As a sports fan I find myself singing Amhrán na bhFiann quite a lot at this time of year: whether it is watching soccer or rugby internationals at the Aviva or (less frequently) all-Ireland finals at Croke Park. I belt it out with the best of them and feel mindlessly proud of being Irish as I do so.
However perhaps because I am a Northern-born Protestant, I don’t like its lyrics. I don’t like singing (in Irish) “mid cannon’s roar and rifle’s peal, we’ll chant a soldier’s song.” (It is usually forgotten that our national anthem was originally written by Peadar Kearney in English and was only translated into Irish in 1916.) I don’t think singing about cannons and rifles and soldiers is appropriate at a time when, in the words of the amended Constitution after the Good Friday Agreement, it is “the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland…only by peaceful means.”
I much prefer Ireland’s Call because I believe its words are more appropriate to the island we live in, divided politically but displaying a rare sense of unity when represented by our powerful national rugby team (an Irish team that, uniquely among all our sports teams, is currently ranked number one in the world). I feel genuine pride when I sing: “We have come to answer our country’s call from the four proud provinces of Ireland” or “Together, standing tall, shoulder to shoulder, we’ll answer Ireland’s call.” The lyrics may be artless, but I sing them with utter sincerity.
I do not understand the extraordinary antipathy that exists towards this simple reconciling song among so many people in the Republic of Ireland. Don’t nationalist people in this country realise that if they want Northern unionists to identify with Ireland – as many rugby fans from that tradition do – they will have to remove the militaristic and anti-British elements from key Irish symbols: the national anthem, the tricolour (which I believe the Provisional IRA has ruined for ever as a symbol of reconciliation), the Constitution? We are going to need new versions of all of these.
I firmly believe that unionists will never identify with a unitary Irish state and its traditional symbols. If we are ever going to live together with any kind of mutual fellow feeling and solidarity on this island, some much more complex constitutional structure will have to be devised which will adopt entirely new and inclusive symbols to recognise all the island’s peoples (“in all the diversity of their identities and traditions”, to quote the words of the amended Constitution again). Clearly the militaristic, nationalistic, early 20th century language of Amhrán na bhFiann will have to go.
Seamus Mallon recognised the need for complex new structures when he wrote about confederation in his book, A Shared Home Place: “The reason I am attracted to some kind of confederal arrangement is that I believe unionists will find it very difficult to feel any sense of loyalty to a unitary Irish state. Thus if the reassurance that their Britishness will be protected and cherished cannot be guaranteed through all-Ireland laws and institutions, it will have to be provided through new provisions and structures under a separate Northern administration, whether by that time they are still a narrow majority or a large minority in the region.”¹
Why don’t we make a start on amending our out-of-date structures and symbols by changing the national anthem to fit the third decade of the 21st century? Surely that would be a relatively uncontroversial place to start on the very difficult road of moving towards a reconciled ‘new Ireland’? Wouldn’t it be a suitably symbolic gesture to show that we want to make the second century of Irish nationhood more peaceful and inclusive than the first?
As the former international rugby star (and chairman of the British Irish Association) Hugo McNeill remarked earlier this month in an Irish Times article pleading for greater understanding of unionism: “For those who have problems with Ireland’s Call, wait until we get onto the real issues.”²
So here’s an idea for the upcoming anniversary of Irish independence and partition (of minds as well as territory). Why don’t we hold a national competition (Northerners could join in if they wanted) to compose a new national anthem? It would focus on the words of peace – cooperation, reconciliation, compassion, forgiveness, mutual understanding – rather than the words of war. It would emphasise what the two traditions have in common rather than what divides them: parliamentary democracy, our shared European identity (although perhaps that is now problematic after Brexit), a respect for people of all religions and none, a belief in protecting minorities, the English language.
We would ask the people of Ireland to submit tunes and lyrics. The competition would be judged by a panel of musicians (and the odd poet) chaired by a musician of international repute from overseas. How does that sound? Bono and Van Morrison and Sinead O’Connor and Mary Black and Michael Longley and Eavan Boland and Rita Ann Higgins and Mebdh McGuckian and Paul Muldoon and Christy Moore and Paul Brady and James Galway and Barry Douglas and the Chieftains (with Bob Dylan in the chair) choosing our new national anthem (how would we ever get that lot to agree!?). Apart from anything else, it would add to the gaiety of the nation at a time of difficult centenary commemorations; and remind us that good music has a habit of bringing people together, whereas war and bad politics drive them apart.
¹ A Shared Home Place, p. 185
² ‘Mutual respect a key ingredient for united Ireland’, 6 September