Border Ballads – Frank McNally on the national anthems of Poland, Ukraine, and Monaghan

An Irishman’s Diary

Like a rugby international at nearby Lansdowne Road, the Polish Embassy’s National Day reception on Tuesday was preceded by three anthems. Along with those of Poland and Ireland, they also played Ukraine’s, in honour of historically close links with that country and the three million Ukrainian refugees to whom the Poles are now hosts.

The shared, unfortunate experience of these eastern European neighbours is reflected in their national songs. The Polish one is known by its first line, usually translated as: “Poland is not yet lost”.

That sounds a bit defensive as anthem openings go. But you’d be defensive too if you were the Poles. The lyrics date from 1797, soon after the “third partition of Poland”, a carve-up by powerful neighbours to east and west that ended the country’s independence for 120 years.

Although the Ukrainian anthem is more recent, it has an almost identical title, also a version of the opening line: "Ukraine has not yet perished". As recent events have reminded us, the defensiveness is even more justified there.

Adding to the confusion for Irish guests at Tuesday’s reception is that Poland has two national days. The other is November 11th, marking renewed independence at the end of the first World War.

The May 3rd one celebrates the short-lived independent constitution of 1791, an enlightened document that was the first of its kind in Europe.

Dubliner Edmund Burke is famous for his denunciation of the French Revolution that influenced it, but he was moved to raptures by the Polish document, calling it "probably the most pure . . . public good ever conferred on mankind".

His admiration extended to its peaceful creation. “To add to this unheard-of conjunction of wisdom and fortune, this happy wonder, not one drop of blood was spilled, no treachery, no outrage,” he wrote. “Happy people if they know how to proceed as they have begun.”

Alas for happiness, there was a cloud on the eastern horizon, where an independent, constitutional neighbour was considered intolerable. Russia promptly invaded, making Poland the first battleground of the revolutionary wars, and the poem that became the anthem was born.

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I had anthems on the brain over the weekend, having 48 hours earlier attended a contest to find one. That too was in a part of the world that has been much fought over, although happily peaceful these days: the frontier territory called “Monaghan”.

As noted here recently (Irishman’s Diary, January 28th), Monaghan had until now been one of the few Irish counties without a recognised anthem.

Worse still, it has often been (mis)represented in geographical song collections by The Town of Ballybay, a jaunty number popularised by Tommy Makem and purporting to extol the virtues of a remarkable local woman.

I agree with the ballad’s opening sentiment that the woman’s story is “worth a tellin’”. But given that subsequent verses reveal excessive drinking, extreme promiscuity, child neglect, and culpable homicide, I think her story would be best told on the courts pages, not as a county song.

Speaking of courts, let it be entered in the record that Tommy Makem was from neighbouring Keady. An Armagh plot to blacken the name of Monaghan is still suspected.

The good news is that the reputational damage is well on the way to correction. The current Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alison Gilliland, who made a fine speech at the Polish reception, is also from Ballybay, a major upturn in the town's fortunes.

The other good news is that Monaghan now has a proper anthem. There were an impressive 47 entries for the prize, but as chief adjudicator Phil Coulter pointed out, some were more song-like than anthemic. Sitting at the piano, he gave us a short lesson in the difference.

“This is a song,” he said, before performing his ballad about a couple starting anew: “Steal Away”. “This is an anthem”, he then declared, launching into another of his compositions, “Ireland’s Call”. Which, for all its detractors, proved his point. Even here, in GAA country, everyone knew the music and enough of the words to join in.

The winning Song for Monaghan was “Let This Be the Day,” by Corkman Tim O’Riordan, who despite being a foreigner in those parts, demonstrated a grasp of local nuance by including both the county’s nicknames, “the Farney and the Oriel”, in his chorus.

Although popular, “Farney” is politically incorrect, deriving as it does from only one of the county’s five baronies.

“Oriel”, by contrast, includes the whole territory. In fact, at its greatest extent, the ancient Kingdom of Oriel also included parts of Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan, Armagh, and Louth. But Monaghan’s neighbours can relax. Even with a new, upbeat anthem, the county has no expansionist ambitions (for now).