Fintan O’Toole: National Anthem is tone deaf to new Ireland

Enshrining ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ in law is out of tune with radically altered identity

“Belting out impassioned nonsense is one way of expressing an Irish identity, and the National Anthem is the primary mode of articulation for a notion of Irishness that is as dead as coffin nails.” File photograph: Getty Images

“Belting out impassioned nonsense is one way of expressing an Irish identity, and the National Anthem is the primary mode of articulation for a notion of Irishness that is as dead as coffin nails.” File photograph: Getty Images

 

Decipher this:

Sinead feigned her fall.

A toffee girl, a gay run.

Binned. Arse. Loo.

Hard tune the hen-egg ruined.

These are, of course, the words of the National Anthem. In a poem of that name in his terrific recent collection, The Darkness of Snow, Frank Ormsby recalls this scrambled phonetic rendering from his Fermanagh Catholic childhood. This is not an exercise in mockery of the Irish language along the lines of Gregory Campbell’s “curry my yogurt”. As well as being very funny, Ormsby’s poem is also a poignant meditation on cultural dissonance and the effort to conform to an identity you don’t really understand:

Níl fuck-all Gaelige againn,

yet up we stand, the tricolour unfurls,

and we belt out the impassioned nonsense

we have learned by heart.

Even in the 1930s, it was not very controversial to suggest that the National Anthem is pretty awful

Belting out impassioned nonsense is one way of expressing an Irish identity, and the National Anthem is the primary mode of articulation for a notion of Irishness that is as dead as coffin nails. Yet, instead of seeking to replace it with something more meaningful, the Seanad has been spending its precious time considering how to enshrine it in law.

Popular militarism

Peadar Kearney’s lyrics (written of course in English) and the tune that Paddy Heeney worked out on his melodeon are nothing more than remnants of early 20th-century European popular militarism. There is nothing especially national about them. The lyrics, give or take the excruciating rhyme of “Ireland” with “sireland” and the evocation of the “Saxon foe”, could have served for the Ulster Volunteer Force just as well as for the Irish Volunteers who adopted it. The tune is pure Edwardian English music hall jingo – if you don’t believe me try singing “We don’t want to fight them, but by jingo if we do/We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and got the money too!” to it. It scans rather well doesn’t it? The composer Brian Boydell, who arranged the now semi-official version for the opening of RTÉ in 1961 admitted he had his work cut out to “raise its musical value and lend it some sense of dignity”. 

Words of “Amhrán na bhFiann” appear on a screen prior to a GAA match at Croke Park. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill01
Words of “Amhrán na bhFiann” appear on a screen prior to a GAA match at Croke Park. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill01

Even in the 1930s, it was not very controversial to suggest that the National Anthem is pretty awful. In a Dáil debate in 1933 to approve the purchase of the copyright by the State, the Roscommon TD Frank McDermott said “from both a literary and a musical point of view, I would regard the Soldier’s Song as, shall we say, a jaunty little piece of vulgarity, and I think we could have done a lot better”. The other speakers either agreed with him or defended the anthem on the grounds that it had become traditional. Nobody expressed the view that it had any intrinsic value.

It is tempting to say that all of this is too trivial to be bothered with, but the timing of this move to give the force of law to a long outmoded expression of Irishness is surely not accidental

Yet in the parallel universe that is the Seanad, there is a serious move to enshrine this jaunty little piece of vulgarity in law, along with strict guidelines as to its use. The Mayor of Cork, Tony Fitzgerald, told the Seanad’s public consultation committee what the rules should be for the singing of the anthem at sporting events: “Not only should we stand to attention, but we should sing the anthem in full. Players, officials and spectators should sing the national anthem in unison to the end.” He also urged the revival in schools of the practice of his boyhood in North Monastery when “every morning, at 8.55am, just before school began, the Christian Brothers gathered all the pupils around as the Tricolour was raised. Every pupil sang Amhrán na bhFiann before entering their classroom.” The committee has even heard suggestions that the anthem be placed in the Constitution – a proposal supported by the head of the Army’s school of music. 

The musical notation that appears on every left-hand page of our Irish passports is Paddy Heeney’s music hall tune. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
The musical notation that appears on every left-hand page of our Irish passports is Paddy Heeney’s music hall tune. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Loyalty test

These attempts to enforce the anthem on us as a national loyalty test have already had one major success: the musical notation that now appears on every left-hand page of our Irish passports is Paddy Heeney’s music hall tune. The head of the passport office, Joseph Nugent, tells us that “the anthem was selected to be representative of what it means to be Irish”. It is “a fundamental symbol of being Irish”. What kind of nonsense is this? We voted overwhelmingly 20 years ago to change the Constitution and restate the national aspiration as “in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions”. It is profoundly unconstitutional in spirit to suggest that defining oneself as a Soldier of Destiny with an absolute obligation to fight the “Saxon foe” is a fundamental test of one’s right to be Irish.

It is tempting to say that all of this is too trivial to be bothered with, but the timing of this move to give the force of law to a long outmoded expression of Irishness is surely not accidental. “What it means to be Irish” has been radically altered by the referendums on articles 2 and 3, on marriage equality and on abortion. We have an open, fluid, multilayered identity and, to return to Ormsby’s opening line, Sinead is no longer feigning her fall. You could sing that if you had an air to it. 

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