Peadar Kearney, the man who wrote The Soldier's Song and a veteran of the 1916 Easter Rising, was living in such penury in the 1920s that he was forced to sue the State for royalties after the song was translated into Irish and became the national anthem.
According to Kearney's grandson, Prof Colbert Kearney of UCC, his grandfather had penned The Soldier's Son, with arrangements by his friend Patrick Heeney, for nationalistic minded young men as he was unhappy with the musical hall fare they used sing when on route marches.
Kearney was and IRB man and was sent by Tom Clarke to oversee the Howth gun running in July 1914 and in the 1916. He fought at Jacob's Mills under Thomas McDonagh but his application for a military pension in 1924 failed to produce a result. Consequently, he found himself in straitened circumstances.
“In October 1926, almost two years after his application, Peadar was awarded a pension of £30 a year, backdated to October 1st 1924. This – less than €2,000 today – would have been a very useful supplement to an income, but as a painter in poor health he was lucky to work half the year.”
Although the Free State government had opted not nominate a national anthem, The Soldier’s Song was adopted by the Army in the mid-1920s for use on special occasions in lieu of a national anthem and President of the Executive WT Cosgrave was against replacing it.
“Despite this and despite A Soldier’s Song being played from 1926 onwards at the end of programmes on national radio and from 1931 onwards at the end of cinema programmes, Peadar received no royalties,” said Prof Kearney, emeritus professor of English Literature at UCC.
"He was forced, together with Michael Heeney – whose late brother Patrick had composed the music – to sue the government and it was de Valera's 1932 Fianna Fáil government that gave the song statutory status in 1932 and bought the copyright, paying each of them £490."
So how would Kearney, who died in 1942 at the age of 58, have reacted to a handwritten first draft of The Soldier’s Songselling for €760,000 in 2006?
“Given he had to sue the state for royalties, I’d say he would have looked on it with a wry irony – he might even have penned a verse about it!”
As part of UCC’s Spring 2016 Public Lecture Series, Reconsidering the Rising, Prof Kearney will deliver a lecture entitled Peadar Kearney: A Soldier’s Song at 6pm on Wednesday, May 11th, in the Geology and Geography Building in UCC on Donovan’s Road.