Thursday, June 26, 2014

Soldiers' Songs, and the Irish National Anthems

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Thinking about the anthems booming out in Brazil during the World Cup turns the attention to our own anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann.

It’s a funny thing but in a country that loves its first language passionately up to but not beyond the point of learning, speaking or promoting it, the nation is insists the National Anthem is always sung in Irish.

While Irish is the State’s first language, it is not Amhrán na bhFiann’s. The lyrics to the Soldier’s Song were first written by Peadar Kearney in English in 1907. The music was written by Kearney’s friend, Patrick Heeney, and it was as a marching song for the IRB with lyrics sung in English that the song became popular.

The Soldier’s Song was translated into Irish by a man named Liam Ó Rinn, who was one of the almost forgotten legion of civil servants who laid down so much of the state Irish in the 1920s – for good or ill. The details of the translation are sketchy, like so much of the work of those men and women at that time. It seems the first translation of the lyrics was published in 1923, but there are claims the translation was done as early as 1917.

No matter. The Soldier’s Song was adopted as the national anthem of the Irish Free State in 1926 and that’s what it’s been since. When the Irish translation became the default isn’t at all clear but the Irish translation has been used for so long now that to find someone who knows the words in English would be an achievement.

It’s even sung in Irish by people who are not comfortable in the first language, because to not do so would be somehow outrageous. The most memorable of these in recent years was a rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann by a very beautiful model named Nadia Forde before a game between the Republic of Ireland and Sweden last year at the Aviva.

It’s always a difficult thing to criticise someone’s diction in a language that has no received pronunciation, and that counts for double when it comes to singing, but Ms Forde went to a seldom-visited place in her rendition. If she had sung the thing in Xhosa, the famous clicking language of South Africa, it could not have sounded stranger.

For the four years before Amhrán na bhFiann was made the National Anthem, the anthem of the Free State implored God to save either the King or Ireland, depending on which foot you relied on to dig your potatoes. As far as the Ascendency was concerned, God Save the King was the anthem in a State whose cabinet swore allegiance to the King, while God Save Ireland, a rollicking ballad about the Manchester Martyrs, seems to have been the favorite song of everyone who ever wore a broad black brimmer and a Sam Browne belt.

Parnell credited the Manchester Martyrs – three Fenians who were executed by the British as a result of a jailbreak gone wrong - with the awakening of his own nationalism, and the song was extremely popular in the revolutionary movement all the way through the Land Wars, Home Rule, the Easter Rising and war of Independence.

However. As an anthem, God Save Ireland is not quite the thing. The tune is borrowed from a US Confederacy prison song, and who wants their national anthem set on a gallows? WT Cosgrove’s own favourite song was The Soldier’s Song, and this may have played no small role in its eventual adoption as the National Anthem.

If Amhrán na bhFiann is the national anthem, the Fields of Athenry has become the people’s anthem. When the fans at Euro 2012 started singing the Fields of Athenry as much-maligned Giovanni Trappatoni’s team were getting eviscerated by Spain, it sparked a national debate about who were are, really – a proud warrior race, or just a pack of gimps, happy to make up the numbers?

It’s interesting how the Fields of Athenry, of all songs, has burrowed its way so deep into our hearts. RTÉ made a documentary in 2010 about the song, claiming that “In many ways The Fields of Athenry reflects the unbreakable spirit of the Irish people through times of past difficulty - political unrest, poverty and forced immigration.”

Beautiful, but not quite true. The actual reason the Fields of Athenry has become a sporting anthem is because it’s been sung at Celtic Park, Glasgow, since the 1980s. Not only has it been sung, but the good old Bhoys have added their own call-and-response section to the chorus.

This addition is about the one thing more appealing to the Irish psyche than the strain of eternal longing that runs through the lyrics and melody of the Fields of Athenry. It is, of course, the tremendous impulse of the Irish everywhere to act the maggot and see what happens.

We know that we’re very naughty to sing about the IRA, and that’s why we do it. If you don’t like it, you just don’t like having the craic. We’re Irish, we’re crazy, we break all the rules and everybody loves us. Look at us, aren’t we great?

There is one other national hymn, a song that could have been a national anthem, were the nation a little more united or culturally richer than we are now. It is not a well-known song, but to those that know it, it is the real anthem of the Irish, Gaelic, united and free.

It’s a song called Gile Mear, which loosely translates as Shining Spear. Sting sang an awful cover version of it on a Chieftains album twenty years ago, and it is not widely known outside of Gaeltacht or traditional music circles. But when Liadh Ní Riada was elected to the European Parliament, her friends and family sang Gile Mear to celebrate the victory. And why wouldn’t they? It was Ní Riada’s father, Seán Ó Riada, who rescued Gile Mear from obscurity – if not the entire canon of Irish traditional music itself, if truth be told.

The signing of Gile Mear drew no attention from the national press at the time. In a Raidió na Gaeltachta feature on Ní Riada’s election, the song played a central role. Two anthems. Two Irelands.