Post-Punk Politics and Irish Pirate Queens: An Interview with M(h)aol
‘M(h)aol is about disrupting and changing the political reality we have access to. Everyone has a voice and in these intensely historical times, we should be using it.’ —Róisín Nic Ghearailt of M(h)aol
The Irish intersectional feminist post-punk band M(h)aol is making some serious sonic waves. Their new single Laundries seeks to confront the past while revealing its persistent effects in the present. If you’ve ever dreamed of a sound where Joy Division meets Le Tigre, Laundries is exactly what you’re seeking. The song screams out—literally—against the repressive, violent institutions that have perpetuated sexism and gender-based violence in Ireland across the twentieth century, as droning synths and drums aurally emulate the anxiety-inducing, entrapping confines of the Magdalene Laundries themselves.
Why address the Magdalene Laundries in a twenty-first century single? I’m so glad you asked. Irish prose writers, playwrights, and filmmakers have exposed and critiqued the Magdalene Laundries for quite some time and to varying degrees. Relying on fiction and other forms of imaginative literature to reveal the false gender binary of the Virgin Mary/Mary Magdalene in Irish society, those authors and directors discredit the notion that women must fall into one category or the other.
Patricia Burke Brogan’s Eclipsed (1992), an all-woman play set in one of the Laundries, has now been staged nearly one-hundred times in theatres across the globe. Years earlier, even prior to the founding of the Irish Free State, James Joyce’s Clay, which appeared in the author’s short story collection Dubliners (1914), opens in the Dublin by Lamplight laundry. That narrative highlights stark harms while revealing the author’s own complicity in maintaining sexist institutions.
Jumping back into the present, and more than twenty years after the last of the Laundries closed, Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s novel All the Bad Apples (2019) illuminates the ‘family curse’ of intergenerational trauma among Irish women that emanates from the decades-long violence of the Magdalene Laundries.
The Magdalene Laundries were Irish Free State institutions that housed so-called “fallen” women—anyone who didn’t fit neatly into the perceived category of a moral woman as defined by the church and state. That long list included women who became pregnant outside of marriage, prostitutes, rape and sexual abuse survivors, and independent women who refused to conform to the gender roles outlined by a stifling theocratic society. The Laundries were sites of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. Up until the last of them closed in 1996, more than 10,000 women were imprisoned over the course of nearly a century. Survivors of the Laundries continue to seek redress for the human and civil rights abuses perpetrated against them by the state.
In Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (2007), James M. Smith suggests that narratives and testimonies arising out of the Laundries must become more pervasive if the violence is to be recognized as a human rights issue deserving of international attention: “While literature has always contained the story of the Magdalen woman, it is only through a broader study of Irish culture – film, folklore, ballads, paintings, memorials – that one can break the silence on this secretive past and confront society, the state, and the church in their collusive roles in punishing its most vulnerable citizens.”
M(h)aol is doing just that. This group of brilliant, politically minded musicians are resisting sociocultural labels while creating a new soundtrack for the revolution. Based across Dublin, London, and Bristol, the band includes Róisín Nic Ghearailt, Constance Keane, Jamie Hyland, Zoe Greenway, and Sean Nolan. Their video for Laundries, created by Greenway, intertwines early found footage of women and religious spaces with the colors of a world on (digital) fire. If you’ve ever seen film stock burn in a projector, you might have a sense of what I mean.
Greenway’s video at once brings those decades-old images back to life, demonstrating their persistence in the present, while setting them alight through means that are only achievable in the twenty-first century. She brings the images forth just as she sends them up in technological flames. The film conjures a gloriously grotesque vision in which Maya Deren meets Bill Morrison head on. Check out the video here:
When I first heard Laundries and watched the music video for the song, I knew M(h)aol was doing something urgent and powerful. Yes, reader, I fell a little bit in love with the music and its sociocultural commentary. Now that I’ve had a chance to chat with the band and to hear more about their work, I’ve got a serious question for you: What are you doing if you’re not listening to M(h)aol? Put them on your list of must-hear, must-see bands for the present and future. And in the meantime, read more about the amazing work they’re doing to create an exciting political soundscape.
AG: So great to chat with you all. I’d like to start by asking how M(h)aol got started and the ideas that are currently driving the band’s music.
Connie: M(h)aol got started when I shaved Róisín’s head. I had been in music in Dublin for a few years and was frustrated with how I was treated as a woman, so I wanted to start a loud band where I could challenge some of the behaviour I saw happening to both myself and other women in the scene.
Róisín: Connie was the driving force behind M(h)aol. She kind of put the shape on it over the years. Iconically, she found Sean in a record store and then asked Jamie, who had been recording us, to join. Zoe and I are really good friends, and I asked her to join after our original bassist had to leave. The driving concept behind the band for me is the idea of intersectional feminism, a concept coined by Black Feminist Kimberle Crenshaw to describe how intersecting identities influence both a person’s experience but also their political reality.
We attempt to approach political issues from an inclusive point of view that recognises not only our subjugation but also our privilege. M(h)aol is about disrupting and changing the political reality we have access to. Everyone has a voice and in these intensely historical times, and we should be using it. To not take a stance on politics is a political stance within itself.
AG: Can you tell me more about the band name?
Connie: Gráinne Mhaol is an Irish pirate queen whose story fascinated me. ‘Maol’ means ‘bald’ in Irish, and she had a shaved head. I wanted to use a word that as an homage to women in Irish history, and also something that could be seen as a play on words. When you read M(h)aol phonetically, it comes over like “male.” There were a lot of discussions about men using women’s names and the word “girl” in their band names at the time and I was really interested in that discussion.
Jamie: For those who don’t know, in Irish, “mh” is pronounced a bit like a ‘w’, which is why the “h” is in parenthesis, so that the impeccable phonetical humour remains intact while also adhering to appropriate grammar. If anyone has issues with that, take it up with John Cleese and the county (or whatever) of WUSTER.
AG: Given that Laundries contends with the history of the Magdalene Laundries and gender-based violence, can you say more about the aims of the song and the ways in which music might play a role in redressing historical violence?
Connie: I find music as a great entry point for political discourse in general. Also, I think being a woman on a stage and representing yourself how you want to be represented is redressing historical violence.
Róisín: For me, the song evolved over the five years between it first being written and when it was recorded. While it definitely focuses on the Magdalene Laundries and their political shadow, it is also a reflection on how the State treated wom*n during that time. The third verse actually focuses on another case that involved a young girl and her baby whereas the fourth and fifth verses bring it to the modern day.
I believe that Ireland has replaced the Catholic Church with the Church of Neoliberal Capitalism. We’ve created a new political landscape that is still in many ways shaped by our old one. This is most evident in the way that the State treats those living in Direct Provision, a completely unethical system of housing refugees and asylum seekers. They pose a difficult political question about our society, as did the wom*n within the Laundries, and the same kind of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality is used to deal with both groups.
My aim is to encourage people to critically engage with how history shapes modern ethical and political issues, and how we have progressed in some ways and how we have not in others. I am completely confident that in ten, twenty years people will look back on this period of Irish history and be asking themselves how we could have treated the people in Direct Provision like this. In the same way, our generation asks those questions about the Laundries.
AG: The Laundries video is incredible. I’d love to hear more about the thought processes behind its creation.
Zoe: I feel confrontation and reflection are important steps in the journey of redressing historical violence. I’m inspired by a lot of politically conceptual artists’ work, which influences how I approach our music and its aims. The visual accompaniment I made for Laundries became a way of communicating this historical and religious brutality towards women, and creating a fully formed multi-media representation of the song and its political implications.
The video juxtaposes the song’s powerfully honest lyrics and abrasive instrumentation with silky abstract textures and heavily obscured archive footage of women in the Our Lady of Charity Magdalene asylum in Dublin and the abandoned laundry in Donnybrook. This intentionally reflects the Irish Church and State’s shrouded attitude towards these injustices. I think experimenting with the music and extending its visual expression is a powerful alternative way of addressing these injustices. It hopefully provokes a self analysis in the individuals who listen to and view the song, and a motivation to encourage a redress of the broader abuses of power in society.
AG: How do you see the historical memory of the Laundries persisting in Ireland today?
Connie: The Laundries are such a huge part of our history, and the last one only closed about 24 years ago. To have something so recent, yet so swept under the rug, is alarming – as a woman and as an Irish person. It shows a strained relationship between women and a state run by the Catholic church. That has been challenged over the years, but I’m still not fully comfortable with that relationship.
Often, Irish history on an international stage contains a lot of narratives surrounding men. There are plenty of things that are obviously worth talking about, but women’s roles in Irish history are very overlooked, and things done to Irish women throughout history have been marginalised. That’s why I wanted to discuss the topic of the Laundries in this song – to put it on an international stage and to show how women have been oppressed by the state and this messed up patriarchal structure. Internationally, I don’t think there’s a clear understanding of how it impacts women in intergenerational ways.
AG: Yeah, that notion of intergenerational trauma, and its ties to British colonisation and imperial violence, often goes undiscussed.
Connie: Yeah, and what happens when you found a new state on the back of that trauma? You end up giving too much power to the Catholic Church, and generation after generation face the trauma produced by that history. We have seen the marriage equality referendum come through, but the discussion of the Magdalene Laundries isn’t sufficiently discussed.
Róisín: There’s a strong Republican tradition here still. Although it’s commonly associated with the IRA, the Republican movement is just the idea that we should be a state. Since the founding of Ireland as a free state, there’s been a strong tradition of speaking out against the state, and speaking out against the Church – there’s a strong link and a symbiotic relationship between being wary of the State and the Church as institutions. We’re continuing on in a very important tradition within Ireland.
AG: It strikes me that Laundries also pushes back against the male-dominated music industry and much of the subject matter of modern music. Could you say more about the ways in which you see M(h)aol’s work speaking to broader histories of gender-based exclusion or bias in music?
Connie: For me, M(h)aol is a space where I can challenge certain power structures in music, and express my annoyance at gender-based issues throughout the industry. But more importantly, it’s about creating a space where people who aren’t straight cis white men can feel welcome to join in and express themselves. M(h)aol for me is about having a laugh while questioning and challenging things. I like taking the piss out of stuff as much as I like talking seriously about injustices.
Jamie: One of the first things my therapist said to me was that, while it may seem inappropriate, a lot of people tend to use laughter and humour as a coping mechanism to help them talk about the things that trouble us most.
Róisín: Anger is very healthy. We are a queer, wom*n-centric band that resides in a particularly masculine corner of music. Even if we weren’t political, our very presence is making some kind of statement. Therefore, if our presence is making a statement, we may as well take ownership of our narrative and steer what statement we are making.
When we were gigging, unless we were on a wom*n centric bill, we would inevitably be one of few wom*n on the line-up. Promoters made sexist remarks, the lads didn’t want to hang out with us, and all that. It would have been really easy to become discouraged. But we thought we were great, we supported each other, and we believed that what our songs talked about was important. We had some really fun times in among the weird times. It’s important to see wom*n having fun while being political, to see people on stage who are not just straight, white cis men.
Politics can be fun because you are building a better future. When it comes to putting on our own gigs and who we work with we try to be as inclusive and intersectional as possible. Politics is built of your micro and macro actions. M(h)aol is a good example of the micro and macro. On the micro side, we are making a difference by existing. On the macro, we are hopefully shining light on pertinent political issues and our individual and collective societal responsibilities, as well as problems within the music scene.
AG: Beyond the Magdalene Laundries, are there other moments in Irish history that M(h)aol is thinking about addressing in upcoming music, or broader global contexts that you’d like to consider in your music?
Róisín: As of such there are no key moments in Irish history that we are going to address, but that also doesn’t rule anything out!
In terms of the global context, our next single is about rape culture and the narrative put out in the Global North about survivors and how society treats them. The song is inspired by personal experiences as well as some recent high profile sexual assault cases in Ireland and abroad, but more generally, it’s about the narratives society perpetuates about rape, narratives about people who are raped, and how that shapes life.
AG: Speaking of the Global North, Joe Biden was just elected US President. It feels incredibly significant to know that Trump will soon be leaving office. Thinking about some of the political issues you’ve mentioned, does that election have reverberations in Ireland and in the UK?
Róisín: For me, America is a hegemonic power, so it shapes the world. America defines international politics in the Global North. When you have someone [like Trump] who is adamantly against racial justice, against trans rights, you’re weakening a belief in democracy and in truth. There’s a symbiotic relationship between Boris Johnson and Trump – Johnson feels empowered to make claims surrounding Brexit.
Biden is also a massive advocate for the Good Friday Agreement. Boris Johnson lacks a lot of respect for that agreement and fails to understand the sociopolitical history of Ireland. It’s great to have someone in the White House who cares and was around when it came into effect. He has spoken very passionately about it. Hopefully this will turn the tide.
Connie: I usually live in London, and I was there last December when the Tories were reelected. We’ve seen things going in a more conservative, right-wing direction, so it’s hopeful to see things swinging back in the opposite direction. As an Irish person living in the UK, you still face discrimination. To be living there while a party attempts to govern with no respect for the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland, or the lives of people in Ireland, well…[T]his has given me a sense of hope.
AG: Let’s shift gears. Beyond the political aims of your music, I simply love its sound. Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
Connie: Enya, Kim Gordon, Tobi Vail.
Jamie: Jacqueline du Pré, Billie Holliday, Carol Kaye, Miss Djax.
Sean: Chris Cutler, Seamus Ennis, Marion Brown, Jean Ritchie.
Zoe: Karen Dalton, Dorothy Ashby, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Michael O’Shea.
Róisín: Princess Nokia, ABRA, Kelsey Lu, Big Joanie, Bikini Kill, Junglepussy, Perfume Genius.
AG: Who are some of your biggest influences more broadly, such as writers, filmmakers, or cultural critics?
Connie: I’m gonna say Mary Robinson and Rihanna.
Jamie: Síoda, the sadly recently deceased first hound of Ireland.
Zoe: Carolee Schneeman, Adrian Piper, Chantal Ackerman, Germaine Dulac.
Róisín: The Irish organisation MERJ, Audre Lorde, Una Mulally, the survivors of the Laundries, Cynthia Enloe, Kimberle Crenshaw, Alison Phipps.
AG: You describe yourselves as post-punk, but can you say more about what post-punk means to you?
Connie: For me, calling our band post-punk was a joke about the supposed post-punk revival that’s been happening in especially UK and Irish music over the past few years. So many of those bands were so annoyed at being called post-punk by the media, so I thought it was funny to claim the title. Those two words make men so angry…it’s hilarious.
Jamie: I actually feel like I would agree unironically with Connie’s classification to a degree. Partly, I feel like post-punk should only refer to the music scene that came immediately after punk, but I also feel like it’s appropriate for taking the punk ethos of not necessarily adhering to musical norms or rules, and having a decidedly political message but not attempting to recreate what punk music itself really was. I do feel funny about genre-isation of music in general though. Borders like that are a construct and their inherently soft, squishy nature needs to be kept in mind.
Sean: I agree in part with Jamie and Connie, but I think post-punk is pretty useful as far as labels go. Kind of allows us to take the more useful aspects of ‘punk’ (DIY ethos, social/political awareness) without being saddled with the more unhelpful baggage. As a musical descriptor, I guess if there’s a spectrum of post-punk, we’re probably closer to the gloomy noisey end than the angular funky end.
AG: I’d love to hear more about how you write your music. Is it a collective effort?
Róisín: For Laundries, I wrote the lyrics and then have edited them consistently over the years with each new iteration. I am not musically inclined, and so I have very little input into the actual music end of things. They usually come together at the same time. With Laundries, I was thinking and writing a lot about politics at the time in my personal life, and therefore it made sense that it would bleed into how I viewed the lyrics and the kind of impact they could have. It is a collective effort so far as we are all supporting each other.
Jamie: Instrumentally, it’s definitely a case of everyone making noise and seeing what sticks. We all kind of know what the music should sound like and how it should feel to hear. Lyrical content also heavily dictates the overall tone, such as our unreleased Don’t Order Meat, which is Connie and Ró’s combined mounting anger at restaurant goers ordering meat and leaving it to be thrown out, condensed from about four years into ten seconds.
AG: What kinds of changes would you like to see in the music scene, and in our social and political climates more broadly?
Connie: I’d like it to be a more supportive and welcoming place for anyone who isn’t a straight cis white man. I’m pretty passionate about the fact that women should be allowed to be crap at their instruments, or singing, and for that to be okay. Everyone has to be crap at some stage. I’m very tired of the pressure, which I still carry with me, of having to “prove yourself” as a musician coz you’re a woman. If a guy is playing a completely out-of-tune bass, it’s automatically presumed to be some genius artistic choice, but if I miss a single beat when drumming, it means all women ever are awful at the drums. It’s boring.
Zoe: Completely agree with Connie! Although I work in the film industry, as opposed to the music industry, I’ve experienced a very similar attitude from straight cis white men. It’s tedious when someone’s musical or filmic ability is discredited based solely on gender, and it’s a pretty archaic outlook at this point.
Róisín: Totally agree with both of them! I am not in any way gifted musically, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to get up on stage and wild out. In terms of political and social climate, it would be excellent if the current populist leaders were to lose their followings and that the slide to right that is occurring all over the Global North is reversed. It is a crucial time in our history in terms of climate change, racial justice and (hopefully) an overhaul of the current neoliberal capitalist system. The Black Lives Matter uprising over the summer raised many vital questions about our societies, the structural nature of racism, and particularly the intersections of gender and race.
AG: What’s next for the band?
Jamie: We have another single to be released some time next year, but beyond that, does anyone know what’s next at all? It’d be great to play gigs, but I definitely foresee a few other things in the meantime.
Connie: I’m very excited to play shows. We have some in the UK we’re waiting to be rescheduled at the moment.
Róisín: We’re in a lockdown right now, but we’re planning to meet up over the Christmas period to write and record. It’s not going to be another five years until we put something down again. Keep your eyes peeled!
AG: What advice would you give to other women and wom*n-centered bands that want to engage in political activism through music?
Róisín: If you are not a straight, white, cis-het man and you think that you would like to be in a punk band but don’t have the confidence, you absolutely do. Literally anyone can do this. Punk is about disrupting the status quo. Go out there and disrupt your own status quo!
Audrey J. Golden is a literature and film professor who lives in New York. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and you can check out her personal website to learn more about her writing and her archive of books, records, and ephemera.
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