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The Real Story Behind the ’80s Hit Song ‘Come on Eileen’

Photo Credit: Ebet Roberts / Redferns / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Ebet Roberts / Redferns / Getty Images

Many fans of What We Do In The Shadows will likely be disappointed to find out that “Come On Eileen” was not written by Laszlo Cravensworth in 1852 as an ode to a local fishmonger’s wife, Eileen. The song was a single from Dexys Midnight Runners’ second album Too-Rye-Ay. It was released in June 1982, and according to Kevin Rowland, it was inspired by the “Catholic guilt” he felt in his childhood.

Read on for the real story behind this wildly famous song.

Dexys Midnight Runners

Dexys Midnight Runners is a British band that gained widespread popularity in the 1980s. Founded in Birmingham, England, in 1978, the band was initially named Dexys Midnight Runners and the Emerald Express before it was shortened to Dexys Midnight Runners. The group was co-founded by singer/songwriter Kevin Rowland.

L-R Steve Shaw, Helen O'Hara, Kevin Rowland, Seb Shelton and (below) Billy Adams of Dexys Midnight Runners, group portrait at Diamond Sound Rehersal Studios in Birmingham on September 9 1982.
Dexys Midnight Runners, 1982. (Photo Credit: Brian Cooke / Redferns / Getty Images)

Dexys Midnight Runners’ music is a unique blend of soul, pop, and folk with a distinctive brass section, setting them apart from many of their contemporaries in the new wave and punk scenes. Their sound is characterized by passionate vocals, dynamic performances, and a commitment to incorporating traditional instruments, such as fiddles and banjos, alongside guitars and drums.

In 1980, Dexys Midnight Runners achieved commercial success with their first album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels. The album included their breakout hit “Geno,” which topped the UK charts. However, it was their follow-up album, Too-Rye-Ay (1982), that propelled them to international stardom. The album’s lead single, “Come On Eileen,” became an iconic song of the 1980s, reaching number one in multiple countries.

‘My thoughts, I confess, verge on dirty’

In an interview with Yahoo! Music, Kevin Rowland explained the inspiration behind the famous song as his religious childhood in 1950s/’60s Britain. He described the song’s titular character, Eileen, as a “composite” of the female classmates he began to notice as a young boy. He said, “I never had any sexual education – as in none… The school didn’t tell me about sex. My parents didn’t tell me about sex. It was a secret.”

Rowland further explained that when you’re 13 or 14 years old, you start to have new feelings, and since no one talked about them, it was a secret. He said his mentality was that if it was a secret, then it had to be bad because you weren’t supposed to have these feelings or thoughts, and you certainly weren’t supposed to talk about them.

“So, I’d grown up with these kinds of Irish Catholic girls in my community,” Rowland said, “you’re not supposed to touch ’em, but you want to!… It was like, ‘Well, you shouldn’t really be having these feelings.’ But you do, and you want to make it happen. But also, you feel terribly guilty because they’re Irish Catholic, and you shouldn’t be touching them.”

Rowland summed up his experiences by saying, “But something good came out of it.”

‘I don’t have to be Mr… Tough Guy. It’s all right to be feminine’

Since “Come On Eileen,” Rowland has come to terms with the “Catholic guilt” that influenced his earlier career. In newer albums, such as The Feminine Divine, with songs such as “My Submission” and “I’m Going to Get Free,” Rowland has confronted his earlier fears and even his faults.

Kevin Rowland performing with Dexys Midnight Runners at The Venue, London, 1982.
Kevin Rowland performing with Dexys Midnight Runners in 1982. (Photo Credit: David Corio / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

He said, “I’m not saying that the album is 100% autobiographical, but it came from starting to see women as goddesses and realizing that, you know what, I don’t have to be Mr… Tough Guy. It’s all right to be feminine, and maybe I don’t have to be in control.”

More from us: The Real Backstory of Heart’s Hit Song ‘Barracuda’

Rowland nervously admitted that how he thought, for the longest time, was not healthy, positive, or effective. He said that he had a misogynist mindset; however, after his mother died, he confronted these ideas and did some soul-searching. Sober for 29 years, Rowland looks forward to his 70th birthday, saying that “Dexys is my obsession again.”

Ryan McLachlan

Ryan McLachlan is a historian and content writer for Hive Media. He received his Bachelor of Arts in History and Classical Studies and his Master of Arts in History from the University of Western Ontario. Ryan’s research focused on military history, and he is particularly interested in the conflicts fought by the United Kingdom from the Napoleonic Wars to the Falklands War.

Ryan’s other historical interests include naval and maritime history, the history of aviation, the British Empire, and the British Monarchy. He is also interested in the lives of Sir Winston Churchill and Admiral Lord Nelson. Ryan enjoys teaching, reading, writing, and sharing history with anyone who will listen.

In his spare time, he enjoys watching period dramas such as Murdoch Mysteries and Ripper Street and also enjoys reading classical literature and Shakespeare. He also plays football and is an afternoon tea connoisseur.