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  • Writer's pictureIsabela Camargos

The historic meaning behind U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name”

The entire discography of U2, led by Nobel Prize winner and enigmatic songwriter Bono Vox, is known to be deep and meaningful. The band’s most famous album, Joshua Tree, is a collective of some of the Soft Rock world’s most interesting hits, and it became the fastest-selling album in both the US and UK ever.

Bono in the award-winning music video for “Where the Streets Have No Name,” which was recorded on top of a rooftop in Los Angeles.

Where the Streets Have No Name is the first track on the album. In the band's 2009 bio, U2 By U2, the lead singer characterized the song as the perfect introduction, stating it defined the search for “a place of imagination, where there are no limitations.” The song is, in fact, about Northern Ireland. Bono himself claims he was inspired by Belfast when writing the lyrics about a spiritual location, as well as the feeling of claustrophobia it causes. In his words, “a feeling of wanting to break out of that city and wanting to go somewhere where the values of the city and the values of our society don't hold you down”.

Belfast is very heavy on societal values; it is possible to tell each and every person’s religion and economic situation simply by knowing what street they live in. Even analyzing which side of the road people live on can collaborate to this phenomenon, because the further up the hill, the more expensive the houses become. Upon the knowledge of such social discomfort, Bono and his moral compass dove into writing about the search for a place where the streets have no name. This begs the question: what were the roots of this discriminatory culture? Religious intolerance has always been, but the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) seemed to embroider it even further in Irish culture.

Seeded by centuries of conflict between predominantly Catholic Ireland and predominantly Protestant England, the partition of Ireland into two countries - the Irish Free State (almost entirely Catholic) and the smaller Northern Ireland (mostly Protestant with a Catholic minority)- caused tensions as the latter remained under British rule. The Catholic communities in cities like Belfast and Derry complained of discrimination and unfair treatment by the Protestant-controlled government and police forces. At that time, two opposing forces coalesced in Northern Ireland largely along sectarian lines: the Catholic “nationalists” versus the Protestant “loyalists.” That being the case, the population partitioned itself into communities of the same belief, resulting in socially divided cities, neighborhoods and streets.

The flame of religious and popular prejudice, which sparked over a century ago, manifests itself present in Northern Ireland until this day through social disparity clearly shown in the geographic disposition of the population. Impressed by the hold these ancient values still have, though unspokenly, U2 did a wonderful job in channeling that strong and emotional energy Irish cities carry in Where the Streets Have no Name, which came to be known as one of the greatest songs of all time.

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