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If partition is to end, Amhrán na bhFiann must be first in the firing line

Seven out of 10 Irish voters would refuse to give up Amhrán na bhFiann for the sake of the unity so many of them claim to desire

Were there ever mouths more closely studied than those of the 11 young Iranian footballers preparing for their World Cup kick-off? For them, the playing of the Iranian national anthem presented a do-or-die moment, possibly literally.

Their silent protest before the first match was rendered all the more powerful before the second match by the team’s collective decision to move their lips to the anthem’s words. A joyless, halfhearted mouthing, executed under duress and a terrifying reminder of how far one of the world’s oldest civilisations has fallen.

In the same week, 40 more Iranians, including two teenagers, died at the behest of the Supreme Leader. A prominent former soccer international, Voria Ghafouri, was arrested for “insulting the national soccer team and propagandising against the government”.

The question asked of the players by the crowds in Qatar and at home was an apparently simple one: were they representing a) the people of Iran or b) a murderous Islamic regime at war with its own people?


Iranians in the crowd stood and sobbed. Some carrying protest banners were confronted by security. The booing and jeering of others drowned out the anthem itself with its predictable celebration of martyrs, the true religion, the enduring, eternal Islamic Republic of Iran and the line that reads “Your message, O Imam, of independence, freedom, is imprinted on our souls”.

We never read too much into national anthems but often the irony is mind-bending. China’s March of the Volunteers, written in the 1930s in wartime, calls on people to “arise, ye who refuse to be slaves!”

While heroic, unarmed Hong Kong citizens were risking their lives in ultimately futile protests, the legislature passed a law criminalising any mockery of China’s anthem, using vague terms like “insult” and “derogatory”. All ye who refuse to be slaves and get caught insulting the anthem could get three years in jail.

A few years ago, 34 cinema-goers were arrested for not standing during the national anthem of the Philippines, where singing it is not only mandatory but must be done with fervour.

In two separate cases in India, 19 people were arrested for failing to stand during the anthem.

It makes our own episodic flurries over the national dirge and “Ireland’s Call” seem very lame. But if partition is indeed in its end days, Amhrán na bhFiann is among the first in the firing line, surely.

When a Seanad Public Consultation Committee was convened in 2017 to discuss the anthem – triggered by selected quotes such as “Warriors are we” (Sinne fianna fáil) and “Sworn to be free” (Fé mhóid bheith saor) ending up on Dunnes Stores T-shirts and the discovery that copyright had expired in 2012 – over 100 submissions arrived from the public. Only a few proposed the anthem be replaced by Ireland’s Call and just two suggested that “fianna fáil” be dropped from the opening lines.

Rapporteur and Fianna Fáil senator Mark Daly said he would never support such a change anyway. Giorgia Meloni, whose Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party also happens to form the first two words in the Italian national anthem, would probably agree.

The Irish anthem’s copyright was never renewed on the advice of the Attorney General and there the matter rested until last year’s IPSOS/MRBI poll for The Irish Times on Irish unity told us three things: just under two-thirds would vote for a united Ireland, four in five would never pay for it, and seven in 10 would have no truck with any new flag or anthem designed to reflect the identity of our newly-welcomed unionist brethren. Repeat: seven in 10 would refuse to yield up Amhrán na bhFiann for the sake of the unity so many of them claim to desire.

National anthems can be wonderful, inspiring, fierce and terrible, often announcing themselves with a bellicose roar, a dose of victimhood, a vow to visit great violence on some enemy and to be no one’s slave. But who do we intend to smite at this stage? Is is all about longevity and sunk costs now? What are we prepared to sacrifice for unity if not this?

Without the Irish Rugby Football Union and its all-Ireland ethos, the discussion would hardly be starting now. Anyone who quibbles with Ireland’s Call might remember that in New Zealand at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, the Irish players stood to attention for a James Last recording of the Rose of Tralee.

Ireland’s Call is a welcome solution to a sports dilemma but there it ends. We know what a national anthem sounds like, even when it isn’t an official anthem. Who has ever sat across a stadium from a Welsh crowd belting out Land of my Fathers or the Scots with their magnificent Flower of Scotland, and had to suppress a twinge of jealousy?

If the Welsh failed to conquer the world at football in recent weeks, they took the world by the ears, not only with Land of Our Fathers but with Yma o Hyd, its official World Cup anthem, a passionate, 40-year-old homage to the Welsh language in Welsh, featuring a soaring, crowd-swaying, full-throated, anthemic chorus that crashes across stadiums and speaks to every country that has ever struggled against a dominant neighbour: “Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth/Ry’n ni yma o hyd!” (“In spite of everyone and everything/We are still here!”).

Yma o Hyd. Still here. Still jealous.