Ireland prides itself as the country of céad mile fáilte, Gaelic for “a hundred thousand welcomes”. At The Brian Boru, a pub in Dublin, this clamorous reputation for conviviality is distilled to the four voices of the band Lankum encouraging me to have a lunchtime pint. Their own choice of tipple is tap water. I forgo the pint and opt for a pot of tea.

Ian Lynch is next to his brother Daragh. Radie Peat sits next to him. On her other side is Cormac Mac Diarmada. The three men have dark hair, greying in Mac Diarmada’s case, and beards. Peat is the copper-coloured exception to their monochrome rule.

Ian Lynch in the band’s Dublin rehearsal space
Ian Lynch in the band’s Dublin rehearsal space © Timothy O’Connell

Pubs have played a crucial role in the foursome’s life as Lankum in which they share vocals and play numerous instruments, as many as 30 between them. They met at music sessions on Dublin’s circuit of pub venues, where musicians and singers gather to play traditional songs and instrumentals. Versions of these feature in the four lauded albums they have released. But Lankum’s take on traditional music departs from tradition. 

In their world, uilleann pipes, fiddles, tin whistles and keening voices inhabit the same abrasive realm as drone-metal and noise-rock. The murders and suicides that crop up in folk song acquire a crushing intensity. Tales of dashed love are given a deep tone of desolation. The style reaches its apogee on their latest album, False Lankum, which has propelled them to a new level of fame both in and outside Ireland. It appeared in numerous best-of-2023 lists, including the FT’s.

“They’re one of the most important Irish bands of their generation,” says Jim Carroll, chairman of the RTÉ Choice Music Prize, an annual award akin to the UK’s Mercury Prize. Lankum won it in 2019 for their album The Livelong Day and are on this year’s shortlist of nominees for False Lankum. They are at the vanguard of a number of like-minded acts such as John Francis Flynn, Lisa O’Neill and The Mary Wallopers. But talk of them leading an Irish folk revival receives short shrift.

The band in Dublin’s Northside
The band in Dublin’s Northside © Timothy O’Connell

“The reason we don’t like the word revival is that revival implies that something has died,” Peat says, to assent from her bandmates. “Whereas the tradition in Ireland has always been strong. We are not reviving anything. It’s extremely healthy and will remain healthy long after us.”

She and Mac Diarmada have a background in traditional music. That is not the case for the Lynch brothers. “Not everybody had the good luck to be born into a traditional-music family,” Ian says. Nose jewellery and the headphones around his neck give him the look of a skateboarder. His younger brother Daragh resembles a much younger brother of Dave Grohl. 

They grew up in Dublin listening to punk. A burgeoning interest in folk accelerated after the financial crisis of 2007-08. It was a chastening downfall for the Celtic Tiger of Ireland’s previously booming economy – but there was a silver lining. Rents were low and unemployment benefits were sufficient to get by. Dublin’s thriving pub sessions offered a cheap option for music-lovers and musicians.

“It’s not that we had jobs,” Daragh says. “That’s how we could go out and drink every night.”

Ian laughs. “It’s not as if we had jobs before that either!” he remarks. “There were people who lost thousands, people who had jobs that they lost, houses that they lost, they had to default on mortgages. We didn’t have anything like that. For us, we had quite a good time.”

Daragh Lynch’s guitar
Daragh Lynch’s guitar © Timothy O’Connell
Ian Lynch plays the piano
Ian Lynch plays the piano © Timothy O’Connell

Having formed a duo called Lynched, the brothers joined forces in 2012 with Mac Diarmada and Peat, who were regular performers at pub venues such as The Cobblestone. “Different days of the week there’d be sessions where we’d see each other and play music together and sing songs. And that’s basically how the whole thing came together,” Daragh explains. 

They switched to Lankum from Lynched in 2016 due to the original name’s unintended connotations. The new name was inspired by an old ballad called “False Lankum”, a staple in the repertoire of one of their influences, the Irish Traveller singer John Reilly, who died in 1969. The song is about the murder of a mother and her infant son by a devilish man. 

Such unsettling scenarios are common in Lankum’s work. There is laughter when I mention totting up the hangings in their songs: at least one per album. “There is a lot,” Ian concedes. Peat reckons that 2017’s Between the Earth and Sky is hanging-free, but one of her bandmates recalls otherwise. “Oh god, there is one,” she acknowledges.

Poisoning is another popular mode of dispatch. Forks and spoons pause over the plates of food being eaten when I point this out; a strand of linguine dangles ominously from Mac Diarmada’s cutlery. “Well, that’s traditional music!” he says. The fork resumes its transit.

One of Ian’s specialities is the uilleann pipes, as emblematic of Irish music as the harp. A type of bagpipes, they are infamously hard to learn. Mac Diarmada waggles his elbows, taps his foot and does complicated things with his hands as he mimes playing one. “It takes a long time before you can produce anything that is more than noise,” Ian says. “What Ian did – which is take up the pipes in his 20s, and get as good as fast as he did – is amazing,” Peat avers. “Nobody takes up the pipes in their 20s because it’s just so hard.”

Lankum in their Dublin rehearsal space
Lankum in their Dublin rehearsal space

Previous names in traditional music crop up in their conversation, from Dublin street ballad specialist Frank Harte to 1970s folk band Planxty. There is scholarship in what they do: Ian has a podcast series, Fire Draw Near, in which he does a deep dive into a selected folk song. But Lankum also has a punk-style let-it-rip ethos. 

In the pipeline: five of Lankum’s folk influences

Mary Delaney 

Delaney is or was a blind Irish Traveller singer with a keening voice, originally from County Tipperary, current circumstances unknown. Her “What Will We Do When We’ll Have No Money”, recorded in London in the 1970s, inspired Lankum’s version of the song on 2017’s Between the Earth and Sky


© Michael Putland/Getty Images

Formed in 1972 after playing together on a solo album by one of their members, Christy Moore, Planxty was a folk supergroup that brought Irish traditional music to audiences weaned on rock. Another member, Andy Irvine, introduced the bouzouki to Irish music.

Frank Harte 

© RTÉ Archives

A singer and song collector, Harte kept alive Dublin’s history of street ballads, an urban branch of folk often looked down on by purists. His version of the traditional song “Henry My Son” influenced Lankum’s rendition on 2015’s Cold Old Fire.

The Watersons 

© Brian Shuel/Redferns

The Watersons were an English family group from Hull, and among the most important acts in the 1960s UK folk revival. The influence of their harmony singing, which is not a prominent stylistic feature of Irish traditional music, can be heard in Lankum’s vocal arrangements.

The Bothy Band 

© Alamy

Once described as “a rock ’n’ roll band in folk clothing”, The Bothy Band are an innovative ensemble that formed in the mid-1970s, bringing a bold rhythmic attack to traditional music. Their reunion for concerts in 2024 is, according to The Irish News, “on a par with the Second Coming in some people’s eyes”.

“That’s one of most enjoyable things of this band, going into the studio and just fucking around with instruments you’ve never seen before,” Ian says. “Like, get the string off the fiddle bow and play the wire in the piano and try and see if we can work that into a track somewhere.”

Their unofficial fifth member is the producer John “Spud” Murphy, who began working with them on their second album, Between the Earth and Sky. Accustomed to producing alternative rock acts, he has helped to introduce a heavier, more imposing dimension to their music. “As soon as Spud gets his hand on it, it’s going to sound a hundred times better. He’s just going to work his magic,” Mac Diarmada says. 

The singer-songwriter John Francis Flynn, who is also shortlisted for the Choice Music Prize, shares Lankum’s experimental approach to traditional music. Having emerged from the same sessions scene, he believes the band are “saying something new and real”. 

“They are challenging perceptions of what Ireland is,” he says. “We are sold by the tourist industry as this kind of silly, happy, drunken place with leprechauns and fairies. But there is so much darkness in Ireland. It’s a brilliant, beautiful place, but there’s so much trauma too. I think people resonate with Lankum because their music is beautiful and dark, and serious as well. They’re not trivialising Irish music.” (It’s clear they approach nothing half-heartedly: a few weeks after we meet, they cancel a series of live dates for “ongoing personal circumstances… not compatible with touring multiple dates and cities.”)

The darkness resides in Ireland’s history, a bloody tableau of invasion, colonisation and resistance going back centuries. (The Brian Boru pub where we are lunching is named after a medieval king who reputedly fought off the Vikings.) The band members are in favour of a reunified Ireland at some point in the future – but they are more preoccupied by the acute problems facing the nation today. 

Up the road from the Brian Boru is Lankum’s rehearsal space in Dublin’s less affluent Northside. The area is suffering the effects of a rent crisis that has made large parts of the city unaffordable for many. There has been a steep increase in homelessness. “The first step of art or culture is that you have to have the time and space to develop it,” Peat says. “But people can’t afford to live in Dublin. So it stops all those things in their tracks. Whereas when we were forming and starting to cultivate these ideas, it was still possible to do it.”

Some blame immigration for the rent crisis. The country of a hundred thousand welcomes has taken in more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. One in five Irish people was born outside of the country. In November, an anti-immigrant protest in Dublin escalated into widespread rioting, fuelled by far-right agitators.

“As much as they like to talk about supporting our culture, I’ve never come across any far-right person who was actually interested in the tradition, the language, the culture, the music, the instruments, the songs,” Ian says. “It’s not like these people are starting to come to the singing sessions in The Cobblestone. It doesn’t happen.”

The folk songs in their albums are migrants in a way too. They derive from North America and Britain as well as Ireland. “We don’t really discriminate at all,” Peat says.

“It’s like one tradition really,” Ian adds. “With a song, you might find it went from England up to Scotland, over to Ireland, then over to America. We’ve listened to the American version and now we’re singing it in Ireland. People presume it’s Irish and learn it from us. The whole thing just keeps going around again and again.” 

False Lankum is out on Rough Trade Records; Lankum will play Hammersmith Apollo in London on 26 October

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