Donald Clarke: Gangsta rap has nothing on our violent, bloody national anthems

Promising to make our rivers flow with the blood of our enemies is not very sportsmanlike

Italy players sing their national anthem before at the start of the  Euro 2020 final. Photograph: Frank Augstein/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Italy players sing their national anthem before at the start of the Euro 2020 final. Photograph: Frank Augstein/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

 

It is always distressing when something pleasant disrupts the bitter, self-satisfied prejudices you’ve clung onto for decades. No doubt that charming video of the children’s choir from the Islamic Centre of Ireland singing Amhrán na bhFiann in Croke Park will have burst a few racist blood vessels (I haven’t checked, as life is awful enough already). But that is not where we are going here. The footage, recorded at the annual festival of Eid al-Adha, also managed to sway a few of us who have no time for the geographical platitudes and martial provocations of the typical national anthem. You know how these things go. “North Flodonia! North Flodonia! From the great plains of Bubonis to the crashing cliffs of Wargot/ We praise the bravery and purity of your native sons/ Death to the baby-eating South Flodonians...”

I exaggerate for effect. But the tone of too many national anthems remains rooted in belligerence and nativism. Everyone perks up when the Italian version is played at football matches. Bouncing along in the style of a comic operetta, Michele Novaro’s melody invites unusual degrees of merriment. This must surely be one of those “bubbling streams” and “towering peaks” lyrics. Not quite. “Brothers of Italy, Italy has awakened/ Scipio’s helmet she has put on her head,” it begins. Uh-oh? I don’t like the sound of that helmet. As is often the case – remember the stuff in God Save the Queen about hammering the Scots? – you have to spool down a few verses to get the rarely encountered red meat. “Already the Eagle of Austria/ Hath lost its plumes,” we hear in the final surge. “The blood of Italy/ the Polish blood/ It drank, along with the Cossack...” Yeah, okay, that’s enough of that.

Roaring cannons

It hardly needs to be said that our own Soldier’s Song has something to do with roaring cannons and pealing rifles. The Star-Spangled Banner is awash with bursting bombs and glaring rockets. Only someone with a heart of quartz would fully resist La Marseillaise, but there is more liberty than equality or fraternity in the lyrics. “Let’s march, let’s march/ That their impure blood/ Should water our fields,” that proud lady in Casablanca was, according to one translation, bellowing at the camera. 

The general sense of too many anthems is “we’re gonna mess you up”. They have, in short, more in common with gangsta rap than has hitherto been acknowledged. Straight Outta Compton by NWA touches on many of the themes covered in the European anthems that emerged during nationalistic crazes of the 19th century. We are going to protect our turf. If anyone makes any effort to intrude, we will “cook ’em in a pot like gumbo”. Ice Cube and Dr Dre have little to say about the azure lakes and soaring cliffs of central Los Angeles, but the title alone confirms pride in geographical origins.

Compare the sniffles that still greet anthems at sporting events with the mad rush that used to start before those tunes played in cinemas and nightclubs as they closed 

We have had quite a bit of this stuff in the European Football Championships. We are about to get a lot more in the Olympics. For those wary of nationalistic foot-stomping, sport remains one of the few environments where a heartily sung anthem can still boost the spirits. Conversely, the moronic inclination, popular with that notorious “sizable minority” of English soccer supporters, to boo oppositions’ anthems cause those untroubled by even microscopic traces of patriotism to bristle with offence. During such sporting events, the song ceases to be about what it once claimed to be about – draining the blood of Vandals into the most sparkling of our mighty rivers – and attaches itself to less-destructive, more character-building schools of conflict.

Black power salute

The rendition can also offer the opportunity for national editorialising. When, at the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute during the medal ceremony for the 200 metres, they let the world know that not every American demographic felt those bombs were bursting on their behalf.

Compare the sniffles that still greet anthems at sporting events with the mad rush that used to start before those tunes played in cinemas and (no, really) nightclubs as they closed their doors for the evening. Nobody wanted to stand around for a pointless two minutes while the last bus made its way without them. The patriotic hollering could go to blazes.

And yet. Last week’s video did show that, perhaps, there still is a purpose for national tunes outside rugby matches and boxing bouts. The rendition worked as an implicit celebration of an Ireland that is more diverse than any incarnation in the last millennium or two. It is just a shame the song wasn’t a bit, well... nicer. Couldn’t we have Carrickfergus or She Moved Through the Fair or a version of the Derry/Londonderry Air with new lyrics unsullied by association with leprechaun wigs and the dyeing green of blameless North American rivers?

Or we could just replace Amhrán na bhFiann with Ireland’s Call? Ha, ha! No, they would never do that to us. Would they?

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