It’s Groundhog Day again. Last August Unionist politicians and media including sections of the Dublin media went out of their way to be offended by the WolfeTones concert at Féile, in particular their song Celtic Symphony. This year howls of outrage from the usual moral entrepreneurs are in full swing before the group has even taken to the stage.
Kevin Rooney, a great fan of rebel music and of the Wolfe Tones in particular first saw them live in 1981 at the Gleneagle hotel Killarney and many times since. He wrote this piece about last year’s manufactured controversy but has now slightly updated it to include the manufactured outrage in 2023.
My wife, a CEO of a London based media charity, has two party piece songs inherited from her father, a Dublin man who emigrated to Manchester. His favourite songs were ‘The Dublin Saunter’ and ‘The Men Behind the Wire’. The first is a sweet, sentimental ode to a Dublin of yesteryear, the second a feisty Irish rebel song, released in 1971 in protest at British army raids and the internment without trial of hundreds of nationalists and civil rights activists in the north of Ireland. The song starts “Armoured cars and tanks and guns came to take away our sons. But every man must stand behind, the men behind the wire.”
My wife doesn’t reserve her party pieces for Irish friends. She has been singing them (badly) to her English middle class colleagues at any drinks party which turns into a sing song. We talked about this last week as the Irish media went into full-on outrage mode after some young people were filmed singing pro-IRA chants at a Wolfe Tones concert attended by 10,000 in Falls Park at the finale of the West Belfast Féile. While the Wolfe Tones set is almost all rebel songs, the one that caused most offence was the Celtic Symphony which is accompanied by an audience line of “Ooh, ah, up the RA” by way of a chorus.
Emma Little-Pengelly, DUP MLA, branded the concert a “hate fest” and called on all organisations who provide funding and sponsorship for Féile to voice their position on pro-IRA chants, adding “Public money cannot be used to fund an event which year after year spends hours glorifying the terrorism of the PIRA…”
Many other unionists commentators joined the fray. Describing the concert as proof that Northern Ireland is “descending back into sectarianism”, professor and former prison governor Ian Acheson wrote in The Spectator that the young revellers were “gleefully
It would be easy to shrug off the outrage from Unionists as predictable but the clamour for action has real world consequences with politicians and festival organisers forced onto the defensive and considering new ways to police the behaviour of young nationalists. Tourism NI, one of the Féile’s main sponsors, has announced that it is investigating the matter. John Herron, a professional footballer pictured at Féile in a republican T Shirt was suspended from Larne football club and subsequently given a ten match ban by the Irish Football Association. This came after unionists blasted him as ‘abhorrent’ and ‘sickening’ and
demanded he be banned from ever playing with the club. Days later a young woman was suspended from her job at a car dealer when pictures of her singing the Celtic Symphony were spotted on social media.
Unionists were quick to use the events to reinforce their warnings about a border poll on Irish unity, arguing that unionists have no hope of feeling welcomed into a united Ireland if terrorists are held up as heroes by young nationalists. Emma Little-Pengelly was clear that the whole festival, which was the biggest yet with around 100,000 people attending more than 350 events, is “dragging us backwards.” While many nationalists reacted angrily to the ‘faux’ outrage of unionists, some engaged in considered reflections on whether it might be right to relegate pro-IRA songs to our history to
reassure moderate unionists and protestants that they will feel welcome in a future United Ireland. An editorial in the Andersonstown News suggested the Wolfe Tones might be asked
to drop the offending song from their set in future. Other commentators suggested that rebel bands like the Wolfe Tones are themselves a blast from the past and past their sell by date.
But I think there is another way we can do this. The Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the north of Ireland was based on ‘agreement’ which accorded respect for different traditions. As growing support for a border poll forces us all to imagine what a different future could look like, we can discuss and debate our attitude to the songs, images, murals and flags that were such a huge part of life for the nationalist and unionist traditions over the
decades of The Troubles. We can put aside old biases and start a fresh discussion based on the new realities in front of us.
One of these is that many of the young people singing along to the Wolfe Tones were not even born when the conflict ended. Many, like my wife, will be singing rebel songs because they grew up with them, and because they are great songs, not because they celebrate the IRA or are making any political points about today. Many will be middle class professionals who don’t come from a republican background like Leinster rugby players but enjoy the
rowdy concerts that have made the Wolfe Tones one of the most popular bands in Ireland. To demonise these young people, attribute them with political opinions we cannot know about and seek to rob them of their chosen careers is intolerant and mean minded. As Andree Murphy said these crowds were raving and dancing and making merry ‘out of harm’s way’. They were not shouting at unionists or bringing hate to anyone’s door.
Of course asking unionists to tolerate the singing of rebel songs and wearing of Republican t-shirts would need to be reciprocated by nationalists accepting the signs and symbols sported by unionists through The Troubles including the flying of Union Jacks, orange
marches and Loyalist murals. This will stick in the craw for many nationalists but it’s an important way to demonstrate that a forward-looking society has nothing to lose from allowing young nationalists and unionists to occasionally sing the old songs and sport the symbols and chants of a time gone by without causing offence. But even if people take offence that should not be sufficient criteria to demonise or criminalise anyone.
My wife’s party piece, ‘The Men Behind the Wire’, was popular in Ireland in its day. After its release in December 1971 the song shot into the Irish charts, selling more copies than any other single until then released in Ireland. A poll published just days after this row over the pro-IRA chants revealed that 69% of nationalists believe today that armed resistance to British rule was necessary back in the time of the conflict. Banning and criminalising any expressions of that historical legacy is one option but it’s a bad one.
The Troubles are thankfully long over. But let’s not replace it with a needless and negative culture war. Where politicians fan flames by engaging in the politics of outrage, selective condemnation and calls for sanctions every time unionists, nationalists, loyalists and
republicans sing, say, wave or wear something the other side doesn’t like. We know there is no agreement on who the terrorists, freedom fighters or oppressors were so let’s move on. If we go down that road of criminalising songs and clothing we are on a backward slippery slope. Thousands of mostly young people will be hounded out of their jobs and we will find ourselves in the midst of McCarthy style witch-hunt as people from all sides begin to monitor every concert, parade, tweet and utterance for offence in order to do the other side down.
The DUP and Belfast Telegraph will always choose to be offended, to be outraged and to condemn because they are moral entrepreneurs. If the WolfeTones didn’t sing Celtic Symphony they would seize on another song to complain about. To move forward, we need to rediscover the meaning of tolerance. Real tolerance is not about simply being nice to each other. It means accepting the right of others to march, wave flags, T-shirts and sing songs
that we may disapprove of, or even find offensive. With good will and give and take on all sides we can cut young people and each other a bit of slack.
The Wolfe Tones’ 2023 concert this week is a case in point. It is in the middle of the Falls Park in the middle of Republican West Belfast, several miles from the nearest Loyalist or Unionist area. In this context, only the most intolerant unionist politician spoiling for a fight could object to 10,000 people enjoying themselves at a good old rebel night far away from the eyes and ears of anyone who might be offended. In the words of another great song I enjoy listening to – Let the people sing.