Why the end of the Wolfe Tones is music to my ears


They expressed hatred for all things English and whipped up support for violent nationalism. Fintan O'Toole sheds no tears for the Wolfe Tones, who this week played their last gig together

Quietly and without fuss, a historic act of decommissioning by Irish republicans took place at a hotel in Limerick last Sunday evening. One of the key weapons in the republican armoury, the Wolfe Tones, was finally put beyond use when the band in its traditional form played its last gig.

Officially at least, the mandolins, guitars and pub-busting voices which have pumped out hard-core nationalist propaganda for nearly 40 years have fallen silent.

As with the more mainstream elements of the republican struggle, however, there will be no clean break with the past.

Citing the obligatory "musical differences", a key member of the band, Derek Warfield, has walked away. The other three members, however, will remain on active service for the foreseeable future and are currently promoting a new album, released under their own names.

There is, nevertheless, a symbolic significance to the demise of a band whose fame and fortune have been founded on its ability to stir up passions by celebrating the IRA, expressing hatred for all things English and recycling the famous MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever) syndrome.

Although they think of themselves as archetypically Irish, the Wolfe Tones phenomenon was, from the very start, all about keeping alive the simplistic version of Irish history and politics which thrives above all in sections of the Irish diaspora in the US and Britain. The group was discovered not by some grizzled Gaelic folklorist but by a Canadian television producer.

Having, by their own account, wandered down to the fleadh ceoil in Killarney in 1963 mostly for the beer, they staged an impromptu session on the streets. The Canadian producer spotted them and decided to include them in a documentary he was shooting. As band member Noel Nagle recalled: "The producer paid us good money for the show so from then on we decided to get ourselves into the ballad game."

Having discovered that there was money to made from the ballad game, especially among the Irish abroad, they went professional and took off for England, where they built a following in the Irish clubs in London, Birmingham and Coventry. The onset of the Troubles, and the raising of temperatures among Irish nationalists at home and abroad, gave them the opportunity both to reimport their brand of musical propaganda into Ireland, North and South, and to tap into the vast, reawakened Irish circuit in the US.

While infinitely more accomplished folk bands like The Dubliners sometimes pandered to this audience, they also complicated matters with, for example, the much more sardonic and ambivalent political songs of Dominic Behan and the socialist ballads of Ewan McColl.

The Tones caused no such problems. Sporting, at times, big badges with the slogan "Up the IRA" and roaring out choruses about "The Broad Black Brimmer of the IRA", they rode waves of pure emotion.

The Wolfe Tones always denied indignantly that they encouraged violence. In 1976, for example, Warfield told the Sunday Independent: "What we are doing is merely reflecting the feelings of the nationalist people in the North. We are closely identified with their struggle, and it is only natural that we reflect their emotions and feelings in our songs."

Their gigs and records were, he claimed, a reflection of the "struggle", not an encouragement to take it up.

Likewise, when a number of Dublin city councillors refused to attend a reception in the band's honour hosted by then mayor Sean Haughey, Warfield was hurt: "There is nothing in our music which could upset anyone. We are simply telling the history of Ireland through songs, many of which we learnt at home when we were growing up in Dublin."

Anyone who ever attended a Wolfe Tones gig on a Saturday night in the Wexford Inn in Dublin might have found it hard to say quite where the line between reflecting the nationalist struggle and whipping up hatred, self-pity and resentment could be drawn.

A Wolfe Tones original song like The Helicopter Song, celebrating the mass escape of IRA prisoners from Crumlin Road jail, or Joe McDonnell, a paean of praise for the IRA bomber and hunger-striker, was not a reflection on the Troubles but an act of political demagoguery.

Thrust out at high volume above a crude, insistent rhythm to an alcohol-fuelled audience stamping its feet and waving its fists, these anthems could have only one effect. The Celtic fans who wear their green jerseys to the band's gigs in Glasgow know that what they're going to get is more a rally than a concert.

Even a non-issue like the dispute about the ownership of Rockall Island in the north Atlantic could serve as an excuse for vividly violent rhetoric. Rock On Rockall, indeed, serves to illustrate both the abysmal standard of what passed for song-writing and the visceral hatred which the group expressed.

The chorus calls down a curse on England:

May the seagulls rise and pluck your eyes

And the water crush your shell

And the natural gas will burn your ass

And blow you all to hell

Blowing people to hell wasn't an abstract rhetorical image for most of the Wolfe Tones' heyday.

If the demise of the group in its old form is a sign of the times, it can only be a good one. This, as the rhetoric of the peace process has it, is a win-win situation. A gain both for Irish traditional music and for Irish politics.