Fontaines D.C.: Tender Joy
A gravestone in Coventry bears the phrase ‘In ár gcroíthe go deo’ (‘in our hearts forever’, in Irish). It marks the resting place of Margaret Keane, a County Meath-born woman who was prominent in Coventry’s Irish community and the Gaelic Athletic Association. In early 2020, her family was denied a request to have the epitaph engraved without an accompanying translation by the local diocese, for fear it was “provocative” and would be misunderstood as a political statement.
The Keane family’s struggle for recognition stoked the memory of prejudice and trauma faced by Irish communities in England, and it made a big impact on Fontaines D.C. At the heart of the Dublin band’s third studio album, Skinty Fia, beats the theme of contemporary Irish identity and displacement. In ár gcroíthe go deo is the record’s first track.
© Jamie Salmons
“Margaret’s family actually reached out when they heard the name,” shares the band’s frontman Grian Chatten. “They played it at her graveside. Whatever fears I had of being insensitive to her family and story, and to exploring Irishness from my perspective as someone who has left Ireland for England, melted away.”
The band had just finished laying down the track’s haunting opener, the Irish phrase sung in a stark, choir-like minor key, when they heard that the family had won their appeal against the local diocese. Their message was inscribed, sans translation, on Keane’s gravestone on Saint Patrick’s Day last year. “We wouldn’t have performed it as we did, I think, had we heard the incredible news before. It holds something special in it, a conviction,” Chatten asserts.
Fontaines D.C. have been fearless and fervent in their storytelling since their 2019 debut, Dogrel, which takes its name from a form of lowbrow poetry, doggerel. (The band – comprised of Chatten, Carlos O’Connell, Conor Curley, Conor Deegan and Tom Coll – met at music college in Dublin, where they bonded over the rhythmic style.) They toured their acclaimed, Mercury Prize-nominated record around the world, marking them out as Irish post-punk prophets with an ability to broach both specific and universal issues with deep empathy.
© Jamie Salmons
Their debut was borne from a shared love of James Joyce’s poetry, nights spent in Dublin pubs, and their rage at the inequality rife in the Irish capital they call home. Their second album, 2020’s Grammy-nominated A Hero’s Death, uncoupled itself from Dogrel with a rawer and more inward-looking approach: a study in parsing mutual feelings of burnout and strained inter-band relationships. “For me, the risk is to do the same thing as last time,” affirms Chatten. “I’m not concerned about presenting a throughline. It’s not my job to steadily supply tunes that people expect from us – it’s to maintain a healthy relationship with my own creativity. I’m not gonna live forever.”
Skinty Fia reaches new levels of lyrical and musical evolution. It takes the boisterous sounds of Dogrel and the meditative passages of A Hero’s Death into the realms of the cinematic. “We felt quite brave with where we could go next,” Chatten admits. There’s a refreshing dexterity in tracks that elevate guitars with drum’n’bass-influenced percussion, choral harmonies, a solo accordion. Its vivid storylines and characters oscillate from the personal to the political.
I Love You delves into the guilt of absconding from Ireland and becoming successful, the horrors of Ireland’s mother and baby homes, and the failings of Irish political parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. “This island’s run by sharks with children’s bones stuck in their jaws,” Chatten sings on the track. Roman Holiday reflects on the aftermath of imperialism and having the English language foisted upon a nation; Bloomsday shifts from the romanticism of a Joycean Dublin and youthful camaraderie, to a jarring estrangement from Ireland that comes with distance and age. The villainous Jackie Down the Line was laboriously deliberated over as the first single. “It’s the outlier, but a worthy risk,” says Chatten, pitching his voice down to make his case. “Not all the characters in my tunes have to be virtuous and pure – it’s fun to write in a misanthropic way. After two years of not doing gigs, here’s a tune people will want to have the craic with at shows, wipe the slate clean. We have a new confidence. We have sharpened some emotional and mental tools,” he offers.
© Jamie Salmons
Skinty Fia translates as ‘the damnation of the deer’ (the Irish deer is long extinct) and is also used as an Irish expletive – specifically by Curley’s great auntie. This dual meaning resonates with the album’s converging feelings of morphing identity and diasporic anxiety. “I’m not always aware of my inclinations as a writer,” says Chatten. “It’s not until I look back at a body of work and connect the dots, that I see.”
He continues: “There’s longevity in the record’s lack of resolve. But I want to walk the spiritual tightrope. It’s not fun or interesting to come with all the answers. I definitely don’t have them. I’d be afraid of coming across like Bono or Bob Geldof… not that I’m harshing on them.”
“It’s not fun or interesting to come with all the answers. I definitely don’t have them. I’d be afraid of coming across like Bono or Bob Geldof… not that I’m harshing on them”
After spending lockdown scattered across Ireland and London, the band honoured a tradition of coming together to scribble all the potential songs onto a whiteboard. They started with 36. “It’s an opportunity to put our heads together, to make [these songs] flesh, and hone our identity,” Chatten says. “It’s a ceremony to wipe off the last album tracklist and write ‘Fontaines D.C. album three’ on the board.” The band expanded on their ideas by relocating from Chatten’s tiny London studio to a larger space in rural Oxfordshire with producer and previous collaborator Dan Carey, the man behind Speedy Wunderground who has worked with black midi, Squid and Caroline Polachek.
In the studio, the group would put a timer on for the fun of it and write as much as they could in silence, then share their ideas. “That freedom was nice, and opened a lot of doors. I want to keep sharpening what I want to say, and find the weight deeper within,” Chatten says. A song originally titled Skinty Fia – not the album’s title track – was chopped. “It was more traditional, with guitar and a bodhrán. It sounded too much like Dropkick Murphys, maybe even Pirates of the Caribbean. It was a bit of a travesty, but it was through that that we really started thinking about the metamorphosis of Irishness. I was thinking a lot about the Boston Irish, London Irish. I don’t think of them as less pure, they’re just their own beasts.”
© Jamie Salmons
The legacy of Irish literature is less of a direct influence now, and more, Chatten says, “invigoration”. On their last tour, he would listen to actor Andrew Scott reading A Painful Case by James Joyce. “He’s audibly crying. I would listen to it as a meditation backstage. I found it grounding to hear an Irish person read an Irish story. It’s a comforting presence.” This time around, he was inspired by Austin Clarke’s poem, Irish-American Dignitary. It’s hard to find the text online, but there’s a singular reading on Spotify. “Almost missed the waiting liner, that day in Cork, had scarcely time for knife and fork,” Clarke writes, wryly beatifying transatlantic Irishness. “It made me realise a sadness in the ungraspability of an authentic experience that diasporas can search for,” Chatten says, “when really, something new can be made, new freedoms found.”
Being Irish in London knits you into a tapestry of centuries-old, generation-encompassing narratives of violent prejudice and immigrant aspirations. “That reminder of friction is really stimulating for me,” Chatten says. The band have experienced their fair share of both positive and negative experiences – petrol bomb jokes in pub toilets, riotous Saint Patrick’s Days, nights out in London’s Mascara Bar and the Auld Shillelagh. Chatten fondly describes an old man who sits outside the Irish pub he lives above, dressed in a Kerry gaelic jersey with an old school hurling stick, drinking half a pint of lager. One of the band’s friends, the Irish rapper Kojaque, is over in London next week for a gig. “He’s deadly on the tin whistle, you know,” he laughs. “Maybe we’ll have him play on the next album!” The band live across London now, with the exception of Curley, who resides in Paris. Chatten has lived in London for two years now with his fiancé and is still interrogating his own discordant relationship to Ireland.
“I have always felt a doubt in my authenticity as an Irish person, and how much I can speak to Irishness,” Chatten admits. His mother’s family are English, which he once felt as a point of tension. “But my Irishness is highlighted frequently here, usually in a positive, but maybe quite tiresome, way. We are by no means a persecuted minority, but I often think about how diasporas mutate and assimilate, gravitating toward each other in order to survive.”
“I have always felt a doubt in how much I can speak to Irishness. We are by no means a persecuted minority, but I often think about how diasporas mutate and assimilate, gravitating toward each other in order to survive”
From the social commentary of musician-turned-author Blindboy Boatclub and outlook-shifting writing of Emma Dabiri, to the movement against church and state collusion and the housing crisis rebellions, reifying and redefining Irishness in 2022 is a feat. As Fontaines D.C. slip further from Ireland, their own perspective expands and gains colour. “I want to stay in a place just clear of absolute comfort for a while,” says Chatten. “When the first record was doing well, it became clear – and necessary, really – that people can disagree with your picture of Ireland, when it was something we were making to express ourselves. I became aware that I have to make it known that Irish culture doesn’t start and end in what I see and experience.”
Skinty Fia is out on 22 April via Partisan Records