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.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The National Anthems World Cup

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The World Cup isn’t quite what it was. This isn’t just old men getting misty-eyed after misspent youths, when hours in front of the telly were followed by the serial demolition of mothers’ flowers in the garden because not everybody’s eye for goal was quite as sharp as Emilio “The Vulture” Butragueño’s.

Once, the World Cup was the gold standard of soccer. But now, in the era of the superclub, how many national teams could keep it kicked out to Real Madrid, or Manchester City, or Bayern Munich? The softening of the ill-feeling against England in international tournaments may not be so much due to “moving on” as a vague feeling of pity for the poor eejits.

So why watch, especially when Ireland aren’t even in it? Because the World cup isn’t just about a game and who plays it best. The World Cup is about nation and identity and pride and who you are and who you want to be.

And anthems. Lots and lots of anthems.

Assessing the national anthems is one of the great hidden pleasures of the World Cup. It’s like watching the pint settle – no-one would buy pints if they couldn’t drink them, but savouring that moment when the pint turns completely black under its collar is one of the exquisite joys of life.

Disappointingly, most anthems are, not to put a tooth in it, cat. This is bad news for the smaller countries, for whom the anthem means so much. While you’re hearing some terrible dirge, salt tears of raw pride are streaming down everybody’s face back home in the competing country that Whereveria has finally taken her place among the nations of the earth.

Spain are the current World Champions, and Spain is one of those countries that has no lyrics to its national anthem. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as lyrics in national anthems aren’t always very good.

On the other hand, there are also anthems that have no end of lyrics. Step forward Greece, whose national anthem has a genuinely staggering 158 verses. Happily, they only sing two of them, or else the Greek anthem would last longer than their actual matches.

The most under-rated of the national anthems, in this neck of the woods certainly, is the Belgian anthem. La Brabançonne is surprisingly interesting and strangely beautiful. A plangent horn is sounded at the start, followed by a martial thrump-thrump-thrump of strings and drums, and then all the band sails in to sound a marvellous salute to king, law and liberty.

La Brabançonne isn’t a widely-known tune here because Belgium doesn’t play rugby and doesn’t get to that many international soccer tournaments. But the Belgians are dark horse bets for this World Cup, so maybe we’ll be hearing a lot of more of it.

An anthem that will not be heard often at the World Cup but that is very familiar to us thanks to Hollywood is the Star-Spangled Banner. This is interesting as an anthem because it’s such a difficult song to sing, with its huge range. Most anthems want to give that notorious fellow, the man in the street, some chance to bawl along in his or own fashion. The man in the street will not be reaching the rocket’s red glare or bombs bursting in air without a step-ladder at the very least.

One of the few sensible decisions taken by the current Russian Government was to use the old Soviet anthem as the anthem of the post-Czarist independent Russia. The USSR was a house of horror for the republics of which it was comprised and the serf nations it terrorised throughout its existence, but the Soviets cannot be faulted in their choice of soundtrack.

The Italian anthem, surprisingly, is a disappointment. The home of opera should have a better anthem than Fratelli d’Italia. What’s wrong with it? It doesn’t flow – it’s full of false starts, unsubtle changes, and bizarre stops, as if to give the singer(s) another lungful of breath. It sounds like a song written by a committee who never met, with the different pieces assembled together like Frankenstein’s monster, sent into the world to make the best of it.

It’s such a pity when you consider some of the best music produced in the western tradition is in Italian opera and could serve any nation as an anthem. You could use the Te Deum from Tosca if you’re a country that likes invading other countries and salting their fields. Alfredo’s first act declaration of love in La Traviata would do very nicely for a shoulders-back, chest-out sort of nation, and there’s the thrilling Di Quella Pira from Il Trovatore – who wouldn’t follow someone into battle with that ringing in their ears?

No such problem for the Germans, who are one of very few nations to have the music of their anthem written by a composer of genuine renown. Franz Joseph Haydn was a contemporary and friend of Mozart and a teacher of Beethoven. When you find yourself being swept away by the German anthem, know that it was written by a master.

And for all that, the greatest national anthem in the world was written by an amateur. La Marseillaise, the glorious national anthem of France, was written by an officer of artillery, Rouget de Lisle, in between battles in 1792. It proved so popular that it was adopted as the national anthem in 1795, and it’s been sung since.

The lyrics of La Marseillaise are surprisingly gory, with references to bloody banners and ferocious cut-throat soldiers. But there is something magical about how the first two lines of the chorus - “aux armes, citoyens! / Formez vos bataillons” - sit on the fanfare of their music that is unmatched in any anthem, anywhere.

Three years after the French adopted La Marseillaise as their national anthem, Napoleon sent an army here, under the command of General Humbert, to see what they could do to promote liberty, equality and fraternity in Ireland. It is quite something to think of La Marseillaise ringing out as that army marched down Bohernasup and into Ballina over two hundred years ago and what the natives must have made of it all. Vive la Republique!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Boys in the Bubble

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Someone wrote once that the reason the Irish media so loves the Labour Party is that the Labour Party, above any other party, guarantees the media something to write about.

Keeping one’s own counsel was never the Labour way. The average Labour Party member seems to believe that theirs is the only party with a conscience. Not only that, but Labour must wrestle with its conscience in the full glare of publicity.

Pat Rabbitte once accused his former Party Chairman, Colm Keaveney, of regularly pirouetting on the Dáil plinth, wrestling with his conscience. It was like a farmer being shocked to discover one of his hens has feathers.

And now, where they only had a empty summer ahead of them, the political writers will have one solid month of a Labour Party deputy-leadership race with which to entertain the nation. (And isn’t it really extraordinary that there are so many more runners for the silver medal than the gold? What’s going on there?)

Once the race is won, journalism will then have a fortnight of sorting through the tea-leaves to see if dissent remains, and then there’ll be the reshuffle. And for all the biting and fighting that will occur over all of that, it’ll look like Saturday night on Lough Derg compared to the holy war that will ensue when the Government tries to cobble a budget together.

The heartbreaking thing about it is that it’s all for naught. Irish journalism is busy watching the band while the Titanic sinks beneath the waves.

Journalism is odd in that it’s both necessary to the running of the state and has nothing to do with governance as such. There is no election for Editor of the Irish Times or Senior Greyhound Racing Correspondent of the Racing Post.

Because it’s not part of official governance, journalism is as much prey as predator. It is a predator to governance and authority, keeping them on the straight and narrow, but prey to market forces, which may destroy its outposts at any time.

And this resolves itself in the eternal battle of what the public wants to know, which will also defend journalistic outlets from predators, and what the public needs to know, which fulfills the fourth estate’s basic remit of keeping the other three estates in check.

The public wants to know if Kim Kardashian had a nice time in Ireland on her honeymoon. The public needs to know what the next President of European Commission thinks about the Irish bank bailout, because that will have a much bigger impact on our daily lives than Ms Kardashian, lovely and all as I’m sure she is.

What does Kardashianism have to do with the Labour Party (deputy) leadership race? Is the race something we like to know about, or need to know about? We like to know about the race, because it’s so interesting. Politics is a real world soap opera, with all the thrills that entails. But we only need to know who wins the race, and whether the result means the Government will collapse before Christmas or battle on into 2015.

Because politics is such a thrilling and addictive pursuit, it’s easy to lose perspective. Because journalists know and socialise with the contenders in the Labour deputy leadership race, they’re drawn into the story, and every little thing seems interesting.

But being drawn in can cause journalists to miss the elephant in the room. While the cosy comforts of the Irish political system may feel like home once you’ve done your few years on the circuit, for the ordinary people of Ireland the Irish political system is a wreck.

While the same suits are shouting the same slogans at each other the country, especially the rural parts of it, is withering away. A friend of a friend is currently home from Australia and he tells a story of himself and twenty other people from his home village all happening to be in the one bar somewhere in Australia one night.

I’ve been to the home village in question. If twenty people were in Australia I am not at all sure who was left, because that place is no urban centre. The foxes will walk the streets of that village in the middle of the day if the pattern continues.

The people voted for change in 2011. They didn’t get it. All the indicators are that they’re fully prepared to take another swing at getting it once the next General Election comes around, not least if it comes around soon.

So while the political creatures cocooned in their Dublin 2 bubble think the Labour Party elections are the most important thing happening today, the people outside that bubble may think differently. The people of the nation, that homely place outside the weird triangle bounded Kildare Street in the west and Baggot Street along the south, really don’t care about political dramas or the point-counterpoint niceties of claiming credit and dumping blame.

They want to know why family occasions are conducted on Skype between the four corners of the Earth this year. They want to know why sick children are losing medical cards. They want to know why the Government can soak up so much money and the people themselves see so very little of it.

They want to know why the Government was calling itself Champion of the World for a deal on Promissory Notes when there aren’t five hundred people in the country who could tell you what those Promissory Notes are. And they want to know all these things now. They voted for change. Why hasn’t anything changed?

This isn’t discontent any more. This is rage. An Taoiseach spoke of the recent election results as an expression of rage, but he sounded like a man who expected that rage to die down. What if it doesn’t? What if it’s only building up? Wouldn’t the press be better served reflecting that, rather than the ins and outs of a competition that won’t make a blind bit of difference to anyone?

Friday, June 06, 2014

The Current Crisis in Gentlemen's Grooming

First published in the Western People on Monday.

There are many great things about being a gentleman. You don’t have to buy a new suit every time you’re invited to a wedding. Getting ready to go out means nothing more than remembering to record Match of the Day before you hit the town. And you’re able to leave bins outside and remove spiders from bathrooms without sending for the cavalry.

Where the gentleman falls down, however, is in his inability to think for himself. Our heroes are those who follow their lights and strike out on their own, but our natural instinct is to follow the herd. There’s a depressing lack of imagination in this.

The latest evidence of the herd mentality of the male of the species is that it is now impossible to walk down the main street in any Irish market town without seeing at least two-thirds of its young men sporting pompadour haircuts and beards like those sported by Old Testament prophets.

The pompadour haircut, for those unfamiliar with such terms, is one where you get a short-back-and-sides from the neck up to the crown of your head, and anything further north is grown out, slathered with gel of some kind, and then pasted into position. Ideally at a jaunty angle, but if you can pile the hair up on your head like an old-fashioned cock of hay, there are kudos going for that too.

While this messing with hair is bad enough in itself, the beards are taking the biscuit entirely. This column has no great problem with beards, as a glance at the byline photo will prove. In fact, in younger days, your correspondent and Alan from the Hangover movies could have been taken for twins.

That Hangover style of beard was memorably described by PG Wodehouse as “the burst horsehair sofa” – that is to say, the thing just grew all over the place. The beards that the nation’s young men are currently sporting appear more influenced by the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia – trim along the cheeks and jawbones, while growing out into some extra-ordinary forest on the chin. And you have to ask – what is the point of it all?

The Hangover beard makes sense, in its way. Some men just don’t like shaving, because some men are very, very lazy. The pompadour haircut combined with the Mesopotamian beard isn’t a style for a lazy man – it takes a lot of effort to look that odd.

The famous mullet haircut of the 1980s was once described as a being a look that meant business at the front, party at the back. The pompadour-and-beard look suggests it’s business along the walls, party on the roof and in the basement, and you can crack your own jokes about what actually goes on in the head.

Ancient man was a hairy devil, of course. Shaving isn’t something you can do without tools of some kind, and the club you used to fetch both dinner and a date on Saturday night wasn’t much use for barbering.

The first civilisation of which we are sure encouraged shaving was that of the ancient Egyptians. They were so into shaving that they didn’t stop at the face – every hair on the body fell before the blade, the ointment, or the pumice stone. Remember a Welsh rugby player called Gavin Henson, who used to shave his legs before games? He would have fit right in.

That Egyptian civilisation fell, and the world was whiskered until Alexander the Great returned shaving to fashion three hundred years before Christ. The Romans, being the righteous fellows they were, followed Alexander, and insisted on important men being clean shaven and respectable. Of the twelve Caesars who ruled the Roman Empire only Nero sported a beard, and Nero was famously off his rocker.

In the medieval church, an initiate to a monastery would have his head and beard shaved as part of his initiation, symbolizing the initiate’s surrender of the frivolities of the world to deeper and more meaningful life of the spirit. The formal shaving of the beard didn’t last but tonsuring – the shaving of the head of a monk to show that he had been chosen by the Lord – continued until very recently. Having at least some hair cut was part of the ordination ceremony until 1972, when Pope Paul VI declared it no longer necessary.

In the centuries immediately after St Patrick visited Ireland, the church was divided on what exactly a tonsure should look like, with opinion split on two sides. The Romans favored the circular tonsure, while the Irish, mad for the crack as we are, favoured a much more spectacular effort.

The Celtic tonsure required a monk to shave the entire front half of his head. So, instead of stopping at the top of the ear as we do now, the monks shaved on, up and across the dome of the head until they looked like a Malteser with one hemisphere of chocolate carefully bitten off, leaving the honeycomb centre intact and protruding.

The Synod of Whitby in the 6th Century put a stop to that, ruling that the Roman tonsure was the only one that counted, and all other tonsures were anathema. This would not be the last time the Irish would be dictated to from England.  Only six hundred years later, King John of England found the long beards of the Irish chieftains so hilarious on his first visit to his new kingdom, his highness and his retinue amused themselves by tugging at the chieftains’ beards at every opportunity.

Died of dysentery in the end of course, King John. Lost a good bit of his land too. It’s a long road with no turning.

With so much confusion and variety current when it comes to hair care, the young man going out in the world today still has one style icon in whom he can believe, and on whom he can model his whole look. That icon is James Horan, manager of the Mayo Senior Football Team, currently plotting the downfall of the Rossies even as we study our Westerns.

James Horan wears a hat. He could have a Mohawk on under that thing and no-one would ever be any the wiser. Up Mayo.