Let’s have a competition for a new national anthem

Militaristic, nationalistic language of Amhrán na bhFiann will have to go

August 12th, 2016: Following the Irish hockey team's acapella rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann at the Rio Olympics, Fine Gael Senator Neale Richmond called for the national anthem to be taught in primary school.

 

As a sports fan I find myself singing Amhrán na bhFiann quite a lot: whether it is watching soccer or rugby internationals at the Aviva or (less frequently) All-Ireland finals at Croke Park. I belt it out with the best of them and feel mindlessly proud of being Irish as I do so.

However, perhaps because I am a Northern-born Protestant, I don’t like its lyrics. I don’t like singing (in Irish) “mid cannon’s roar and rifle’s peal, we’ll chant a soldier’s song.” (It is usually forgotten that our national anthem was originally written by Peadar Kearney in English and was translated into Irish only in 1916.)

I don’t think singing about cannon and rifles and soldiers is appropriate at a time when, in the words of the amended Constitution after the Belfast Agreement, it is “the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland . . . only by peaceful means.”

I much prefer Ireland’s Call because I believe its words are more appropriate to the island we live in, divided politically but displaying a rare sense of unity when represented by our national rugby team.

“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
I don’t like singing (in Irish) “mid cannon’s roar and rifle’s peal, we’ll chant a soldier’s song.” File photograph: Getty Images

I feel genuine pride when I sing: “We have come to answer our country’s call from the four proud provinces of Ireland” or “Together, standing tall, shoulder to shoulder, we’ll answer Ireland’s call.”

The lyrics may be artless, but I sing them with utter sincerity.

Antipathy

I do not understand the extraordinary antipathy that exists towards this simple reconciling song among so many people in the Republic of Ireland.

Clearly the militaristic, nationalistic, early 20th century language of Amhrán na bhFiann will have to go

Don’t nationalist people in this country realise that if they want Northern unionists to identify with Ireland – as many rugby fans from that tradition do – they will have to remove the militaristic and anti-British elements from key Irish symbols: the national anthem, the tricolour (which I believe the Provisional IRA has ruined for ever as a symbol of reconciliation), the Constitution?

We are going to need new versions of all of these.

I firmly believe that unionists will never identify with a unitary Irish state and its traditional symbols. If we are ever going to live together with any kind of mutual fellow feeling and solidarity on this island, some much more complex constitutional structure will have to be devised which will adopt entirely new and inclusive symbols to recognise all the island’s peoples (“in all the diversity of their identities and traditions”, to quote the words of the amended Constitution again).

Clearly the militaristic, nationalistic, early 20th century language of Amhrán na bhFiann will have to go.

For those who have problems with Ireland’s Call, wait until we get on to the real issues

Why don’t we make a start on amending our out-of-date symbols by changing the national anthem to fit the third decade of the 21st century? Surely that would be a relatively uncontroversial place to start on the very difficult road of moving towards a reconciled ‘new Ireland’?

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. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Wouldn’t it be a suitably symbolic gesture to show that we want to make the second century of Irish nationhood more peaceful and inclusive than the first?

As the former international rugby star Hugo MacNeill remarked last year in an Irish Times article pleading for greater understanding of unionism: “For those who have problems with Ireland’s Call, wait until we get on to the real issues.”

National competition

So here’s an idea for the upcoming anniversary of Irish independence and partition. Why don’t we hold a national competition to compose a new national anthem? It would focus on the words of peace – co-operation, reconciliation, compassion, forgiveness, mutual understanding – rather than the words of war.

It would emphasise what the two traditions have in common rather than what divides them: parliamentary democracy, our shared European identity (although perhaps that is now problematic after Brexit), a respect for people of all religions and none, a belief in cherishing minorities, the English language.

We would ask the people of Ireland to submit tunes and lyrics. The competition would be judged by a panel of musicians and poets chaired by a musician of international repute from overseas. How does that sound?

Bono and Van Morrison and Mary Black and Michael Longley and Rita Ann Higgins and Medbh McGuckian and Paul Muldoon and Christy Moore and Paul Brady and Barry Douglas and the Chieftains (with Bob Dylan in the chair) choosing our new national anthem (how would we ever get that lot to agree!?).

Apart from anything else, it would add to the gaiety of the nation at a time of difficult centenary commemorations; and remind us that good music has a habit of bringing people together, whereas war and bad politics drive them apart.

Andy Pollak was founding director of the Centre for Cross-Border Studies and is a former Irish Times journalist in Belfast and Dublin

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.