A view from without: Kilkelly

Kilkelly is a project led by Irish singer-songwriter Conor Kilkelly, based in Berlin.

With collaborators from the city’s thriving “Dark Folk” music scene, Kilkelly released debut album The Prick & The Petal last year, which was showcased in full at #LIF2019, with accompanying art book by collaborating artist and Kilkelly vocalist, Stephanie Hannon. This year we catch up with Kilkelly and Stephanie, plus the character narratives conveyed in the concept album, centred on “depravity, desperation & desolation” of Old Catholic Ireland, following The Famine. Combining a piece written by Conor – portraying his personal struggles within his musical themes- Stephanie interviews Conor and poet, Ciarán Hodgers, who hails from the same Irish town as Conor; Drogheda on the East Coast of Ireland.

The most severe punishment given in our prison system is social isolation. When an inmate is considered too dangerous, too volatile within the highest securities prisons they are confined to a room; sometimes for 23 hours a day for the remainder of their imprisonment. Similarly, a tribe’s most severe punishment is banishment.

In a death sentence, the punishment ends as soon it is instigated; by definition it is short-lived. In isolation and banishment the punishment is sustained and so is –arguably- greater.

In Kilkelly’s debut album The Prick & The Petal we met the characters Joe and Mary; unhappily married, marred by addiction and poverty. In the album we heard how they isolated from each other; viewing the traumas of their day whilst aimlessly traversing through old Catholic Ireland with vague hopes of finding solace somewhere across the seas.

This self-banishment to ostracise oneself through emigration is at the heart of Irish cultural identity. Historically it was a last ditch attempt at survival, but the path is a punishing one. Those who leave today are not doing so to ensure they can feed themselves. What, then, drives them to consider dropping everything, cutting ties with their homeland? For artists, is it a case of the survival of their craft?

As James Joyce said, contemplating his own emigration, is Ireland “the sow that eats its young?”.  

Conor’s Story

When asked why I moved to Berlin, I never had a good answer. I truthfully didn’t know. The most I could muster with any sense of conviction was “on a whim”. The vagueness of my answer eased the inquisitive look on the face of whoever asked, and appeased something in me, too. “A whim”; why not? People find nothing more romantic than falling in love at first sight; why not the same for falling in love with a city? When you fall in love it’s only a matter of time before you move in together, after all.

Granted, my first love was always Galway, on the West Coast. I’d an on-off, hot-cold relationship with my hometown of Drogheda and became enthralled with Galway once I moved away for university. Cobbled streets; charm; sea; rivers and countless pubs of all sorts and sizes… a thing of beauty. But, after five years, we split (“it’s not you, it’s me”); I sought the greyer pastures of Dublin, somewhere bigger; where “the action was”. And I loved Dublin, too.

What pained me was her price.  “How can anyone afford to do anything here?”, I scowled in thought of forking over 20 euro to the taxi-man at the end of another night out in the city. The buses stopped at around 11.30pm.  The good music didn’t stop till 1am. Hence my problem. A big one.

In my last year of education my part-time job was as a campus tour guide at UCD; money was tight to the point of asphyxiating.

When visiting friends for a few days in Berlin that year, I simply couldn’t fathom how good they had it. Their beautiful high-ceiling apartment was chockablock with what could be described as “artsy types” and political radicals; the types my friends would mock and I would salivate over when we caught sight of them out in the wilds of Dublin city, usually over at The Workman’s Club (a local hipster hangout).

“What do you do, Conor?”, a strikingly beautiful lady asked me, perched on the stairs to a bed hanging from the high ceiling. “Philosophy. And I tour guide at a university in Dublin. You?”. “Tour guide? Yes, I’ve done some of that, but at the moment I’m helping out setting up art installations, in between exhibits. I have one of my own coming up shortly.” An actual artist; I never met one before. Sounds ludicrous. Sure, I’d met many a-dabbler, but a working artist? Unheard of!

The party’s tone turned as the anarchists laid out the plans for the following day. The friends I’d been visiting were caught up in some trouble at the hostel they’d worked at. The trouble being: they worked for two months, and now the owner has fobbed off all payment simply stating he hadn’t the money to pay. I asked Laura, my Irish friend, what exactly happened.

“We’ve been shafted of two month’s pay. We’ve been given nothing since we arrived!”.

Okay, I thought –turning on a heel- maybe Berlin isn’t so great.

The next morning there I was: placard in hand, amidst a parade of anarchists, confused and excited. The majority of us derived from a group called Basta, who provided free legal aid and served as foot soldiers to picket the hostels and other dubious organisations, when their services were needed. Eventually the protest was effective enough to bring down the whole business, making headlines nation-wide, and leading to legal proceedings and an out of court settlement.

For the time being, we -a 70-strong group- marched and howled and roared and ranted, in and about the building. It seemed to have endless nooks and crannies; we darted in and out of rooms, getting lost and seeing absolutely nobody –all the while and demanding our rights– well, Laura’s and Daragh’s, anyway.

When the fuss was over, and placards dropped, I asked Laura how we’d get home, as our marching brethren dissipated away. “You’re never more than ten minutes from the underground. Don’t worry Conor, we’ll get home”. “What time does public transport stop?” I asked, “Stop? It doesn’t.” she replied. And, so, then and there, my fate was sealed. I was a Berliner. No more 2am taxis sapping my funds. I would be anarchist, artist, Berliner! Not so much a whim then, as an economic and cultural necessity, or so I thought. And that seemed to be the truth of it until a friend, who came to visit, asked me the simple question: “If you could have been an artist at home, would you have stayed?”

The question irked me -as all do that touch a vital nerve- especially one you’ve not addressed yourself. Stephanie (SH) suggested we prod further into the discomfort…

Interview with Ciarán Hodgers (CH) and Conor Kilkelly (CK)

Ciarán Hodgers, Liverpool based poet from Drogheda, Ireland, remembers the day he arrived in the UK: “I remember [thinking] ‘there is no one I know touching this earth’. The land beneath my feet touches no one I know … it was the right balance of terror and [liberation]”. 

SH asks CK and CH about Drogheda their experiences of hometowns:

CH: [It was] a post-industrial working-class town with the symptom of being next to the capital city. It’s not good enough; it’s the second child… it gets a bit ignored.
CK: Both my parents were from the west of Ireland, so they didn’t have the Drogheda accent. When I went outside, everybody had a Drogheda accent, but when I came inside, and it wasn’t the same… And the telly had a different accent as well… my childhood experience of my surroundings was confusion… I kinda always felt like I was an intruder.
CH: Imposter syndrome is a working-class pandemic. [It} affects us forever. I don’t think we ever really get over it. I think that adds to our sensitive dispositions [making] us feel like we don’t belong.

SH: Do you feel compelled to escape a sense of “Irishness”?
CK: I didn’t know what Irish was. It was just ‘Drogheda’, I wanted to escape that. Maybe Irishness too. … I remember kind of choosing the accent I wanted. And it was the telly accent. I thought ‘if I talk like them, I can blend in with [the Americans] once I go there’. It was a conscious choice, except from a 6-year-old.

SH: What is Irishness?
CH: I think Irishness is hugely changing now. Being Irish wasn’t cool when I was growing up, which might have led to some of those escapist tendencies. One thing that really defines the Irish experience is the church and state conversation. It’s becoming unpicked and in that gap is the new Ireland of young activists. Non-religious… I don’t think we can understand Ireland until we leave it.

SH: Were you aware of all of those things (church and state) when you decided to leave? Did those things contribute to your decision?
CH: Growing up queer, I wasn’t welcome or safe inside religious spaces. That was the confirmation I needed to say ‘thank you and goodbye’. So, I have an interesting perspective of watching it improve. Watching religious ground become more queer friendly, or antiracist or more welcoming for refugees, that’s really exciting for me. That’s new Ireland.

SH: But how do you feel looking on from a distance?
CK: When I left I instantly became very protective of Ireland. I didn’t fall in love with Ireland until I left. I had time to reflect; how lucky I was to live somewhere so beautiful and the kindest souls I ever met were all Irish. I didn’t know any of this, because I just took it for granted. [I] fell in love in Galway by being away from Galway; and then I was like an evangelist for Galway. It took me moving to Berlin to find the same pride for Drogheda. I still had mixed feelings about my home town. If someone is convinced that where they have lived their entire life is the best place on earth, they aren’t qualified to give that opinion.

SH: Has Irishness been present in your creative work?
CK: I can’t write a song without Ireland somehow creeping into it. It’s almost as though “Irishness” is my muse. I have other muses, but that one is always there. It’s so fundamental and foundational to what I do. Now I’m proud that my songs are considered Irish folk songs. It’s actually an honour to do something that’s considered remotely Irish Folk. That feels great to me. It’s a badge of honour
CH: Because my art form is spoken, I think I can get away with quite a lot because I have a different voice. {laughs}.

SH: Is ‘leaving’ intrinsic to Irish culture?
CK: During the famine, half the country either died or left. There’s millions of songs that talk about loved ones gone away. In a way, I’m just carrying that tradition.
CH: It’s like it’s in the DNA… there’s science on this regarding the children and children’s children of concentration camp survivors having different DNA because of the mental health trauma their ancestors experienced. It has to affect the family tree moving down.

So leaving is literally in our blood?

Conor’s Story (continued…)

It wasn’t until I was writing my debut album The Prick & The Petal showcased at #LIF2019 that I did a second take on my practical assessment of leaving my mutterland, as the Germans say. The sense of loss was blatant in the songs; omnipresent throughout the ballads and laments coloured throughout the album.

I never set out to write anything in particular when I write. If I do I find the end result plagued with pretension. The last thing you want -when delivering something meant to encapsulate a truth, an emotion- is pretence. All you can hope, for when you take your pen from the paper, is that the ink set within your notepad won’t make you wince in years to come. The only way you can ensure this, is by not lying to yourself. Like a teen diary trying to sound cool, instead being utterly insecure. You’re only hope in song-writing is that you can decipher your innards: heart and gut. I let the gurgles and thumps speak for themselves.

Half way through my crafting The Prick & The Petal I realised this compilation of songs about my life -my troubles, my loves, my losses- was in fact, not really about me. Well, not, solely about me anyway. It was set in Ireland. There were characters that re-emerged. They held addictions I’ve never faced directly; fears I’ve never had materialise. Though all true somehow, they gurgled and thumped out, without me having to undergo the specifics. There were two characters: Joe & Mary, two star-crossed lovers (it seemed to me), within the songs. When ordered the right way, the songs played out like a story – one of isolation, emigration, depravity, religion & loss. It was an utterly Irish story – written in parts of Germany, Ireland, London, but truly Irish nonetheless. But it was someone else’s story. What right did I have to speak it? Who were Joe & Mary?

I’m still not entirely sure. But, I know -looking back at it- I don’t feel the wince on my face I feared I would. It rings true for me still when I play it live.

There is something in the album that is about Ireland’s story of emigration. There’s something in it true to my story, too. Above all, there’s a longing for home in it. Why then did I leave home? It couldn’t be just a whim.

It couldn’t be something as trivial as economics, could it?

A year on, I am reeling with this question. I still don’t know for sure, but the gargles and thumps of the laments of the two star-crossed lovers, who again and again, persist in these songs; they had no choice. “The jobs dried up and my nerves grew thin”, something in it -that line from the open track of album- still touches a nerve. Like the truth always does.

The Liverpool Irish Festival would like to sincerely thank Conor Kilkelly, Stephanie Hannon and Ciarán Hodgers for their contributions. We asked a lot of them to self-question, commit to paper and share their feelings, skillsets and experiences, with us, at a time of great difficulty for everyone unable to get home. We’re very keen to bring Kilkelly back to another Festival and hope you will follow their story with us.

We highly recommend the album and art book (with beautiful art works by Stephanie Hannon, as well as the CD album), available here: https://kilkellymusic.bigcartel.com/product/kilkelly-the-prick-the-petal, along with Ciarán’s poem How to be an Irish Emigrant  and Kilkelly’s new video for Anywhere Buy Here Will Do (below, final entry) made to reflect migrant’s eyes in a new land. Their lockdown documentary: Kilkelly Live Inside is below.