By Matthew Hennessey
John Lennon would be 70 years old this week. As with many who’ve died young, especially matinée idols and rebellious rockers, it’s hard to imagine him grown old. But 70 is old, and that’s the age he would be.
It is a true fact, though much overlooked, that the Beatles were Irish. Two of the Fab Four—Paul McCartney and George Harrison—had grandparents who were born in Ireland. Lennon’s family immigrated to Liverpool from Co. Down in the 19th century, along with hundreds of thousands fleeing deprivation caused by famine.
Liverpool is closer to Ireland than other English cities, both geographically and culturally. By the mid-1850s, nearly 25 percent of Liverpudlians were Irish-born. Waves of Irish migrants continued land in Liverpool well into the mid-20th century. The city is sometimes referred to as the capital of Ireland.
Yet, in the minds of most, the Beatles remain more British than the Queen. It’s understandable. They personified 1960s British chic. The Beatles were the British Invasion, the Mersey Beat, and Swinging London.
But they were Irish, mostly. Paul’s mother’s maiden name was Mohan. John named his second son Sean. Bono recently told an interviewer, “In Dublin, we think the Beatles are Irish.”
Cameras rolled as the Beatles deplaned in Dublin for their first Irish concerts in 1963. An interviewer greeted them and introduced them one by one. Reaching the last, he said, “And an Irishman here, George Harrison.” Lennon quickly interjected, “Hey listen, we’re all Irish.”
And they were. Mostly. Ringo wasn’t. Some have called him the luckiest man who ever lived. But none of Ringo’s luck came from the Blarney Stone. His real name was Richard Starkey—as English as it gets.
Some Beatles grew more Irish as the 1960s faded into the 1970s. “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” was the first single released by Wings, Paul’s post-Beatles band. It’s a pretty good song, if not terribly well-known. It was banned by the BBC and Radio Luxembourg, though it went straight to Number 1 in Ireland.
Lennon’s “Irish period” coincided with his least reflective songwriting. The two tracks on 1972’s Sometime in New York City that deal directly with the Troubles are, to put it mildly, not his finest. “The Luck of the Irish” is awkward and schmaltzy: “If you had the luck of the Irish/You’d be sorry and wish you was dead/You should have the luck of the Irish/And you’d wish you was English instead.” It might have done with a little more thought.
Similarly, the rhythmic churning of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” could have been affecting were it not for the most heavy-handed of lyrics—“Repatriate to Britain/All of you who call it home/Leave Ireland to the Irish/Not for London or for Rome!”—and Yoko Ono’s incessant background keening.
I think it fair to say the Lennon and McCartney solo catalogues stand up without these half-baked curiosities.
One is left to wonder if Lennon would have grown old gracefully. Though he affected the stance of a man unconcerned with appearances, he wasn’t one. He fretted over his weight. He kept his hair well-coiffed. Even during his grimier phases, he had a keen eye for fashion.
Would Lennon have opted for the “forever young” approach that seems to have captivated McCartney, whose personal style suggests a man aging in reverse: smart suits in his twenties, sneakers and jeans in his sixties? I like to think not.
The music has aged well. When asked by an interviewer in 1963 how long he thought the Beatles fame could last, Lennon replied, “You can be big-headed and say, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna last ten years.’ But as soon as you’ve said that you think, ‘We’re lucky if we last three months,’ you know?” Even at 23, with the whole world at his feet, the great John Lennon was a fatalist.
What’s more Irish than that?