M(h)aol’s Feminist Punk Is a Jolt to the Establishment

Dean Van Nguyen

Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.


M(h)aol put out their first single “Clementine” in 2015 and immediately went on a releasing hiatus. Had the story of the band ended there, it would have qualified as a post-punk tragedy. Using a letter written to the Times in 1912 by Clementine Churchill (wife of Winston) in response to an anti-suffrage campaigner as a jump-off point, singer Róisín Nic Ghearailt tackled the antiquated perception that unmarried women who reach a certain age are worthless.

“Clementine” includes a vocal assist by Girl Band’s Dara Kiely, who slurs his words disdainfully, appearing to symbolise the voice of men who prop up the patriarchy. It’s heavy and atmospheric; the gnarly haze of guitars in the background sounding like 1,000 factory floors grinding in the distance. For a new band, it was a visceral intro. Then … nothing. They disappeared like vapour smoke.

Like a miracle, M(h)aol (pronounced like “male”) reappeared last year with new single “Laundries”, beginning a release schedule that has finally led to their debut EP Gender Studies. It’s a savagely loud and airtight set of post-punk songs, the most exciting release from an Irish guitar band I’ve heard in a while, if one fated to be commercial kryptonite because of its raw dissonance and broaching of topics that typically make the mainstream bristle.

Exhilarating as M(h)aol’s emergence is, the band are not without their sonic predecessors. Detectable are the incisive performance poetry of John Cooper Clarke, the idiosyncratic art-punk of The Raincoats, and especially the riot grrrl movement and its feminist punk legacy. Vicious vocals are stimulated by buzzsaw guitars and grubby basslines. It’s jarring, it’s cacophonous. I mean, the drums on the 51-second “Kinder Bueno” (exclusive to the vinyl release of the EP) sound like a load of hubcaps thrown off a building.

But what is different about M(h)aol – Róisín Nic Ghearailt, Constance Keane aka Fears, Jamie Hyland, Zoe Greenway and Sean Nolan – is how they’ve dissolved a host of issues affecting this country, past and present, into shot-glass-sized songs. They walk the line between appreciating Irish feminist history and tooling up for new battles.

So you get “Laundries”, of course about the Magdalene Laundries. Nic Ghearailt raises the shame Irish society inflicted on the houses of the unmarried women and girls who became pregnant. “The girls were so quiet/ Their lives maligned”, she sings before raising her voice to a scream: “They shut and put up/ Could never ask why.” Greenway’s bass is an evil-sounding thing, which, of course, is entirely appropriate.

The less-than-two-minute “Gender Studies” is about the futility of gender constructs, a takedown of those who believe the binary represents the entire spectrum. There are crunchy riffs, aching feedback, and drums that sound like they were rescued from a skip. Here, Nic Ghearailt performs in a flat, spoken-word style. This melody-minimal delivery can seem like the easiest thing in the world – just talking over guitars, right? Actually, it’s the most difficult thing in all of punk. Get someone who doesn’t commit 100 percent and they can come off as cringy; a vocalist without the necessary grit in their soul can stand out like a bad actor in a lush period drama. Not Nic Ghearailt, a frontwoman who performs with stoic determination and a sneering edge.

Then there’s “Asking For It”, which was released as a single in March. The song tears into gender-based violence and the subsequent victim-blaming. “Was I asking for it? Did I ask for it? No!” screams Nic Ghearailt, her voice buried in the mix as if yearning to find its way out of a tunnel and fully be heard. It’s a shame it isn’t included on the EP, but in light of the Sarah Everard murder, M(h)aol have donated all profits from this loosie to Women’s Aid Ireland.

​​Gender Studies ends with a cover of “Óró Sé Do Bheatha ’Bhaile,” an old Irish folk song and freedom anthem about Gráinne Mhaol, pirate queen and plunderer of English ships in the late 1500s, who inspired the band’s name. Nothing like what came before, this tense and atmospheric version of the song puts a quiet button on the EP. The group disappears into the mist.

A lot happened in this country during M(h)aol’s period away, that’s for certain. When I first listened to the EP, I wondered if it was a shame that they weren’t active to soundtrack some of the highpoints of this era of social upheaval. But the group sensed that now is right for them to burst out, to instil righteous anger in their listeners, to jolt the establishment. Spin ​​Gender Studies a few times and who can deny this reckoning is right on time?

M(h)aol’s Gender Studies EP is released Friday 29 October.

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Dean Van Nguyen: Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

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