When the Ireland rugby team take their lap of honour on Saturday evening at the Stade de France after a famous victory over South Africa (terms and conditions apply), chances are they’ll be serenaded with a song about the futility of atavistic nationalist violence. Not that you’d know this from the thousands of voices united in a chorus made up of a couple of semi-yodels followed by a series of staccato yelps.
Zombie by The Cranberries has taken a long and winding route from its initial release in 1994 to its current status as singalong of choice at rugby internationals, cemented during last week’s win over Tonga. As veteran winger (and Limerickman) Keith Earls observed last week, its rise has come alongside his native county’s current run of All-Ireland hurling successes. That sequence began in the immediate aftermath of the Limerick band’s singer Dolores O’Riordan’s death in early 2018 at the age of 46.
In the wake of that untimely event, wistful Cranberries tunes such as Linger and Dreams became a constant on PA systems at matches, but it’s the darker, grungier, more distinctive Zombie that has won the battle of the terraces. First it was a Limerick hurling thing. Then by natural osmosis it became a Munster rugby thing. It wasn’t heard much during Six Nations matches in the Aviva, where the barter account types are in the ascendant. But reports suggest the Rugby World Cup attracts a broader and more diverse Irish fanbase, and the full-throated rendition in the Beaujoire-Louis Fonteneau Stadium in Nantes last Saturday seems to bear that out.
Zombie is the latest addition to a curious and sometimes contentious canon of anthems, chants and songs heard at or around Irish sporting events. This evening the team will line up before the match for a song which, it’s fair to say, does not command universal support. Ireland’s Call was explicitly devised to replace Amhrán na bhFiann because that in turn was deemed insufficiently representative of the entire population of the island of Ireland. With wearying predictability, voices will be raised yet again this evening across the blasted heaths of social media, demanding to know why “our” anthem is not being played for “our” team.
Despite its banality, my sources in France suggest that Ireland’s Call is surprisingly popular with French fans as they go through their repertoire in the bars before the game. It is, after all, an easy tune to master and it’s probably a bit better if you don’t understand the words. Meanwhile, former crowd favourite The Fields of Athenry has always lacked a certain energy.
Thematically, Zombie is a blunt rejection of political violence in general and the IRA in particular
Zombie is a different beast. Musically, it shares DNA with other Gen X sports crowd favourites like The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army and Blur’s Song 2. And in the three decades since its release, it has become ever more popular and well known around the world. It is the most-viewed video by an Irish band on YouTube and was voted Ireland’s greatest hit by 2FM listeners last year.
Thematically, it is a blunt rejection of political violence in general and the IRA in particular, prompted by one specific atrocity. When three-year-old Jonathan Ball and 12-year-old Tim Parry were killed by a bomb in Warrington, O’Riordan felt compelled to express her revulsion after seeing an interview with the mother of one of the children.
“I felt so sad for her” she told an interviewer in 1994. “That she’d carried him for nine months, been through all the morning sickness, the whole thing and some . . . prick, some airhead who thought he was making a point, did that. The IRA are not me. I’m not the IRA . . . When it says in the song, ‘It’s not me, it’s not my family,’ that’s what I’m saying. It’s not Ireland, it’s some idiots living in the past.”
The resulting song is not lyrically sophisticated. Some critics were sniffy at the time about whether a young woman from Limerick (rockist misogyny alert) had anything worthwhile to offer on the complexities of the Troubles, at a moment when the peace process was gathering momentum.
That rather misses the point. None of the songs mentioned here are nuanced. Most of them are cherished or despised less for what they say than for their anthemic qualities and how enthusiastically they can be sung. But the fact remains that Zombie, in its own heartfelt, angry way, is an absolutely accurate representation of what the majority of Irish people felt at the time about the squalid, cruel campaign of violence being carried out, supposedly in their name, by the Provisional IRA.
During the most recent round of pearl-clutching over the chanting of “Ooh Ah Up the ‘Ra” by (if reports are to be believed) everyone in Ireland under 35, some claims have been made about what changing musical preferences might tell us about shifting interpretations of history. Sinn Féin TD Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, attacking the “sickening hypocrisy” of those criticising young Wolfe Tones enthusiasts at Electric Picnic, was unequivocal on the subject. “These hypocrites invite us to celebrate the Irish republican men and women from 1916 and from 1918 to 1923, but to criminalise the Irish republican men and women from the 1960s to the 1990s,” he wrote. “Our young people see you. They know their history.”
It would be absurd to suggest that singing Zombie means you deplore all the works of the Provisional IRA. But it is equally ridiculous to claim, as Mac Lochlainn does, that actions such as Warrington and the rest of the long, long list of IRA atrocities will now be celebrated by those who “know their history”. The laws of statistics mean that thousands of those singing “it’s not me, it’s not my family” later today will vote Sinn Féin at the next election. Unlike sport, it’s complicated.