Sinn Féin celebrated last week’s spectacular victory in the Northern Ireland local elections carefully, mindful perhaps of the criticism they received in the last Dáil election, when their supporters sang Come Out Ye Black and Tans in the count centre. Last October the Irish women’s national football team was dragged over coals for singing Celtic Symphony in their dressingroom. The song appeared a few months later at the unlikely venue of a Leinster Rugby match.
A general election looms. Musical controversy will surely flare again. The past year has seen a series of rolling controversies over the performance of rebel songs in public and private.
All of this has happened before and all of it will happen again. Jack Charlton fell afoul in 1990, the GAA in 1980. Rebel songs have been part of Irish music for hundreds of years, from Jacobite songs of the 17th century. They arrived in their modern form alongside modern Irish history, in response to the 1798 rebellion. Popular in the nationalist press and song sheets of the 19th century, they multiplied during the revolutionary period of the early 20th century and again from the late 1950s. Irish resistance music is unusual in Europe in remaining a vital part of the folk music tradition, politically important and efficacious, and internationally popular. The Wolfe Tones are respected musicians and can still pack a hall in New York or Glasgow.
Whether a song is dangerous or insulting depends on who you ask, their ideological affiliations, and the political character of the present. A Fine Gaeler will listen to Boolavogue, but may not care to hear anti-treaty anthems like Soldiers of the Rearguard or Take it Down From the Mast, a song that excoriates their political ancestors for “fulfilling the work of the foe”. Soldiers of the Rearguard, however, is still sung at Fianna Fáil events.
Rebel songs can become unacceptable to more people the closer the events they describe are to the present. The same song can be, at different times and to different people, a source of community strength, an anodyne historical curiosity or a live and dangerous incitement to violence.
Republicanism, in all its varied forms, continues to be the bedrock philosophy of many Irish people. Sinn Féin’s rise in the polls has been driven more by failures in housing and health than by nationalist fervour, but such things are not entirely separable. Many voters, and not merely Sinn Féin voters, see the current political and social settlement as mutually untenable. Whatever one’s position on Sinn Féin, they have successfully wrested the mantle of republicanism from the other parties, and laid claim to its cultural legacy.
History is crudely deployed by the liberal-conservative centre of Ireland against Sinn Féin whenever the latter shows particular polling strength. And so rebel music too must be used as a cudgel in the great patriotic culture war against the Shinners.
But rebel music is more than the soundtrack to paramilitary violence. During years of research on the subject I found innumerable examples of ordinary people deploying music to resist a brutal state. Internees in 1971 were beaten if they refused to sing God Save the Queen. The Men Behind the Wire, stereotyped as an IRA song, was really the product of a civil resistance campaign that also employed rent and rates strikes. The power of records such as The Men of No Property’s This Is Free Belfast! or Smash Internment and Injustice! is undeniable.
These songs are a record of times that cannot be wished away by those presenting a bland, ahistorical veneer of unity
Rebel music is not the archaic, hateful canon so often stereotyped, but a vivid, living document of historical resistance. There are funny ballads, distasteful ones, moving and sorrowful ones too. These songs are a record of times that cannot be wished away by those presenting a bland, ahistorical veneer of unity. The instinct to reflexively condemn is also a refusal to attempt to understand, a refusal of empathy.
The anniversary of the Belfast Agreement has spurred some commentators to make a renewed effort to flatten the historical narrative of the Troubles into “men of peace” and “men of violence”. They demand that others abandon their own interpretations of history, their own commemorations, songs, memories and stories. Such songs are not to be sung, even in the privacy of a dressingroom or political celebration. But people’s positions at the time were often ambiguous. Phil Coulter, who wrote the much-lamented unity anthem Ireland’s Call, also wrote the furious Free the People.
Music takes old feelings and projects them through time. The vast majority who sing a song of the IRA are presumably strongly supportive of the Belfast Agreement and have no desire to see paramilitary violence return. They sing it because of a genuine connection to a shared tradition of resistance. Some of that resistance was unpalatable, some was unjustified, some was violent, some inhuman. To sing is not necessarily to endorse but to remember. To call upon the symbols of the past for the less violent struggles of the present. To look further afield, are we to scold Beyoncé for paying public homage to the Black Panthers by enumerating every crime they committed?
A stock response to talk of a united Ireland is to speak of the need to respect the culture of unionist communities in the North being, as they are, part of our shared history. Some would do well to remember, too, the need to respect the culture of the people who faced decades of state repression, discrimination and violence. Their music may not necessarily meet the standards of politeness of some commentators, but they are hard won, and will not be surrendered.
Jack Sheehan is a writer and PhD researcher in History at Trinity College Dublin, writing about Irish political folk music in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s