Sons of the Gael! Men of the Pale!
The long watched day is breaking;
The serried ranks of Inisfail
Shall set the Tyrant quaking.
Our camp fires now are burning low;
See in the east a silv’ry glow,
Out yonder waits the Saxon foe,
So chant a Soldier’s Song
Wouldn’t that be a great song to sing before the English match in Croke Park next weekend? Couldn’t you just imagine the sound of 80,000 sons of the Gael and men of the Pale soaring high above the quaking Saxon team as they lined up for the traditional singing of the national anthems?
Hang on a second. That is our national anthem. At least, it’s the third verse of Peadar Kearney’s Soldier’s Song, the chorus of which was declared to be our national anthem in 1926.
We all sort of know the chorus, don’t we, and we sing along in a fairly half-hearted fashion, even though I often wonder how much it means to any of us nowadays.
I know it was a great help to me and the people around me when the words of Amhrán na bhFiann were flashed on the giant screen in Croke Park at the French match last weekend. It helped to ensure the singing of the national anthem was a bit more full-blooded than usual.
We might sing the words, but we don’t really mean them. We can’t. For example, who really means it when we bellow out that we are soldiers whose lives are pledged to Ireland?
Not me – I don’t want to be a soldier, never did.
What’s more, I don’t feel the need to rid my ancient sire land of despots or slaves — not the foreign kind anyway.
And as for manning the “bearna baol” in the midst of cannon’s roar and rifle’s peal, I’m fairly sure I’m not alone in wondering what the hell they’re talking about.
Mind you, until 1926 our national anthem was the even more bloodcurdling God Save Ireland:
“High upon the gallows tree
Swung the noble-hearted Three,
By the vengeful tyrant stricken in their bloom. But they met him face to face
With the courage of their race,
And they went with souls undaunted to their doom …”
It’s hard to imagine what sort of effect that could have at a modern sporting occasion, especially if alcohol was involved!
Back to Amhrán na bhFiann, though. While we’re bellowing all about the gap of anger and the cannon’s roar, the unfortunate English team will be able to respond only with their own pretty limp anthem. We all sort-of know the chorus to that as well, don’t we? ”
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious.
Long to reign over us:
God save The Queen.”
I’ve heard that described as jingoistic and militaristic in recent days. But it’s actually not nearly as bloodthirsty as our own, is it? And when you look at some of the later verses of the same song, still part of the national anthem though seldom sung nowadays, there’s even less reason to object to it on bloodthirsty grounds.
“Not in this land alone,
But be God’s mercies known,
From shore to shore!
Lord make the nations see,
That men should brothers be,
And form one family,
The wide world o’er.”
Maybe, rather than arguing about whether the British national anthem should be sung in Croke Park at all, we should be promoting the singing of that verse in particular.
It’s a weird argument in a way, this argument about anthems. How many of us knew last weekend that these words were being sung in Croke Park:
Arise children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived.
Against us tyranny’s bloody standard is raised. Listen to the sound in the fields,
The howling of these fearsome soldiers;
They are coming into our midst
To cut the throats of your sons and consorts”
They are the opening words of the Marseillaise, which first became popular during the French revolution. It’s no wonder the French team tore into us right from the opening whistle of the match.
AND next October, when Ireland host Germany during the Euro football qualifiers, the tune that will be played will be one we all know as Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles — “Germany, Germany Above All ...” There was a time, of course, when the phrase “Germany, Germany Above All” had a far more sinister meaning. In the Nazi era, Hitler decreed that one verse of the original anthem would continue to be played, but it would always be accompanied by a verse of the anthem of the Nazi Party, the “Horst Wessel Lied”.
In the protocol of the strictly neutral Ireland ordained by Eamon de Valera during World War II, there must have been formal occasions when the German national anthem of the day was played, with its chilling Nazi celebration:
“Flag high, ranks closed,
The SA marches with silent solid steps.
Comrades shot by the red front and reaction
March in spirit with us in our ranks.
The street free for the brown battalions,
The street free for the Storm Troopers.
Millions, full of hope, look up at the swastika; The day breaks for freedom and for bread.”
You know what Germany has done with its anthem? When east and west were united in 1990, it was agreed that in future, the third verse of Deutschland Uber Alles would be the official anthem of the reunified country. So, while Germany Above All hasn’t been forbidden, these are the official words now:
“Unity and Right and Freedom for the German Fatherland!
After these let us all strive brotherly with heart and hand!”
We all know, of course, that it goes beyond the words of the anthems. People who don’t want to hear God Save the Queen in Croke Park next week are motivated by different things. And I’ve no doubt their strength of feeling is deep. But imagine how the same people, indeed all of us, would react if anyone had ever suggested that, because of IRA atrocities in the past, Amhrán na bhFiann would not be welcome in Twickenham or Wembley.
But honest to God, isn’t it time we thought about retiring Amhrán na BhFiann ourselves?
Without any disrespect to the pride and patriotism the song might have stirred up once, isn’t it long past time we replaced it with something that more accurately represents modern Ireland?
Isn’t it time we found, or developed, a song that our sports people can sing with pride — and even that they can understand? And after all these years of a peace process, isn’t it time we developed something so that everyone who lives on this island, North and South, might feel OK about joining in when it is sung or played?
In the interests of reflecting the modern, open country we have become, for the sake of giving a new generation a chance to find their own voice, and because it has outlived its usefulness, I reckon we should set about finding a new national anthem rather than worrying about anyone else’s.
The Soldiers’ Song says nothing to us any more. It’s time we retired it with honour.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved