music, art, literature and Tipperary



Analysis: The Irish roots of the late singer and artist run deep in his life, work and influences

David Bowie’s Irish first appearance took place in December 1969. At only 22, he was a guest of RTE Like now! series. With curly shoulder-length braids and a very fashionable afghan coat, Bowie performed his latest single space oddity ‘, regaling the audience with the dramatic story of a communication breakdown between Ground Control and Major Tom.

Bowie’s Irish debut is forever captured in a number of black and white stills that can be found in RTE’s archives. It was to be the start of a very long, creative and personal relationship with Ireland. The iconic singer continued to perform and rehearse in Dublin several times over the next four decades, even surprising his fans by playing at least four secret concerts, including a support slot like Tin machine at the Baggot Inn in town.

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Bowie’s Irish roots run very deep. Born David Jones in 1947, Bowie’s mother’s maiden name was Peggy Burns. Like so many others in post-Famine Ireland, Peggy Burns’ paternal grandparents were Irish immigrants who settled in Manchester in the 19th century. Bowie’s great-grandmother – Mary Eileen Heaton – was born in Co Tipperary in 1852.

In the last months before his death, Bowie collaborated with the famous Irish playwright Enda walsh to create Lazarus musical comedy. This sees Bowie revisiting the alien world of Thomas Newton, the central protagonist of The man who fell to earth. Its completion, despite Bowie’s incurable disease, was a mark of the performer’s tenacity and ability to work until the end of his life. It also signaled his wider interest in the work of Irish writers and artists.

When asked in 2013 to compile a list of his 100 favorite books of all time, Bowie included Spike milligan’s comic masterpiece Duck. The famous last words of that of Samuel Beckett father – “what a morning!” are included in the lyrics of Bowie’s song from 1997 Law’. Speaking to BBC radio the same year, Bowie revealed that Bono from U2 had offered him two biographies of Beckett and the artist, who was once Ziggy Stardust, noted the parallels between Beckett’s trademark hairstyle and his then current cut.

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From the RTÉ archives, Dave Fanning interviews David Bowie in 1987 for Visual Eyes

Multi-talented, Bowie was also an avid painter and art collector. His extensive personal collection included works by Irish painters Colin Middleton, Louis Le Brocquy and Jack B. Yeats. Bowie bought the painting from Yeats ” His sleep “ in 1993. Painted two years before the artist’s death, its title refers to a line from his brother William’s poem in 1933 lullaby, “beloved, may your sleep be healthy.” The painting, of two tramps asleep on the hillside, is said to have sometimes wrongly influenced Beckett’s work. Waiting for Godot, which was first performed in French as As a Godot guide, two years before Yeats finished his painting.

We shouldn’t be surprised by Bowie’s fondness for Yeats’ work. Like Bowie, he used more than one identity as an artist and worked in many creative genres. Yeats’ paintings were concerned with themes such as migration; mental illness; alienation; loneliness as well as political and social change – themes not so far removed from Bowie’s preoccupations throughout his life as a songwriter and artist.

Over the course of his long career, Bowie has performed at least 18 times in Dublin. His penchant for the exuberance of Irish fans influenced his decision to record his concerts at the Point Theater in November 2003 for a DVD output. Used to surprises, Bowie amazed his Irish fans during the first of these two concerts by speaking in Irish. At the end of ‘Rebel, Rebel’, he mischievously announced “tiocfaidh ár lá” and later thanked the ecstatic audience with “go raibh maith agaibh” before trying to say “conas a ta shibh?”. We didn’t know it then, but it would be the last time Bowie would perform in Ireland. In June of the following year, his days as a lead actor were cut short due to illness.

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From RTÉ Gold, Dave Fanning looks back on the career of the late David Bowie

In the years that followed, Bowie worked quietly at his own pace, far from the curiosity of social media. The artist would surprise us all in January 2013 by unveiling a poignant new song called Where are we now?’. This song heralded a whole new phase in Bowie’s creativity culminating with the album’s release. “Black Star” in 2016.

As a writer interested in popular music and culture, I am regularly asked why an academic researcher would care about figures like Bowie. My usual response is that I don’t differentiate between what is called “high” and “low culture” and that a complex and very talented figure like Bowie is a legitimate area of ​​study. As a songwriter, writer, essayist; performer, recording artist, music producer, actor, film producer and painter, Bowie drew on a very wide range of influences, including Buddhism, Commedia dell’arte, german expressionism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Kabuki, philosophy, Occultism, communication theory, mime, Oriental culture and Jungian psychology.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Ray D’Arcy show, Eoin Devereux on David Bowie as a subject of university study

Bowie’s many strengths included his ability to guess and synthesize complex ideas from these and other sources, but also not revealing too much about their real origins when they surfaced in his art. His ability to obscure, to hide in plain sight – to smear paint – was very effective, but it is possible, through a careful critical reading of his work, to trace at least some of his influences, his creative practices and its recurring key thematic concerns.

Irish influences are an important piece of Bowie’s overall puzzle, and his interest in Jack B. Yeats and Beckett is particularly telling. The figure of the Clown connects the three men. Yeats painted many clowns. Beckett placed the clowns at the center of many of his plays and Bowie played the part of Pierrot the Clown at several critical points in his career (see the Ashes to ashes1980 video). For Bowie, Beckett and Yeats, the clown functions as an avatar of the outsider artist and of the human condition more generally.


The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ



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