Ireland's songs of rebellion

As 1916-related events hit their peak, Marjorie Brennan looks at the country’s rich tradition of songs about rebellion

Ireland's songs of rebellion

The 1916 centenary celebrations have provided us with an opportunity to re-evaluate and reflect on our sometimes ambivalent relationship with our troubled past. Rebel songs, from Four Green Fields to Kevin Barry, Sean South of Garryowen to A Solider’s Song, are a key part of that relationship, and one that is also ripe for reassessment.

Terry Moylan of Na Píobairí Uilleann, the pipers’ club, has just published The Indignant Muse: Poetry and Songs of the Irish Revolution, a selection of more than 500 songs and poems created in the years before and after the Easter Rising. How exactly would he define a rebel song?

“We all used to call them rebel songs when we were younger but it is a kind of externally-imposed label. Really it is a means of making somebody feel better when they haven’t managed to achieve their political or military objectives; they take refuge in self-consolation musically.

“A lot of them are narratives, others are deliberately framed to provoke a political response or awaken some nationalist feeling. The United Irishmen deliberately published songbooks in 1798 and in 1803 to try and whip up sentiment in support of their own position. There’s the narrative ones, the deliberately political ones, the lyrical ones which describe ‘my love who died for Ireland’, that kind of thing.

“It’s not a single complexion that they all have, there’s variety in them. It’s possible to enjoy a lot of them without subscribing to some kind of programme or platform.”


Moylan believes the artistic merits of many rebel songs have been subsumed by their perceived message.

“I recently saw a programme for a concert that Éamonn Ceannt, who played the pipes, performed in 1915, very close to the Rising. He chose to play ‘The Boyne Water’, which nowadays has a sectarian charge as it is played by the Orange bands. In his day, it was just seen as a narrative ballad and he had no problem playing the air. Things change.”

Moylan believes that the appropriation of rebel songs by certain republican elements have not done them any justice.

“They take a song like ‘A Nation Once Again’, which is a very fine song and urges purity of thought and action. They bawl it out at occasions to celebrate the most awful actions. A couple of years ago, I went, out of scientific curiosity, to a republican ballad session in Dublin. I was absolutely appalled at the rabid nature of the delivery and the reception that a lot of the songs were getting.

“They function as party songs to make people feel better in their own circle but they also function as art objects in other circles when serious singers get together. For example, I heard Frank Harte sing ‘The Foggy Dew’ once in Dublin. He sang it superbly and it was an artistic performance.”

Harte, a renowned singer and collector from Dublin, who died in 2005, believed the Irish song tradition need not be sectarian saying: “The Orange song is just as valid an expression as the Fenian.” He also believed songs were key to understanding our past. As he put it: “Those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs, and, given our history, we have an awful lot of songs.”

A band that has recorded many of those songs are the Wolfe Tones, perhaps the best-known purveyors of traditional ballads and rebel songs from the 1960s onwards. According to founding member, Derek Warfield, such songs were a natural and artistic response to oppression.

“The way I always looked at the so-called rebel songs, the patriotic ballads, was that they were how the ordinary people of Ireland recorded their feelings and emotions. I always felt comfortable singing them because I grew up with them. I was just surprised when people didn’t sing them,” says Warfield, who now plays with the Young Wolfe Tones.

“Patriotic ballads are a huge part of our popular song tradition and deserve artistic merit. For many generations, it was the only means that people had to express their feelings. It was a response, of course, to English oppression in this country. Song has been a very powerful part of our resistance down through the years. People undermined its value and censored its sentiments; when these were songs that were sung in the GPO in 1916.”

Warfield quotes James Connolly: “No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression… Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant, singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement, it is the dogma of a few, and not the faith of the multitude.”


How does Warfield respond to those who say the Wolfe Tones inflamed republican sentiment during the sensitive times of the Troubles?

“Everybody looks for scapegoats in troubled times. The songs are not the problem, the songs are a response to the problem. This was our way to respond to our oppression.

“It’s also worth remembering that in the past that there wasn’t any other means to respond. Most people in Ireland were peace-loving; they didn’t want the English system of militarism.

“Everything in the 19th century was geared to denationalise the country. The songs then became part of that resistance. To me, the songs about the events of the Troubles, internment and the hunger strikers, they’re just as important as ‘The Ballad of James Connolly’. It was the ordinary man’s response to the awful treatment of this country.

“The bards and the balladeers had the good sense to separate English authority from the English people. There are no songs directed at the people of England as a race. Irish people got on very well with English people. I’ve played in England all my life and have been supported by Irish communities there in a responsible and appreciative way.”

Warfield, who played for US President Barack Obama during last year’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations on Capitol Hill, believes that sometimes you have to leave Ireland to really appreciate the value of our culture and tradition.

“One of the problems is that Irish people really haven’t come to terms with how to defend their culture.

“They don’t recognise the great value of what we have in this country in terms of song lore and particularly its patriotic aspect. It’s a mirror of the hardships and oppression our forefathers suffered under English rule; to be ashamed of that is wrong.

“We should hold it up as a powerful literary and musical statement of the great minds behind the foundation of our State; the likes of Thomas Davis and Padraig Pearse who understood the value of our song lore.”

  • The Indignant Muse: Poetry and Songs of the Irish Revolution (Lilliput Press) is out now.
  • Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones play a National Graves Association commemorative event at the GPO, Dublin, on April 24, the day of the Easter Rising centenary.

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