Ireland land of song, your music lives forever


L J Sexton

I WAS 14 when U2 released their song Sunday Bloody Sunday. It was the first track on the WAR album and was inspired by the tragic events which took place on January 30, 1972, when members of the British Army opened fire on a group of unarmed civil rights protesters in Derry, killing 14 people, including seven teenagers. The song’s main focus, however, is on the wasteful violence and human suffering of the conflict in Ireland generally. I remember watching U2 on TV playing a gig at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, USA, and just before The Edge started playing the guitar intro, Bono shouted out: “This song is not a rebel song.’

I subsequently went to see them live at the Barrowlands here in Glasgow. I was with my Holyrood pals, Tracy Gallagher and Michelle Docherty, so we were maybe in fifth or sixth year, and believe me when I say this, we thought we were the feckin’ ‘dogs bollocks” strutting along the Gallowgate with bottles of cider hidden in our bags—which I’m pretty sure Michelle’s brother Joe bought for us although I shan’t commit to that. But what I do remember was our sense of disbelief mixed in a cocktail of nerves and apprehension, because we couldn’t believe we were going to see U2.

That night, once again, before Bono sang Sunday Bloody Sunday, he yelled out to the audience: “This song is not a rebel song,” and yes, I wholeheartedly agree with Bono. Sunday Bloody Sunday is not a rebel song. It is in fact a protest song and a lyrical representation of a factual historical event. I would liken it to We Shall Overcome, a Gospel song that became a protest song and a key anthem of the US civil rights movement. The song is most commonly attributed as being lyrically descended from I’ll Overcome Some Day, which was a hymn written by Charles Albert Tindley and first published in 1901.

So what in fact is a rebel song? In the context of Irish music, which I know a thing or two about, an Irish rebel song would refer to folk songs which are primarily about the rebellions which took place against British crown rule. Songs about rebellion are a popular topic of choice among musicians who support Irish Nationalism and Republicanism. Now we all know there’s a huge repertoire of rebel songs for us to choose from, including The Foggy Dew, Óró ‘Sé do bheatha ‘bhaile and The Men Behind the Wire, and indeed they each have a story to tell because they are a lyrical representation of a historical event relating to Irish rebellion.

So let’s examine then the context of what a rebel song is. The rebellion of 1916 was one of the most dramatic events of the Irish Revolution. In most European countries, songs were inspired by political events, but few of them—if any—were retained by tradition. Sometimes, however, particularly when there was a battle against oppression that coincides with a strong current of folk singing, a number of such songs or ballads will survive. Ireland is one of those countries where patriotic songs have been for a long time both popular and influential. These folk songs very often express strong collective emotions which capture the hearts of the common people and ensure the events—which these songs portray—will never be forgotten. Why? Because they are part of our history. They tell the true story of what happened, and not only that, they bind Irish people together. They were not written to cause offence, rather they were written to ensure that we never forget. Britain has a phrase which embodies exactly this: “Lest we not forget.” Indeed, if we were to study the words of the British National Anthem we’d find lyrics revering slavery and idolatry, adoration of aristocracy and the monarchy. It promotes imperial conquests and people’s subservience to the crown.

Scatter her enemies, and make them fall
Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks
On Thee our hopes we fix, God save us all
The original version even praises the crushing of the Scots.
May he sedition hush
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush
God save the King

The Foggy Dew tells the story of the 1916 rebellion, specifically the events in Dublin city between April 24-29, and was written three years later in 1919 by a young priest from County Antrim, Fr Charles O’Neill from Portglenone near Ballymena. Fr O’Neill found himself in the midst of history when he attended the first meeting of Dáil Eireann in Dublin’s Mansion House, on January 21. During the meeting of the Dáil, the roll call of members of parliament was made by the Chairperson, Cathal Brugha who declared 34 members absent as ‘Faoi ghlas ag na gaill’ (locked up by the foreigners) While 26 Unionist members were absent by their own choice. This meeting and the stark reality of the events of the uprising had a profound effect on Fr O’Neill who returned home and wrote The Foggy Dew:

As down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I
There armed lines of marching men in squadrons passed me by
No pipe did hum nor battle drum, did sound its dread tattoo
But the Angelus bell o’er the Liffey’s swell
Rang out in the Foggy Dew

Likewise, The Men Behind the Wire was written in the 1970s at the height of the more recent conflict in Northern Ireland. I have great memories of my induction into the world of rebel music and it goes back to my childhood when dad played this song on his cassette player at full whack, either in the house or in the car. I remember him cutting the front lawn with the windows open and that song blaring out. He loved it and so did I, despite the fact I hadn’t a bloody clue what it was about, and neither did the neighbours!

Someone else who loves it is my good friend, Shauneen Kelly, who told me the funniest story of when her family moved from Belfast to Glasgow during the conflict. Shauneen had just turned four in the December and was sent to St Joseph’s Primary School in Clarkston. On her first day the teacher, recognising that her Primary 1 class were rather exhausted and ready for home, asked if anyone would like to come to the front and share a story or recite a poem. I can imagine this was a genuine attempt to re-engage and stir them up a bit before they all fell asleep on her. So the shy retiring, Shauneen stepped forward and with a stomping foot and a rousing voice regaled the entire class with that very song:

Armoured cars and tanks and guns
Came to take away our sons
But every man must stand behind
The Men Behind the Wire
Through the little streets of Belfast
In the dark of early morn
British soldiers came marauding
Wrecking little homes with scorn

The teacher by all accounts was highly impressed and weans were now wide awake, so when Anne Kelly came to collect her wee Belfast child at home time, the cat was well out of the bag. The teacher found it hilarious and said she couldn’t wait to tell her husband, however, Anne Kelly didn’t quite share the sentiment as she knew Pat might not be as impressed, she was mortified.

Now this leads me quite naturally to the point of this story, when last week there was huge hullabaloo surrounding the Irish Women’s Football Team, who were ‘bullied’—and I don’t use that word lightly—into apologising publicly for singing The Celtic Symphony in their dressing room after the match where they celebrated their win over Scotland. The Celtic Symphony was plunged into the category of a ‘rebel song,’ which it most definitely is not. It is a song written in 1984 in celebration of Celtic Football Club, and is ultimately a football song. I don’t do social media apart from Twitter and I followed this story with intrigue. One Tweet read: “They clearly support Irish Terrorists.” So let’s get this straight shall we and take a logical approach. The Celtic Symphony, written in honour and celebration of Celtic’s success and their global support has the lyrics:

Graffiti on the walls just as the sun was going down
I seen graffiti on the walls (up the Celts, up the Celts)
Graffiti on the walls that says, ‘We’re magic, we’re magic’
Graffiti on the wall, graffiti on the wall
And it says ‘Ooh ah up the ‘RA, say ooh ah up the ‘RA

The lyrics are taken from exactly that, graffiti on a wall in Glasgow as seen by the band who wrote the song, The Wolfe Tones, who have verified the inspiration behind these lyrics have come out in full support of the Irish women’s team asking that the Irish Football Association and the journalist at the centre of the controversy, Rob Wotton, apologise for forcing them to say sorry for singing it.

What struck me most about all of this, and what is at the very core was Rob Wotton’s suggestion that these Irish women need ‘educating.’ Really? Rob clearly doesn’t know his football from his folk and he can’t have ever listened to the Irish National Anthem either, Amhrán na bhFiann known in English as the The Soldier’s Song.

Soldiers are we, whose lives are pledged to Ireland
Some have come from a land beyond the wave
Sworn to be free, No more our ancient sireland
Shall shelter the despot or the slave.
Tonight we man the bearna bhaoil
In Erin’s cause, come woe or weal
‘Mid cannons’ roar and rifles peal,
We’ll chant a soldier’s song

The Soldier’s Song celebrates the Irishmen and women who fought for their homeland, trying to get back what was rightfully theirs, to ensure people would not once again be left to starve to death and lose their homes. This is Ireland’s history and nothing will ever change a country’s history and no British or indeed Irish journalist should be allowed to vilify a team who chose to sing a football song to celebrate a win. And yes, Rob is indeed right, because ‘education is everything’ and because this song is not a rebel song!

And irony of ironies, The Celtic Symphony has re-entered the Irish charts at Number 1.

L J Sexton, mum of four, returned to university to pursue her passion for the written word. She achieved her Honours Degree in English Literature and Creative Writing and hasn’t stopped writing since. Lyn is born of Irish parents and lived in Donegal for eight years. She is also the press officer for Irish Minstrels CCÉ music group based in St Roch’s Secondary School