Ireland’s Call: standing tall for 20 years

Liked by some, loathed by others, Phil Coulter’s song was the answer to enduring problem

Ireland’s players singing ‘Ireland’s Call’. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Ireland’s players singing ‘Ireland’s Call’. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

Ireland’s Call. It’s just a song, right? Four-line verse, four-line chorus, key change, four-line chorus again. Shoulder to shoulder, all that malarkey. Ninety seconds, tops. No big deal.

Except, it is. It’s a very big deal. It’s nothing less than an expression of what we can be as a race, the sound of two peoples listening to each other, peace dropping slow between the staves.

Or, if you prefer, it’s a thundering disgrace, a spit in the eye of our forefathers, an ersatz sop to Nordie belly-ache. Pick a side, stand a post.

In the 20 years since Phil Coulter sat down in the offices of Slattery PR and took his brief from the IRFU, Ireland’s Call has put down roots.

It is part of the wallpaper of Irish life, one of the few pieces of culture on which it is almost impolite not to have an opinion. It has been mentioned in the letters page of this newspaper almost twice as often as Saipan. It made John Hayes cry.

Hostile public

You would never quite say it is loved but it is certainly nowhere near as unloved as it was back in 1995. It has run the gamut with a sceptical and often hostile public, from deep loathing to grudging acceptance to growing pockets of reasonably throated support. But it has taken every one of those 20 years to get this far.

“I did sound a caution in those early discussions with the IRFU that the song wasn’t going to be welcomed overnight,” says Coulter. “It just wasn’t going to happen. I knew there would be resistance. And somebody said, ‘No, don’t worry about it – sure look at the way the soccer crowd sing The Fields Of Athenry.

“But there was a big difference there. For one, The Fields Of Athenry had already been a big song. Paddy Reilly had been singing it for years and everyone knew it. But on top of that, Ireland’s Call was a case of telling people straight out: ‘This is the song you will sing.’ And as a race, we don’t like being told what to do.”

The story of Ireland’s Call starts with The Rose Of Tralee. Actually no, we’ll get to that in a bit. In fact, the story of Ireland’s Call really starts with Land Of Our Fathers, the Welsh national anthem. Back in 1905, when the All Blacks came to Cardiff Arms Park to play Wales, the home side’s response to the Haka was for winger Teddy Morgan to sing Land Of Our Fathers back. The crowd joined in, and thus was the tradition of singing anthems before sporting events born.

In Ireland, Amhrán na bhFiann only officially became the national anthem in 1926. It was played at rugby internationals in Lansdowne Road from soon after but never further afield.

The tradition had taken hold in rugby of playing the home side’s anthem only – it would be close to the end of the century before it became common practice for both anthems to be heard.

When Ireland played Scotland at Ravenhill in 1954, God Save The Queen was played. It took an intervention from the IRFU committee on the morning of the match to cajole the nine southerners in the team to stand for the preliminaries and they only agreed to it on the proviso that they were never to be put in a similar position again. The fact that their northern teammates had always stood for The Soldier’s Song in Dublin was evoked as persuasion too.

All of which brings us to The Rose of Tralee. A month before the 1987 World Cup, an IRA bomb killed Lord Justice Maurice Gibson. Caught up in the blast were Nigel Carr, Philip Rainey and David Irwin, on their way back from Dublin after pre-World Cup training. Carr never played rugby again.

“A month later,” says Trevor Ringland, “we were standing in line in Wellington waiting to play in a World Cup but we were without one of our best players because Nigel had had his career ended by an IRA bomb. So you can see why The Soldier’s Song wouldn’t have felt very appropriate to some of us.

Second Captains

“We were standing there, and I actually didn’t know what song was going to come on. And then it was The Rose of Tralee. Wales had Land Of My Fathers, a big rousing rendition of it. And I remember thinking, ‘God, you wouldn’t really lay down your life for The Rose Of Tralee, would you?’ It wasn’t the most stirring version of it I ever heard, that’s for sure. I think it was Con Houlihan who said afterwards that maybe next time we should try singing God Save The Rose of Tralee.”

Worst compromise

“It was the worst compromise of all time,” says Neil Francis. “I’d say we had 30 seconds of discussion about it but it certainly wasn’t the players who came up with it. It was a pretty crap version. It was embarrassingly bad. It was played before all four games and I just stood there totally unmoved each time. I didn’t know the song, I hadn’t ever heard it, I knew none of the words. None of us did. We just stood there in stony-faced silence and waited for the game to start.”

Ringland’s father was an RUC officer and he himself would go on to become a unionist politician. He left the UUP in 2010 over a row with party leader Tom Elliott when Elliott refused to accompany him to an All-Ireland football final. He played for Ireland through some of the worst days of The Troubles and never had any trouble squaring the circle of his personal convictions and the symbols that accompanied his rugby career.

“The way it always was for me was that coming to Lansdowne Road to play under the tricolour and stand for the anthem was never a problem because I was coming into an environment of friendship and one that wanted me to be there. As opposed to the people who wrapped themselves in the flag and the anthem and who were trying to murder people like me.

“I think if you use symbols in the right way, with respect to each other, then you take them away from the other guys – on both sides – who would use those symbols to cause division. But it was a gesture for us to come and stand for the anthem. I’m not sure everybody got that.”

By early 1995, the IRFU knew they had to act. The World Cup in South Africa was looming and they couldn’t have a repeat of The Rose Of Tralee farrago. They met with political parties in the north and eventually asked Coulter to do his thing.

Buzzwords “The big challenge was the imagery,” says Coulter. “You are trying to be all-inclusive so there were certain images and certain buzzwords that you had to stay away from.

“You want it to feel inclusive of north and south but you don’t want to spell that out in too crass a way either. Musically, you want a song that can be pretty instantly picked up by people in the stadium so it can’t be too complicated. It had to be accessible, stirring and recognisable. Those were the boxes that had to be ticked.

“The tricky part for a song like that is the lyric. That was the hard part to figure out. You don’t want to get this message across without being too obvious about it. So that’s where this idea of the four proud provinces of Ireland came from. This spells it out without making it a matter of the south joining the north and the north joining the south and us all joining hands together kind of thing.”

The song was unveiled simultaneously on The Late Late Show and The Gerry Kelly Show on the first Friday in April 1995. Andrew Strong sang it, backed by the Culwick Choral Society, Dublin, and the Portadown Male Voice Choir. At one point that summer, the Ireland squad itself assembled to record their own version.

“To my shame, we did a Band Aid effort,” says Francis. “They got all of us into a studio in Dublin and made us wail our way through this moany old dirge. There’s a recording of it somewhere. Somebody must have it. The royalties keep rolling in.”

Coulter’s instinct was on the money – initial reception was almost universally negative. Some saw it as wiping the eye of Amhrán na bhFiann (itself widely panned upon its arrival, by the by, with one TD using a Dáil debate in 1933 to declare it a “jaunty little piece of vulgarity”). Many refused to stay standing for it when it played at Lansdowne – some still do to this day.

“I knew that you would have the conspiracy theorists who would be convinced that you were out to usurp Amhrán na bhFiann,” says Coulter. “Or even replace it, which was never, ever on the agenda at all. But I knew that would happen and I knew that it would take while before the song took root with Irish people.”

Over time, the song gradually melted into the island’s consciousness. It travelled the globe, went to five World Cups in rugby and two in cricket. It was co-opted by the men and women’s national hockey teams and the Ireland rugby league side. It was used in motorsport by Team Ireland for the short-lived A1 Grand Prix series. It became more than just a rugby song.

When the Irish cricket team shocked the 2007 World Cup by beating Pakistan on St Patrick’s Day, they shook the walls of the Sabina Park dressingroom with it. Ever since, it has become tradition for them to sing it in the dressingroom after a victory. The hockey teams had historically used the Londonderry Air – aka Danny Boy – but switched to Ireland’s Call in 2000.

Still, there are plenty of people who plain don’t like the song and who will never warm to it. Francis is one of only four players in the history of Irish rugby to have lined up for three different songs – Michael Bradley, Terry Kingston and Brendan Mullin are the others, since you ask – but Ireland’s Call has never been his cup of camomile.

“I guarantee you that given a few hours over a few pints and a blank sheet of paper, a couple of us could come up with a better song,” he says. “I mean, Phil Coulter has produced some half-decent ditties in his time but this wasn’t one of them.

“It’s too late now obviously, they can’t go back and change it. It’s like the water tax – they have to stick with it now. There’s nothing anyone can do. People just kind of sing it now, no matter how awful it is. The northern players did appreciate it and they did sing it. This was a special set of circumstances and we all acknowledged that.

“It’s just a pity that they couldn’t come up with something that would be properly anthemic, something better than this. Listen to the French or Italian national anthems, even off the pitch they have the ability to get the spine going. Flower of Scotland isn’t perfect but it’s pretty good. Land of My Fathers and Bread of Heaven as well. But not Ireland’s Call. It’s a very poor song, it really is.”

Matters of taste

Coulter has been writing songs for over 50 years. Some of them have been successful, some have been turkeys. In matters of taste, criticism comes with the gig. For what it’s worth, he reckons the song got over the hump a while back.

“I think it took until the England game in Croke Park in 2007 for it to happen. I thought to myself that day that finally, the begrudgers had been sidelined. The decibel levels and respect for God Save The Queen impressed everyone and then Amhrán na bhFiann was full-throated. But then when Ireland’s Call came, there was no hanging back. And I thought at the time that this is when the song has earned its corn.”

Ringland stood in Croke Park that day and sang all three songs and meant every word of each of them. The IRFU’s decision not to play God Save The Queen later that year when Ireland played Italy in Ravenhill annoyed him but he could see why they went that way.

“I think a lot of people in Ulster do appreciate it. The four proud provinces of Ireland standing together – I personally like the song and I like what it stands for. It shows that there is a different way and for me, rugby has always symbolised that. I think it lost it a wee bit when the team came to Belfast.

“I understand the difficulties that it would have brought with it had they played God Save The Queen. But I thought it showed no understanding of the difficulties that there were for me to stand for The Soldier’s Song during the worst of The Troubles. I wouldn’t make a big thing out of it. I think friends can always work their way through these issues. You don’t destroy a friendship over something like that, you find a way around it.”

It could nearly be the song’s subtitle.

Ireland’s Call (The Way Around It).

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