A national anthem but how many could sing it?

Few people know the words of ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’, and fewer still know what they mean, so why, asks Ryle Dwyer, is playing ‘Ireland’s Call’ at rugby matches such a big deal?

The Irish players singing Ireland's Call in 2009 ahead of their victory over Wales, winning the Grand Slam, the RBS Six Nations Championship and the Triple Crown, at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.

THE decision to play ‘Ireland’s Call’ instead of the national anthem at rugby matches abroad, such as at the recent rugby international in Rome, still annoys a few people.

In a follow-up report, RTÉ’s Nationwide featured interviews with a dozen people who were asked to sing or say the words of the anthem. None could recite more than a few words of it.

People complain about ‘Ireland’s Call’ and say they would prefer the national anthem, but very few know the words. Indeed, in Stockholm last Friday, the singer at the soccer international appeared to introduce some fresh lyrics, and it is obvious that even fewer people know what those words mean.

The IRFU decided ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ would be played at international matches in the Republic, and the British national anthem would be played at Irish international matches in the North. Prior to the Good Friday Agr-eement, Ireland played only one full international match in Belfast since the 1920s. That was against Scotland on Feb 27, 1954, when ‘God Save the Queen’ was played.

There was an apocryphal story that the Irish forward Tom Clifford of Limerick sat down on the field in protest during ‘God Save the Queen’, but that did not happen. Clifford was not even on the team.

For years, foreign bands fouled up our national anthem on some of the greatest Irish sporting occasions abroad, by playing both first stanza and the chorus of the ‘Soldier’s Song’. There was not a murmur of dissent on any of those occasions. It happened in Helsinki after Eamonn Coghlan was presented with his gold medal in the 1983 World Championships.

The same thing happened in Germany at all three of Ireland’s matches in the European Cup soccer finals of 1988, at the five games in the World Cup Finals in Italy in 1990, after Michael Carruth won the gold medal at Barcelona, along with all of Ireland’s games in the 1994 World Cup in the US, as well as after Michelle Smith collected each of her three gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics. The Finns, Germans, Italians, Spanish, and Americans all got our anthem wrong. Could it be that our auth-orities were misinforming them?

After an army officer told me in the 1990s that the proper version of the national anthem was the first stanza and chorus, I called the Government Information Service (GIS) during the 1996 Olympics to get an authoritative opinion.

The first two people that I talked to were not sure. The second person said she would check it out and call me back. An hour later, she called to say that nobody there knew for sure. Next morning, the GIS kindly forwarded the answer:

“The text of the ‘Soldier’s Song’ (‘Amhrán na bhFiann’), consisting of three stanzas and a chorus, was written in 1907 by Peadar Kearney, a maternal uncle of the writer Brendan Behan, who together with Patrick Heeney, also composed the music. It was first published in the newspaper Irish Freedom, in 1912. The chorus was formally adopted as the national anthem in 1926, displacing the earlier Fenian anthem, ‘God Save Ireland’.”

Fair play, the staff admitted initially that they did not know for sure. Nobody should therefore be surprised that those in other countries did not know.

There was the story of Terry Mancini, who played a number of times for Ireland in soccer. He was born and reared in England of Italian and Irish ancestry. His first game for Ireland at the age of 30 in Oct 1973 was in Poland, where the first stanza and the chorus of the ‘Soldier’s Song’ were played. At the end of it, Mancini reportedly sighed: “I hope ours isn’t as long.”

The problem of what to play at a foreign rugby international first arose at Ireland’s initial Rugby World Cup game in New Zealand in 1987. The late Mick Doyle, the Irish coach, was a Kerryman. He explained to Radio Kerry afterwards that he only learned that there was a problem on the eve of Ireland’s first game.

Instead of the national anthem, ‘The Rose of Tralee’ was played. Maybe that was tribute to Doyle. In 1995, the IRFU commissioned Phil Coulter to compose a special song for such occasions, and ‘Ireland’s Call’ resulted.

While few people know all the words of the national anthem, even fewer know what they mean. There is the story of the American visitor who was impressed with the rousing rendition of the final song that he heard in a pub one night. He didn’t know the name of it, but he said it ended with: “Shoving Connie Around the Green.”

The Soldiers’ Song

The national anthem was written in English by Peadar Kearney.

Soldiers are we

Whose lives are pledged to Ireland;

Some have come

From a land beyond the wave.

Sworn to be free,

No more our ancient sire land

Shall shelter the despot or the slave.

Tonight we man the BearnaBaoghal

In Erin’s cause, come woe or weal

Mid cannons’ roar and rifles’ peal,

We’ll chant a soldier’s song.



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