TOMMY MARTIN: 'These Limerick lads are not rebels, and they’ve been busy with their own cause'

Given the demands on the modern-day intercounty player, it’s surprising the victorious Limerick panel have time for fomenting violent revolutionary discord, writes Tommy Martin

What with gym sessions, plyometrics, nutrition programs and puckout playbooks, how does one even fit in plotting to overthrow the oppressive yoke of British rule?

Alas, the Belfast Telegraph caught the Limerick squadron bang to rights, singing about IRA volunteer Sean South in a video recorded in the dressing room after their All-Ireland win last Sunday.

“Fury after hurlers celebrate All-Ireland win with IRA song,” went the newspaper’s headline, along with quotes from Phyllis Carrothers, whose husband was killed by an IRA bomb in 1991.

“It’s hurtful…It’s a rebel song and totally out of context for a team who are supposed to be celebrating,” Carrothers told the newspaper.

“A man going to kill people trying to work for a living and support their families is not something to sing about in celebration.”

And so began the predictable and well-rehearsed tit-for-tat between the two sides of our island’s seemingly intractable cultural divide, the dreary whataboutery of songs, flags and symbols that really just represents two groups of people who don’t want to listen to each other.

For most Limerick folk enjoying the aftermath of Sunday’s glorious deliverance, Sean South was just one song on a celebratory playlist, along with Limerick You’re A Lady, various Cranberries hits and, erm, Horse Outside.

'These Limerick lads are not rebels, and they’ve been busy with their own cause'

Given the majority of people only know the last two lines of Sean South it could be argued that for them the song is stripped of meaning other than being about a guy from Limerick who got up to some kind of caper once upon a time.

In fact, those lines —

There were men from Dublin and from Cork, Fermanagh and Tyrone/But the leader was a Limerick man, Sean South of Garryowen” — could be about anything

A crack team of chartered accountants headed up by the titular South, master of the spreadsheet macro.

A Louis Walsh boyband, handpicked after a nationwide talent hunt, the kid from Limerick the only one who can actually sing.

Then there’s the pleasing scan of those lyrics, something about the alliterative name that just makes it work as a boisterous party song.

And for Limerick people, the reassuring fact that whatever Sean and the lads were up to, one of their own was in charge of operation. Hon ya boyah!

But of course, this is being slightly disingenuous. Even if you are not up to speed with the IRA’s ‘Border Campaign’, as part of which South and fellow volunteer Fergal O’Hanlon were killed in a bungled attack on an RUC barracks in Co. Fermanagh in on New Year’s Day 1957, you know it’s a rebel song, and as such, a little bit naughty.

Other than the small rump of crazy people who actually still believe a united Ireland will be achieved by bombing and maiming the other side into submission, very few of those who find themselves mouthing along to bits of rebel songs in boozy gatherings are actively supportive of what was once known as ‘the cause’, any more than singing along to the Proclaimers means you would actually walk 500 miles to fall down at somebody’s door.

I presume that the cherubic young Limerick panel, what with all that bench-pressing and beep-testing, also have better things to be doing than scanning An Phoblacht for rebellious tittle-tattle. They, like the vast majority of the Limerick fans singing Sean South, will have viewed it as essentially harmless, a raucous county song much more fun to sing than the mopey Limerick You’re A Lady.

But it’s still, as Phyllis Carrothers points out, about an IRA operation that set out with the intention to kill; and even knowing this as we do, and how it might hurt some of those we share an island with, it’s still, it seems, acceptable to sing about such things in southern Irish culture.

'These Limerick lads are not rebels, and they’ve been busy with their own cause' 

This says that despite the modern Irish worldview — secular, liberal, welcoming, keen to forget the dark tragedies of the part — there is a part of our identity in which Sean South still resides.

Not Sean South himself, I hasten to add. As well as being an IRA man, he was also an ultra-conservative Catholic activist with allegedly fascist leanings: Were he still around today he’d one of those lads who pops up in the audience in current affairs shows that everyone laughs at. But he survives in a song lying around with all the other jumble and bric-a-brac in the attic of our collective psyche.

It is in these small, throwaway things that the real divisions are seen.

I remember going to the headquarters of the Irish Football Association in Belfast for a press conference to announce Michael O’Neill’s appointment as Northern Ireland manager. In the reception area a DVD featuring ‘Northern Ireland’s 50 Greatest Goals’ was played on rotation. Alongside famous goals by Gerry Armstrong and David Healy was one scored against Poland at Windsor Park in 2009. 

The goal amounted to little more than the Polish goalkeeper swiping and missing a backpass which trundled into the net. But the goalkeeper was Artur Boruc of Celtic, and the humiliation of his gaffe was enough to earn the goal a place in the pantheon. How strange, I thought, but how revealing.

All these little strands of cultural identity — ‘harmless’ things to one side, hurtful to the other — bind together to keep us tied to the past. Rebel songs, ‘God Save The Queen’ at Windsor Park, flags, marches, Fuck the Pope and Up the ‘Rah — will divisions be healed when these things cease to exist or when both sides begin to tolerate the other’s naughty nonsense?

To me, the latter seems more realistic. Arlene Foster going to the Ulster final or Brian O’Driscoll banging a Lambeg drum won’t bring about love and harmony in themselves, but denuding each other’s symbols of their power to offend is a smarter way to get there than shouting at each other to stop.

So altogether now: “Blah, blah, blah, blah a Limerick man, Sean South from Garryowen.”


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