Appreciation or Appropriation?

In the movie version of The Commitments, the band manager Jimmy strongly opposes sexual interactions within the group. Although this theme is a little less obvious in the book itself, with Jimmy even admitting to his slight feelings for Imelda (like all of the other boys in the band), it is still present at times. This contributes to my argument in my conference paper, regarding how both the presence of children, and the lack thereof, is the defining characteristic and perpetuating force of the Black and Green Atlantic itself. In this case, The Commitments leans heavily towards the “lack thereof” argument; opposition to sex directly prevents future generations being born, so film Jimmy’s strong opinions prevent the cultural integration that occurs with each new generation of children. 

This is somewhat ironic, considering the Irish band that Jimmy instigated and manages plays soul music, a genre that originated within the Black American community. With the goal to bring soul to Ireland, on the surface it appears that Jimmy is truly trying to mix Black and Irish cultures. However, moments within the book and film suggest that he is really just trying to copy American soul music. For example, in both the book and the movie, Jimmy instructs the singers to not use their Irish accents. He says, “An’ yis shouldn’t be usin’ your ordin’y accents either. It’s Walking in the Rain, not Walkin’ In De Rayen” (Doyle 34). They do change the lyrics at times to more Irish-themed words, specifically to the song “Night Train,” but this seems to be done so that they appeal to their Irish audiences who love it at concerts, not necessarily to promote cultural integration. 

At the very end of the novel, the remaining band members end up leaving the soul genre behind and moving on to making “Dublin country” music (Doyle 165). Considering Jimmy’s opposition to perpetuating future generations of the Black and Green Atlantic, as well as the performative nature of bringing soul to Dublin, there is a strong indication that it was not Jimmy’s appreciation of soul that led to The Commitments, but that it was appropriation all along.

How Do Souls Fit Into the Transatlantic?

In class discussions about the Transatlantic, we have covered countless different aspects, living and nonliving; we’ve discussed how language, land, social hierarchy, culture, and other things are affected in the exchange of people and ideas that coincide with the Black and Green Atlantic. To be quite honest, I thought we had covered every possible feature. However, one passage in The Commitments made me realize there had been something left undiscussed: 

“Soul is dynamic. It can’t be caught.It can’t be chained. They could chain the slaves but they couldn’t chain their soul…Soul is the rhythm of the people…The Labor Party doesn’t have soul…The people o’ Dublin, our people, remember need soul” (Doyle 39). 
 This passage, while not directly related to the Transatlantic, left me wondering where souls lie in the Transatlantic experience. When individuals leave their homes to travel to new countries or continents, where they likely face intense discrimination and cultural abuse, do their souls travel with them and endure this pain? Or do they alternatively “stay” in their original home, left behind in the transatlantic experience? In my opinion, this excerpt from The Commitments could be interpreted to argue either alternative. If a soul can’t be chained, it cannot be chained to its homeland, which suggests that it moves with its owner to their new home, despite the challenges that lay in its path. On the other hand, if a soul cannot be chained, it cannot be chained to its owner, and may not want to leave the place it is being forcefully removed from, either from famine (Green Atlantic) or the slave trade (Black Atlantic). The permeability of souls poses an interesting question in defining the Transatlantic: if souls can be left behind in their original homes, are the people who make a transatlantic journey ever able to find themselves again? Or will the part of them left behind prevent themselves from fully assimilating to their new life?

The Commitments and Cultural Appropriation

I really enjoyed both reading and watching The Commitments, and found it very interesting how this story displays a convergence of the Black and Green Atlantics through music. The band members were drawn towards soul because it was music of the working class— “Soul is the politics o’ the people”— and invented by Black Americans (38). In the film, when describing his inclination towards soul, Jimmy says “The Irish are the blacks of Europe, and Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and the northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin.” I noticed that during this scene in the book, his character says almost the exact same lines, but uses the N word instead. This and several other instances of anti-Blackness in the movie and novel, along with The Commitments’ use of a Black musical style, had me thinking about our discussion in class about appropriation. One of the ways that cultural appropriation is described today is when someone adopts an aspect of another culture without understanding the significance of it and the way in which it fits into that culture’s history— and this is most often a culture that has been oppressed or marginalized. I think it’s fair to say that the characters in The Commitments do not have a full understanding of African American history, and how soul music was intertwined with the Civil Rights movement. They have an understanding of soul as working class music, but there is not an acknowledgement of the nuances that separate their experience as working class Dubliners in the 1980s from those of Black Americans in the 1950s and 60s. At the same time, I do believe their adoption of soul music is out of respect and admiration, and that they aren’t trying to claim soul music as a genre they invented, but rather cover existing songs and pay homage to the great Black Soul artists. I am curious if any of you have thoughts on this topic— are The Commitments culturally appropriating by playing soul?

“Blue-Eyed Soul” in the Emerald Isle

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle shows how Irish people have connected to Black culture, but strayed away from it when it was no longer beneficial. We discussed this idea when we first read Moon and the Mars in January. We see that Jimmy wants to bring soul to Ireland because he wants to “[bring] the music, the Soul, back to the people.–The proletariat” (Doyle 122). While soul music was not limited to one class, a majority of listeners in the US were in the Black working class. In a time where opportunities were non-existent and racism was rampant, soul music was a way for Black people to escape their realities and enter a different world. This concept is reflected in Ireland when Jimmy comments “Soul is a double-edged sword…one edge is escapism. Gettin’ away from it all. Lettin’ yourself go” (35). Although Black and Irish people were facing entirely different circumstances, both communities had the same reason to listen to soul music. This further exemplifies the most important concept of this class: that both groups have had a transatlantic conversation for decades. We saw this last week with how Uptight, a fictional movie about the start of the Black Panthers, is a rendition of The Informer, a movie about an Irish revolutionary group. In The Commitments, we see the opposite exchange happening with an Irish band performing soul music. 

However, The Commitments shows the same split between Black and Irish culture that was seen in Moon and the Mars. At the end of the novel, the Commitments dissolve and Jimmy agrees with Joey that “soul isn’t right for Ireland” (157). Jimmy and a few other members form “the Byrds”, which is a country-punk band. This is a similar move towards White-American culture that was seen in Moon and the Mars. During the Civil War, Irish-Americans turned on their Black neighbors in Five Points to gain more social power. These two novels exemplify how the two communities connect across various aspects of life, but inevitably part when times get rough. It shows the complexities of the transatlantic conversations we have discussed, and its similarities across time. 

The Religion of Soul

Joey “The Lips” Fagan, an older musician who claims to have played with everyone from James Brown to the Beatles, claims “no influences but God My Lord” (25). But Joey’s religion is not regimented—Joey’s God “doesn’t kick up at the odd drink or a swear word now and again. Even a Sister, if you treat her with proper respect” (25). The line between Joey’s God and soul, the genre he loyally professes, is blurry throughout The Commitments. It seems that Joey preaches about soul as much as, or more, than he preaches about God. Indeed, the narrator notes his attachment to God as secondary to his possession of soul: “They had Joey The Lips Fagan. And that man had enough soul for all of them. He had God too” (26). Soul is the driving force behind Joey’s magnetism, even when Jimmy defines it contrary to traditional religiosity.

For Jimmy (and for the rest of The Commitments who take his word as given), soul is “the workin’ man’s rhythm. Sex an’ factory” (39). Despite this crudeness, Joey The Lips agrees. However, Joey is shut down by his band members when he attempts to draw a connection between soul and the Reverend Ed (40). The Commitments are not interested in religious figures like Reverend Ed; instead, they want to hear about his pilgrimages to James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding. Joey does not shy away from sharing his experiences with the band, and he makes attempts at defining soul as frequently as Jimmy: “Soul is dignity—Dignity, soul” (41). Soul, like one might define their experience of religion, transcends the purely physical. Soul becomes a vessel for countless greater human emotions, and one’s collaborators in soul are “brothers and sisters,” even more than your religious brothers and sisters. Soul is the driving spiritual force behind The Commitments—that is, until they discover the “deadly” Byrds (165).

The Connection Between the Black and the Irish in “The Commitments” Through Music

For me, one of the most striking moments of the book and the film was when Jimmy argues to his future bandmates that the Irish “are the blacks of Europe” when trying to convince them of his desire to create a soul band. This comparison, as well as Jimmy’s almost obsessive interest with soul music, confused me until I really thought about the ways in which Irish people and black people shared struggles. 

According to an online encyclopedia, soul music became incredibly popular in America during the 1950-1960s because of its free nature which allowed black, American musicians to express feelings and thoughts about the civil rights movement through the music that they created. While we have heavily discussed the different forms of writing that can be viewed as artistic in this class (plays, stories, books, etc.), we have not so much discussed the art form of writing lyrics and music. 

By producing and releasing soul music, the messages and emotions of the civil rights movement were able to be carried across the country, even overseas, as seen in The Commitments.

As depicted through Jimmy and his bandmates, the Irish working class during the 1980s was struggling with issues of severe economic recession and unemployment during the Troubles. While dealing with these intense struggles, people who were like Jimmy were in search of an outlet in which they could express and share the emotions they felt in relation to these struggles that they were facing. 

After making these connections, it became clearer to me why Jimmy had developed such an appreciation for soul music as well as a want to create it: the freedom of expression and creativity that soul allowed for as well as some of the messages of struggle expressed through that music was inspiring and appealing to him.

In the film, Jimmy describes soul as the “honest,” “working man’s music” that “most people understand.” Because these traits are directly in tune with the struggles that all of his fellow band members share in, Jimmy attempts to persuade them to create soul music by arguing that the Irish “are the blacks of Ireland” and that soul is the vessel in which to also express their struggles and emotions. 

The group is a bit skeptical at first, especially Dean who asks if “maybe we’re a little white for that kind of thing?,” however Jimmy encourages them to give it a chance and embrace their similarities with the black soul artists: “[s]o say it once and say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.”

Was Uptight an appropriate remake of the Informer?

After watching Uptight and reading and watching the Informer, I believe the Informer plot was not an appropriate medium to tell the story of the black revolutionaries. Despite some superficial similarities, the Irish and Black causes had different circumstances that were not adequately taken into consideration. One glaring example where this can be found is in each informant’s motive. Gypo informs because he seemingly “needs” the money, whether for basic necessities or for passage to America where there are better opportunities to succeed. Gypo meditates on his decision before pulling the trigger. Tank informs out of spite, in the heat of the moment, not because he needs the money to survive or to help the Black cause in some noble way. Both stories are centered around betrayal, but it is unclear what the greater purpose of Tank’s betrayal was. This difference in motive also highlights the different lenses that the stories are viewed—one national and the other racial. Things that would be considered endearing and humorous or even neutral qualities for the Irish would be considered disdainful for the Black community. For example, association with crime (stealing of guns), Tank’s degeneracy and absent fatherhood, Clarence’s relationship with the police, and Laurie’s association with welfare and prostitution are all rooted in Jim Crow era stereotypes like Sambo, Uncle Tom, and Jezebel. Although the Uptight movie was not meant to be a mockery of Black people, it is still viewed through a racial lens that likens the behavior of an individual to the behavior of the community.

If the purpose of Uptight was to be some sort of social commentary, it seems as if the message got muddled within the plot. Was it meant to give a view into the inner working and conflicts of the Black Power movement? Was it meant to show us the mental toll of the movement on those within the organization, similar to Gypo’s mental devolution in the Informer? Further, did Jules Dassin, of white Ukrainian heritage, being the director largely contribute to why this remake missed the mark due to his lack of understanding of both communities? Despite being a part of the black community, I am left with more question with this film than the Irish film it was adapted from.

American Exceptionalism in The Commitments

The Commitments was very intriguing, particularly because of the implications it has on the transatlantic. In my opinion, it emphasized the strong sense of American exceptionalism that was present in Ireland. One notable aspect is how the band members constantly compare themselves to Black American soul musicians, like James Brown and Sam Cooke, and view them as their standard. This is significant with the appropriate context. During the 80s and 90s, not only were there influential Black European musicians that could have been mentioned, but there were White European musical icons like David Bowie, The Beatles, and Elton John. Despite all of this, the Irish band seemed to only gain inspiration from Black American musicians. At times this even extended to parts of White America, as shown by the numerous references to Elvis Presley. Some may argue that the constant reference to Americans reflects the popularity of American soul music and the influence of American culture on the global music industry. However, I believe that The Commitments are a perfect example of what it means to view the world through a lens of American exceptionalism. Furthermore, within the American exceptionalism in The Commitments, there was also an interesting question about cultural appropriation and authenticity. For example, the band members are all White Irish people whose goal was to imitate the styles of Black American soul musicians. It could be argued that this is a form of cultural appropriation since they are taking aspects of another culture and using them for their own gain. On the other hand, it can also be contended that the band is simply appreciating Black American soul music and it is not derogatory. All in all, The Commitments reiterates the idea of American exceptionalism since the band routinely compared themselves to their American counterparts.


“The Informer” portrays Dublin as a place of poverty and betrayal. The opening scene shows a dusty city with women haggard and covered scurrying about. It is a desolate and saddening picture, but it sets the scene for motives. When people are poor, they will do what they must in order to survive. The wanted poster of a man floats around the city, offering 20 pounds for him. It sticks to the feet of various people and eventually to the man who turns him over to the police. News and deeds of the citizens of Dublin follow them wherever they go. They can choose to act on it for their own benefit or not. In this case, the Informer did. He betrayed his friend by releasing the information about the wanted man to the police. This then leads to a gruesome murder by the police in front of that man’s family. For a body, he receives 20 pounds. In comparison, it only costs 10 pounds to get to America. Life is worth double the American Dream, yet the Informer squanders it by getting drunk off his guilt. 

The violent reaction of the community shows how deplorable it is to betray even criminals to the police. The Irish have positioned themselves against the police. They are suspicious of those watching them and edgy against the military. Each person hates the Informer, yet none of them are aware it is the same person they are benefiting from. Gippo gives the rest of the money to Katie in front of the investigators, thereby exposing himself. In exchange, they are ready to kill Gippo but even Frankie’s sister does not want that to happen. It is before the mother, “Mary”, that this Judas repents and then dies. At the very least, he is saved, not from the community, but by the Lord. 

Irish Social Values & The Shame of the Informer

While reading the novel and watching the film The Informer, I paid special attention to the Irish social customs that are presented, particularly the anger towards and the shame of informers. From the beginning, it is evident that being an informer is a terrible crime in Irish society. On page 48 Gypo yells at Katie for making a joke about him considering her an informer, as he has just informed the police about McPhillip, which lead to his death. Gypo spends the rest of the novel grappling with this decision as his community seeks out the traitor and mourns the loss of McPhillip. “Informer! A horror to be understood fully only by an Irish mind” (77). O’Flaherty intentionally describes how the horror of informing is a specifically Irish sentiment. This likely stems from the history of Irish social focus on collectivity, community, and solidarity, particularly in times of political turmoil. Since the British were a violent oppressive force for so much of Irish history, there is no worse betrayal than aiding them in harming your own people. I think it is these values that Daniel O’Connell spoke about in his address to the Irish Repeal Association of Cincinnati, when he cast shame upon Irish American immigrants who supported slavery. By refusing to stand in solidarity with Black Americans, these Irish immigrants were effectively “informers” in choosing to side with the oppressor in order to gain social capital or whiteness. O’Connell emphasizes the importance of community and solidarity in Ireland, and accuses these immigrants of abandoning their traditional culture in favor of cruelty. I found it very interesting how serious the Irish took the crime of being an informer, and also how this type of loyalty and kindness was lost for many across the Atlantic as the Irish assimilated into a capitalist society and discovered that they could gain privilege by distancing themselves from other oppressed groups.