizing these shows, Hogan says “the whole point is that it’s political”. Thus, while Dublin’s DIY music tradition may be well established and longstanding, it appears to have taken on a greater urgency to those involved in it over recent years. The reasons for this are political but they are also highly personal and, as with so many other areas of Irish life, at their root is the subject of housing. Meryl Streek started releasing music upon his return to Ireland following an 8-year stint in Vancouver. “I went over when there was no work and stayed over there because there was no housing,” he tells me, stepping off a Dublin bus. “I’m full of rage,” he admits, articulating a frustration which can be heard throughout his music: “I reached the point where I said I had to do something”. While the songs on 796 centre around the mother and baby home scandal, they also take aim at contemporary Irish politics and politicians. “Someone needed to start getting music out there at a commercial level so that these people could hear,” he tells me, “so I made an album that was so powerful I knew it couldn’t be ignored”. To the members of Peer Pleasure, housing is also a central issue. I speak to the band’s drummer Céin O’Dowd as he makes his lengthy commute from his home in Wexford to attend college in IADT. “Everyone is affected,” he says, “if you think you’re not then you’re not clued in”. 

Yet at the same time that music is moving towards activism in the face of the challenges of contemporary Irish society, activism is also moving towards music. Peer Pleasure and Hanna Hogan both tell me that they have had representatives of the RHL speak at their events, while the Community Action Tenants Union (CATU) and Anti-Fascist Action both made an appearance at the Tunnel Rats’ Punk Fest in November. Brandon Murphy of Peer Pleasure is clear about his band’s role in these events. “We’re just the excuse for the people doing the hard work to let loose,” he tells me. “I’m no revolutionary. I’ve met people who are and we like them and they like us but we’re just here to make sure it’s not a misery all the time.” However, he also recognises the potential for these events to place people in contact with ideas which could mobilize them, saying that “the best outcome for our gigs would be that people we know who are not politically interested would meet people who are”. Meryl Streek’s approach, while more direct, speaks to a similar objective. “I want to see kids being angry,” he says, telling me about the type of message he wants to send with his music. “I want to see them realize they’ve been snookered”. To Hannah Hogan meanwhile, punk “comes from a place of frustration” and frustration, particularly at a lack of housing and of social spaces, is something she sees all around her. 

Facing the inescapable 

For activists, musicians, and musician-activists, the benefits of events such as those held in Ionad Seán Heuston, the Bohs bar, or those organized by the Tunnel Rats, are not difficult to see. They bring frustrated people in, providing them simultaneously with an outlet and, crucially, a direction. These are the spaces in which music and activism collide. And if you don’t like it? “Go listen to George Ezra,” says Brandon Murphy. “Just go to Workman’s,” says Hannah Hogan. Whether they see themselves as part of a wider movement or not, there appears to be a certain feeling of inevitability amongst these artists and organizers with regard to the music they’re involved in. For them as for so many other people across Irish society, issues such as the housing crisis are all-consuming. Who are they to try and escape the inescapable? 

Sam Walsh

Sam Walsh is a Deputy Features editor for Trinity News. He is currently in his Senior Sophister Year studying Law and French.