This is what he learned: The Celts dominated Irish culture for 1,000 years, but then Ireland was besieged, with varying degrees of savagery, by the Vikings, Normans, Tudor Protestants, Oliver Cromwell and the British Crown in general.
Under the penal laws instituted in the late 17th century, Catholics were forbidden to vote, join the army or hold public office. Catholic priests were hanged, drawn and quartered if they were caught celebrating Mass.
Ireland did not become a fully independent republic until 1949. And nationalists still seethe over the injustices against Catholics in the six northern counties of Ulster, the British-gerrymandered state and site of the continuing violent discontent known euphemistically as "The Troubles."
O'Malley began to seethe with them. While still in high school, he hooked up with the musical prophet Costello and another fellow to form his first band, the Shannon Tide, which might have been the worst Irish band in history. They knew 20 songs, period.
In the movie "The Commitments," the story of a fame-starved, working-class Irish band, there is a wonderful scene where the band's organizer is interviewing potential musicians from among hellish collection of biker riff-raff, nose-studded, heavy-metal freaks and whacked-out Dublin matrons with shaved heads.
To each, in a voice that manages to be both terribly earnest and terribly condescending, he poses this question: "Who're yer in-flu-ences, then?"
Imagine Martin O'Malley answering this question back in the Reagan days of the early '80s. His pals are into Springsteen and U2 and Dire Straits. The punk movement is still vibrant; metal still has its adherents.
But when asked what music makes his pulse quicken, O'Malley holds up his tin whistle and answers: "The Wolf Tones."
Even the hard-core Irish pub crawlers probably thought he was a bit off. Good jaysis! What's wrong with the lad?
O'Malley played bar gigs with the Shannon Tide until joining the first Gary Hart presidential campaign as a volunteer and leaving for Iowa in 1984 to work as a district organizer.
By 1987, at the tender age of 24, O'Malley had become Hart's national field director. But when Hart's campaign did a Donna Rice crash-and-burn that year, O'Malley found himself burned out and disillusioned.
Worse, he was a man without a cause again.
He tried to rededicate himself to law school. He also traded in his tin whistle for a guitar and plunged back into Irish music with a vengeance.
He played solo for a year. Then, two significant events occur in his life: He hooks up with Paul Levin, "the Piper from Pikesville," in the first incarnation of O'Malley's March.
And two years later, at the age of 28, he wins a seat on the Baltimore City Council.
Here at Mick O'Shea's, O'Malley's March is into a frenetic second set that ranges from a Christy Moore ballad ("Welcome to the Cabaret") to traditional bar songs ("The Wild Rover," "Mary Mac") to a Shane MacGowan diatribe ("Thousands Are Sailing") to a Van Morrison classic ("Brown-Eyed Girl.")
This is a band that sings of the breadth of the Irish experience: love, war, family, hope, longing, poverty, carousing, the Catholic Church. But where O'Malley exudes the most passion, where his powerful tenor voice seems to soar, are on those songs that deal with injustice. Injustice always inflames reformers.
Perhaps the best number on the band's new CD is "Streets of Baltimore," an O'Malley original with a rollicking beat that belies its dark themes.
It's about the blight that wiped out the Irish potato crop of 1845 and lasted three years, about the 1 million or more Irish who starved to death, about the 2 million who emigrated in order to live, about all the other crops that sat in grain houses waiting to be shipped to England while the people literally died in the streets.
O'Malley stresses that this is not some revisionist air-brushing of history. Sinead O'Connor might be a flaming nutcase on some things, but O'Malley says she gets it exactly right when she rasps of that terrible time: "There was no famine!"
O'Malley adopts a similarly accusing tone in the opening lyrics of "Streets of Baltimore":
L To work the land from dawn to dusk was father's highest goal
And I set myself to do the same when the dear Lord took his soul
But the land we worked was not our own and the fruit of my two hands
Was carted off to England to suit the landlord's plan.
By the black year '47, the landlord's game was plain
Starvation was the rent we'd pay in a country filled with grain
'Mid sobs of crying children, we left the shamrock shore
And traded desperation for the hope of Baltimore.
O'Malley has it figured like this: If you sing in an Irish band and you can't get worked up over the Irish diaspora, you can't get worked up about anything.