The Soldier’s Song and other anthems: the stories behind the songs

Alex Marshall, author of Republic or Death: Travels in National Anthems, on Peadar Kearney, Patrick Heeney and the curious fates of their counterparts overseas, including the creator of La Marseillaise

At the unveiling in 2011 of a plaque in Railway Street organised by the Dublin North Inner-City Folklore Project to commemorate those who composed, wrote and translated Amhrán na bhFiann (The Soldier’s Song) were, from left, Valerie Heeney, a descendant of composer Patrick Heeney; Peadar Bourke, a nephew of lyricist Peadar Kearney; and Helein Crowley, a daughter of translator Liam Ó Rinn. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

At the unveiling in 2011 of a plaque in Railway Street organised by the Dublin North Inner-City Folklore Project to commemorate those who composed, wrote and translated Amhrán na bhFiann (The Soldier’s Song) were, from left, Valerie Heeney, a descendant of composer Patrick Heeney; Peadar Bourke, a nephew of lyricist Peadar Kearney; and Helein Crowley, a daughter of translator Liam Ó Rinn. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

Over the past few years I’ve spent researching the world’s first book on national anthems, there’s several things I’ve discovered. For a start, that anthems have been at the centre of some of history’s most significant events (South Africa’s played a huge role in fighting apartheid, then healing its wounds afterward). Then there’s the fact that in many countries these songs provoke more controversy than you’d have thought possible (the Japanese have been arguing about theirs – a 50-second song about “stones growing into boulders lush with moss” – for 70 years). More prosaically, I’ve learned that only one of them has anything to do with sex (hello, Mexico’s!).

But perhaps the main thing I’ve found out is that writing an anthem is an appalling career choice. You may pour your heart into one, hoping it will inspire your country to revolt against a hated ruler – or just inspire your compatriots to work harder and your politicians to be less corrupt – but you’re highly unlikely to receive any thanks for it. You’ll more likely disappear from history. At best, you’ll get a road named after you.

That’s even the case in Ireland. How many people know the names of the men behind The Soldiers’ Song (Amhrán na bhFiann), Peadar Kearney and Patrick Heeney? Not many, I’m guessing, although hopefully everyone who lives along Dublin’s Patrick Heeney Crescent.

You could argue their anonymity is deserved. The Soldiers’ Song is hardly the most inspiring piece of music ever written if you ignore its historical connotations – the fact the only biography of Peadar devotes more time to describing Dublin’s red light district than it does the song, says it all – but even the composers of the world’s greatest anthems have suffered the same fate.

Take the composer of La Marseillaise – a tune so vibrant everyone from Tchaikovsky to the Beatles has stolen it. His name’s Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle and he wrote La Marseillaise in 1792 to motivate France to stand up to an Austrian invasion. That partly explains why the lyrics are so over the top: its first verse warning that soldiers are coming “to slit the throats of your wives and children”, the chorus bellowing, “To arms, citizens! Let’s water the fields with impure blood” (that causes a lot of agonising in France today).

La Marseillaise was such a hit that within weeks it had reached every corner of France. Rouget’s reputation, though, didn’t grow with it. Not long after writing it he was thrown in prison for allegedly being a royalist and only escaped the guillotine by writing another song about Louis XVI’s head being chopped off (“It rolls…” goes the chorus).

But even after being let out, his life didn’t get better. He was spied on, imprisoned for debts and had to write pornographic songs to get by. A few years afterwards Napoleon even disowned his anthem. He didn’t want it inspiring a revolution against him and he also hated Rouget, who wrote him dozens of irritating letters. “Bonaparte, you’ve lost yourself and what’s worse, you’ve lost France with you,” goes one.

Most other great anthem composers have suffered similar fates. Tian Han, the poet behind China’s March of the Volunteers (“Arise we who refuse to be slaves, with our flesh and blood, let’s build a new Great Wall”), was executed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Dušan Šesti, the composer of Bosnia’s, has had to deal with accusations of plagiarism and hasn’t been paid.

Writing an anthem can even damage reputations of famous musicians. The composer of Egypt’s Bilady, Bilady (My Country, My Country) is a man called Sayed Darwish who was at one point Egypt’s Shane MacGowan. In the 1910s, Sayed snorted and drank his way across the country, annoying many, including the religious establishment (he once wrote a song called the Preachers’ Anthem which features mullahs going to France “to eye up white women whose flesh is like rice pudding”).

But no one could deny his talent. He revolutionised Egyptian music, writing the country’s first pop and political songs, even the drumbeat used to end every Egyptian wedding. His songs became the soundtrack to the country’s revolt against the British.

He was a hero, in other words. But as soon as Bilady, Bilady was made Egypt’s anthem at the end of the 1970s, that image changed. He became wrongly seen as an establishment figure, someone who gave Egypt its anthem and nothing else.

In fact, in all my travels to learn about these songs, the only anthem composer I found who is truly celebrated is a 75-year-old man called Nursultan Nazarbayev who wrote Kazakhstan’s. Although that might have more to do with the fact he’s also the country’s president and criticising him isn’t exactly encouraged in the country.

Why am I telling you all these stories of woe, apart from trying to prove that anthems are a fascinating subject? In a way it’s because I’d like you to give Patrick Heeney and Peadar Kearney just a moment’s thought. I might not like The Soldiers’ Song, and you might not either, but regardless their names are deserving of more attention.

Patrick worked for the post office as well as writing music, died in poverty and was thrown in a common grave. Peadar took part in the Easter Rising and was put in a concentration camp for his trouble. Both put their souls into The Soldiers’ Song, hoping it would inspire the fight against the British. They never expected it to become what it is today, and never asked it to be. And it’s that dedication which is all you need to remember the next time you find yourself singing, “Sinne Fianna Fáil, atá faoi gheall ag Éirinn.”

Republic or Death: Travels in National Anthems is published by Random House

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