Fighting Words – Frank McNally on the best and worst songs of the Northern Troubles

An Irishman’s Diary

An unfortunate aspect of the recent Zombie controversy, in which the Cranberries’ classic became a social media battleground between Sinn Féin and its critics, was to encourage closer study of the song’s lyrics. This is an unrewarding pursuit. Like many of the best pop hits, Zombie was not designed to withstand the strain of literary analysis.

The first shot in the row was fired by Limerick TD Maurice Quinlivan when, retweeting a video of crowds singing the chorus at Belfast's Féile an Phobail, he referenced the Bobby Sands mantra about how republicans' revenge would be the "laughter of our children".

Critics responded by pointing out that the song was originally dedicated to the child victims of the IRA’s Warrington Bomb. But then both sides consulted the lyric sheet in search of further support for their arguments and, as they discovered, there is not much to go on there.

As a treatment of the Troubles, Zombie is about as insightful as the sitcom Give My Head Peace. Indeed, “Give My Head Peace” is as near as it has to a theme. “In your head, in your head, they are fighting,” goes the chorus. But for detectives trying to establish who the group described as “they” are, or to find even a hint that one side was worse than the other, the song offers nothing.


Sinn Féin supporters could (and did) take comfort from the fact that it mentions “tanks”, something the IRA never had. But then there’s the line “It’s the same old theme/Since 1916”, which is highly problematic for any republican. That appears to absolve the 1912 League & Covenant, Larne gun running, Curragh Mutiny, Great War, and House of Lords obstruction to Home Rule as contributors to subsequent violence, although for Dolores O’Riordan, the main priority may have been that it rhymed.

Oh well, Zombie was a huge success, so she knew what she was doing. And even lyrically, it’s not the worst song written about the Troubles. That would be Boney M’s 1977 smash Belfast, which set Ireland’s tragedy to a Eurodisco beat and had people all over the world shaking their booties to such gnomic lines as: “Belfast, Belfast, When the country rings the leaving bell you’re lost.” Strange to say, it was considered too political to release in America, although not even the LAPD could have found evidence of meaning anywhere in it. “You can try (You can try)/To tell the world the reason why,” wrote the lyricist. Wisely, he didn’t try himself.

Even for those who knew the reasons why, of course, the subject was a minefield. Take for example many people's what might be many people's vote for best Troubles song: Stiff Little Fingers' Alternative Ulster. That was also ostensibly neutral on constitutional issues.

On the other hand, in its very title, it used a name for Northern Ireland that only one side of the community divide ever did. Also, despite being primarily about the lack of musical venues in 1970s Belfast, it includes the line "And the RUC dog of repression/Is Barking at your feet". For lyrical subtlety, that makes the Cranberries look like Cole Porter. Still, you could dance to Alternative Ulster too, after a fashion, and many of us did.

Like most of their perfect pop songs, the Undertones’ It’s Going to Happen was even catchier, with a snappy lyric to match the tune. And that did take sides, deliberately, although the lyrics were so elliptical you would struggle to prove it in a court of law.

The Undertones were from Derry and would never have said “Ulster” to mean the territory ruled from Stormont. But unlike the overearnestness of SLF, they tended to be subversive only in that, against the backdrop of internecine slaughter, they kept writing songs about girls and teenage angst.

Even “It’s Going to Happen” could be read as being about personal growth, or the lack of it. But it was released 40 years ago this summer, during the hunger strikes, and one of the songwriters filled in the lyrical gaps by wearing a black armband on Top of the Pops, something he later regretted.

The Troubles inspired many fine songs, from Phil Coulter's The Town I Loved So Well to Paul Brady's The Island, to Belfast Child by Simple Minds, to the semi-official anthem of the peace process: U2's Sunday Bloody Sunday. But oblique as is it, my favourite might be Oliver's Army, a perfect marriage between pungent lyrics and a catchy tune, in which Elvis Costello reflects on 1970s Belfast, the legacy of Cromwell, and the historic reliance of imperial armies everywhere on recruiting from the poor, all stitched together by a cheerful piano riff unmistakeably borrowed from Abba's Dancing Queen.