Gama Bomb’s Philly Byrne: Why The Northern Ireland Peace Process Was Great For Thrash Metal

Photo by Bríd Ní Luasaigh.

As a band we’ve never made a big deal of the fact we’re from Northern Ireland, probably because we didn’t see the Troubles as an appropriate topic for thrash metal — we just never wrote about it. You can’t compass that kind of tragedy and loss, that complexity of feeling, in jaunty crossover.

We see ourselves as an all-Ireland band, but where you come from matters, right?

Joe [McGuigan, bass] and I grew up in Newry, right on the border with the Republic. As a child you saw armed soldiers on the street; your ma’s car stopped at checkpoints; heard the old-fashioned fire station klaxon howling so many times a day; heard the reports of that night’s shootings and murders over your cereal before school. Joe’s first memory is of his house being blown up when an IRA mortar bomb bounced off the police station next door. Nobody was killed, mercifully — but they were made homeless, and it’s probably affected him for life.

What was it like to grow up then? People from Northern Ireland get asked this a lot, and the answer is bizarre in its simplicity: it was normal. You didn’t think about it. You just ate your corn flakes and went to school. 

We formed Gama Bomb in Newry between Easter and summer of 2002, but we immediately set our sights on playing in Belfast. This was a very lofty ambition, as no serving band member could drive at the time, but Belfast soon became our hometown. 

Four years on from the Good Friday Agreement that ended the Troubles, the city was still spiritually and physically healing. Coffee shops and hipster bars were springing up, some overt signs of military policing and security had been removed, and there were lots of neglected city-centre spaces of the kind punks love to fill up with art and cheap cider. 

The Troubles had obviously given meaning and momentum to punk in Ulster: The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers were just two of more NI punk bands than you can count (pick up the excellent book It Makes You Want To Spit by Sean O’Neill to learn about them), and this scene was still alive and gobbing when we got off the 238 from Newry to play our first shows there in 2002.

We played shoddy gigs in makeshift venues like Gyro’s, the top floor of a warehouse building where there were always more people in the narrow corridor leading to the toilets, drinking cans and shouting the odds, than there ever were on the floor itself (at least during our set).

These were supplemented by shows at pubs that were past their prime but being kept alive by punks — The Front Page, The Rosetta and others had all-day punk festivals, the floors lethally slick with Tennent’s, never enough bodies in them to fill the space but enough to make noise, to make community. 

Without MySpace to show us like-minded bands, we were an island in 2002. It seemed to us that thrash was a dead genre, preserved only in the dusty tapes we’d bought from Newry Library. We were the only mosher in the village, but punks took us in. 

Week after week, they let us play on their bills with Dog Toffee and Poison Idea and Gorilla Biscuits and whoever else was breezing through. They always made sure to stand and politely nod along, even if they didn’t get what all these zombie songs were about. They never started on us, never made us feel excluded. 

They radicalised us, too. Every night the room would roar along to “Fuck The USA” by The Exploited in fresh outrage at the invasion of Iraq; you’d hear “Cops” by Rudi, written about RUC violence against Belfast punks in 1977; “The KKK Took My Baby Away” by The Ramones. It seemed natural for us to write those songs, too, just like the Nuclear Assault tapes we were listening to. It was pointless to be toothless when your peers were all teeth.

These were crowds from every background, united around rejection of sectarianism and music in a city and a province that was still hobbled and humbled enough to make room for it. They were sound heads, tolerant of each other and of us. When we come back to Belfast, some of them still show up at our gigs. 

Looking back, I don’t think Gama Bomb would have been possible without the peace process.

In the crater the violence left, creativity sprung up: Alternative Ulster Magazine gave the province’s indie music a champion — and gave me a start in my career as a journalist. Promoters brought great bands in; peace opened up every town in the North to us as a band of mostly-Catholics from a mostly-Catholic town who’d previously be given short shrift. 

We didn’t play with another thrash band until 2006, in Dublin. By then, the levee was about to break, with thrash metal re-emerging and some momentum gathering behind us. Until then, it was the Belfast punks, the no-sider bastard kids of the Troubles, who kept us going.

It’s disturbing to see how cavalier the current Tory government has been with its treatment of the Good Friday Agreement, how carelessly they handle the feelings and hopes of people in the North. They’ve found willing partners for their wrecking crusade in the increasingly isolated DUP, a group who can only offer old grievances to gnaw on in place of hope and policy. 

The future of the North lies in the same place we saw it back then — in the hands of a new generation who don’t care about Us and Them.

We’re an all-Ireland band, but our roots and our heart are in Northern Ireland, a place we want to see prosper in peace of the kind that allowed us to become something more than the band on the Ulsterbus 238. Here’s to the punks.

Gama Bomb’s latest, Sea Savage, is out now on Prosthetic Records.

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Words by Philly Byrne