Working towards Irish Unity



Raised on Songs and Stories

By Brian Crìostoir & Meabh MacDaibhéid

Outrage season is back. Anois, ar theacht an tSamhraidh.

On Sunday, the Wolfe Tones played Féile an Phobail, the West Belfast Festival, which is celebrating its 35th year. The Féile is a triumph of a thriving civic spirit and an event that fosters cultural expression, debate and cross-community engagement. The West Belfast Festival has everything from music and dance to sport, literature and politics, but the Wolfe Tones gig will be the grand finale. Féile always has an impressive traditional line-up and interactive music workshops. Crowds have enjoyed Grainne Hollande, as well as Jun Tzu, The Whistlin’ Donkeys, Gemma Dunleavy and Kneecap. But, as an iconic act that has told Ireland’s story to the world, there is no more fitting headliner than the Wolfe Tones.

Inevitably, this means that the band’s chart topping anthem Celtic Symphony from 1987 electrified crowds as it does on their seemingly non-stop tours. It’s a powerful tune, with lyrical synth strings, choral chants and the trademark banjo that marks the band’s distinct rustic sound. It also has quite a strange narrative, being part impressionist recollections of Glasgow’s Park Head and part vision of being seized by the devil. It celebrates ‘The Jungle’, ‘Paradise’ (as Celtic Park is known) and the ‘Lions’. And some lines are answered by a roar from the terraces. This song is about Glasgow and a love for the atmosphere of Celtic Park. It has become an unofficial anthem for both Celtic and Ireland. In short, it’s a banger.

Graffiti on the wall, just as the sun was going down. I’d seen graffiti on the wall: ‘Up the Celts, up the Celts’ Graffiti on the wall, it said ‘we’re magic, we’re magic’, Graffiti on the wall. Graffiti on the wall… And it said ‘ooh, ah, up the ra’, it said ‘ooh ah up the ra’.

Celtic Symphony, The Wolfe Tones

The Wolfe Tones, who take their name from a radical Protestant lawyer from the late eighteenth century, have been filling venues since the 1960s. To put these six decades into perspective, Brian Warfield will be 80 years old next year and he formed the band as Martin Luther King was making his famous speech in Washington. They’ve barely stopped since then, despite changes of lineup and contractual disagreements. The 1960s and 70s saw an incredible folk revival in many places, notably in America. But in Ireland too, a new generation of musicians rediscovered the rich legacy of rebel and traditional music, notably from the early 20th century but many date much further back.

Many of the songs had been passed down from mother to daughter and women were the backbone of the revival in the early days. The ‘Ballad Boom’ was powered by Delia Murphy, Bridie Gallagher and Eileen Donaghy. The traveller community had preserved hundreds of songs that had fallen out of use among settled people. Margaret Barry, a street singer born in Cork and steeped in the traditions of traveller folk-songs, is credited with bringing many songs back from near-extinction and becoming the favourite folk singer of many revivalists – including Bob Dylan.

Some songs were very old indeed, dating back to ancient Gaelic Ireland, before the plantations and new lyrics were often set to traditional airs. On occasion, artists took less well-remembered songs and re-energised them. Arthur McBride (Roud 2355*), probably originated as an English anti-recruitment song during the war with Napoleon. Paul Brady’s version, performed on live TV in 1977, is a masterpiece with tragicomic lyrics and virtuoso guitar that gives the song an incredible depth. Many of the most beloved songs in the Wolfe Tones’ repertoire are also new renditions rather than their own material as is common in all folk traditions.

But one rebel song, Celtic Symphony, stands out, indeed is singled out for criticism, not just because of its supposed celebration of the IRA, but because it induces crowds of, invariably young, people to chant along. Unionists from Bryson to Little-Pengelly have said that this is evidence that, for all its secular appearance, the West Belfast Festival is hostile to protestants and unionists and that it causes offence to those affected by IRA violence. But there are other, wider and complex questions to be answered about the song’s enduring appeal. Ireland’s women’s football team recently sparked controversy for singing it in their dressing room. An English reporter bitterly asked if they ‘knew their own history’. It was even played at a Fine Gael event, which prompted much clutching of pearls. If it is so controversial, why is it still so fondly celebrated, topping the Irish charts yet again last autumn?

The answer lies in the tradition of rebel songs themselves. They celebrate national identity (both at home and in particular among the diaspora) and are methods of storytelling and remembrance for a nation whose history, language and culture was almost entirely lost to a brutal empire. These songs often make sense of tragedy, death, sacrifice, martyrdom and defeat but also of love, hope and the imagined Ireland that Connolly and his comrades fought and died for. For those who know the traditions intimately, they are a symbol of resistance to colonialism and its legacies and an expression of defiance to ongoing injustices. But it is crucial to note that, in the present at least, their popularity is at odds with the near-universal rejection of the armed struggle as a way to meet republican goals in 2023. Put crudely, thousands of West Belfast teenagers would be perfectly able to express support for the principle of armed struggle during the campaign of 60s-90s. Very few of them see that as appropriate today. And as with any resistance movement, it’s possible to support the cause as legitimate, without condoning any individual action. Unfortunately, such complex positions, if translated into songs, would make for awful lyrics and even more tedious headlines.

Let the people sing their stories and their songs
And the music of their native land
Their lullabies and battle cries and songs of hope and joy
So join us hand in hand.

Let The People Sing (Warfield 1972)

The Rebel Song Tradition

If you were looking for evidence that rebel songs reveal the deepest darkest intentions of Republicans for wanton violence, you’d be disappointed. Certainly there are songs that celebrate the IRA such as My Little Armalite (Wolfhound, 1975) and ‘The Man From the Daily Mail (O’Casey, 1918) with silly lyrical flourishes. Come Out Ye Black and Tans (Dominic Behan, brother of celebrated playwright Brendan Behan, circa 1958) is a fairly tongue-in-cheek jibe at the ferocious forces that terrorised Ireland in the 20s. It manages to capture the absurdity of celebrating British soldiers who sat behind machine guns, while also throwing up its own prejudices: that Arab and Zulu ‘natives’ were helpless and that war is a male sphere that men should ‘tell your wives’ about. Like many other old songs, we should recognise the problematic dimensions, from ignorance about Irish soldiers’ involvement in British colonialism, to the overt sexism. But it is possible to embrace a tradition while accepting it is not above criticism.

Listen to those most widely-cherished songs and you’ll see another pattern emerge: these songs are often quite melancholy. They are not jingoistic or particularly triumphant. The people who die in our songs are our own people. Revenge for Skibereen (Roud 2312) and The Valley of Knockanure (McMahon, 1949) spring to mind as being so awfully sad that they barely register as resistance. The Fields of Athenry (St John 1979) has a similar flavour and despite being an adopted national anthem at sports games, is sung in both victory and defeat, with equal vigour and is a heart wrenching story. Hopefully, Daoirí Farrell’s incredible version of The Shady Woods of Truagh (Roud 2911) will come to be as well known as Athenry. It is a love story that is rare in Irish song, as it has two happy endings: a wedding and an English defeat in battle.

Back Home in Derry (Music: Lightfoot 1976, Lyrics: Sands 1981) is a great favourite of mine. Legend has it that Bobby Sands sang the lyrics through the bars of the H Blocks to Christy Moore. It’s lilting sailing rhythms are set to harrowing lyrics that put Ireland in its wider colonial context and tells the story of ‘60 rebels today bound for Botany Bay’ and proceeds to describe their deaths during transportation ‘in their own slime’, drawing parallels with slavery (though this was merely penal servitude) as well as the obvious comparisons with the blanket protest experiences of Sands and his comrades.

An epic ballad from the same time, Joe McDonell (Warfield 1983) tells the story of the fifth out of ten men to die during the 1981 Hunger Strike that Sands led. During any raucous events, the Wolfe Tones will pause for several minutes if necessary to appeal for quiet. I have witnessed Warfield go to great lengths to introduce the story for an audience clearly too young to remember. The most memorable lyric ‘And you dare to call me a terrorist / while you look down your gun’ is an answer to every criticism of Irish rebel songs, when nothing of the sort is aimed at the ever-marching, ever-armed British military regime and its ever-increasing impunity for war crimes not just in Ireland but across the globe. It is customary for audiences to clap when the names of the Hunger Strikers are sung. The celebration is for the courage of laying down one’s life. Far from celebrating IRA actions, the song reflects on the futility of it all. It ends with an imperfect cadence and a lament: ‘for everything is lost and nothing’s won’. Some may argue that the legacy bill being celebrated by both the Tory and Labour parties in Britain will ensure that the soldiers with blood on their hands will lose nothing.

It was in that same era that Frank and Sean O’Meara wrote Grace (1985), which shares the melancholy outlook on the struggle but with a bittersweet declaration of romantic love. For that reason it is played at both weddings as well as wakes and funerals. It is sung from the perspective of Joseph Mary Plunkett, who was given permission to marry his sweetheart, Grace Gifford, just hours before being executed by firing squad in 1916. It’s through songs like Foggy Dew (O’Neill, circa 1919) and Grace that many young people become familiar with the goals and idealism of the Easter Rising. In recent days, a new generation of young people will have discovered Sinead O’Connor, one of our most fearless poets and composers. Her recording of Foggy Dew is incomparable. Across a range of traditional songs, O’Connor brought the rawness of punk as well as the ethereal elegance of Celtic mysticism to create some of the most memorable versions of well-known rebel songs.

But lesser known histories are commemorated too. Sean South (Costelloe, 1958) recounts a botched border raid in 1957, when ‘Limerick Man’ South led a ‘lorry load of volunteers’ against an RUC station. Two of them did not return. South remains a controversial figure, both because of his reactionary Catholic views and his place in history, sandwiched between the heroes of the War of Independence and the insurgents of the 70s. He was a volunteer in the ‘Border Campaign’; when IRA support was arguably at its lowest point. But the song welcomed home the victorious Limerick hurling team in July, despite receiving condemnation when sung after previous wins. South is still a local folk hero and would no doubt have been forgotten, had the story of what occurred not been put, so poetically, to the well-known tune of Roddy McCorley (Carbery, 1904). South, in reality, wasn’t from Garryowen but Limerick and was reactionary Catholic with fascist sympathies. This speaks to the fact that songs that celebrate resistance often have complicated and problematic dimensions and we should not shy away from this. When a rebel song has a named person, you can be sure it is about their death, not their military prowess or their ferocity. If there is an Irish rebel equivalent of ‘We’re up to our knees in Fenian blood / Surrender or you’ll die’ (Brigton Boys, circa 1920) I’m not aware of it.

The rebel song tradition seeks to reflect a connection to history and heritage as well as a celebration of the spirit of resistance and the Wolfe Tones are the most popular expression of that. Of course they do valourise the IRA campaign of the late 20th century, but they also put it in the context of the long war for Irish freedom, national self-determination and justice. And that’s not to say that the Wolfe Tones have not faced valid criticism themselves, with much of their repertoire curated for a conservative American audience, celebrating Irish American cops and NATO. The fact that many republicans can separate band from song, and song from story, is testament to the power of the rebel music tradition and instructive of exactly what is going on in Celtic Symphony.

When young people take up the chants, whether with Kneecap or the Wolfe Tones, they are living their generation’s own part of a rich heritage. Our songs and stories, our language and religion, our names and emblems were once outlawed. To sing these words is part of a regular cycle of rediscovery and revival that held up a defiant fist to the British colonial project and its continuing effects across the world. That is a culture worth celebrating.

Let the people sing!

*The Roud Index is the largest collection of catalogued folk songs. Since traditional songs change names and lyrics across generations the index references them by number so that earlier and later iterations can be accessed and compared.