History Is Written By The Singers

I can only assume that the stereo was broken the day I did the housework to the tune of my own soulful yodelling. I usually find it difficult to function without musical accompaniment, and ninety-nine times out of ninety-eight I’ll stick on a thoughtful, finely-tuned playlist and get busy to the lusty tones of some foppish chap with a guitar and a check shirt. But this one day, I went a bit mental and decided to provide my own soundtrack. I went through my entire repertoire – The Merry Ploughboy to My Heart Is In Ireland to The Fields Of Athenry to something vaguely sinister about British soldiers.

My better half interjected after about an hour of odes to emigration and immigration and deportation.

“Jesus wept… How – how the fuck – do you know all of those bloody songs?”

In fairness. I know them all because I’m Irish and Irishly impressionable. My better half is an odd fish in that sense. He was raised by enlightened parents who didn’t think it their patriotic duty to instil in him appreciation for rosy-cheeked racism. He learned a few Irish ballads when he took up guitar and check shirts, but jingoistically-speaking, he’s a bit of a fop. I don’t think he’s ever cried into a pint about Boolavogue, Slievenamon or inconsistent four-faced clocks. Which makes him a rather wondrous oddity, don’t you think? Rational, open-minded and patient…none of the qualities sung of in Irish rebel songs.

I don’t know what my first rebel song was, but I reckon God Save Ireland would be a safe bet. It’s a gory march with a tone of defiance so solid you could use it to take down an entire order of nuns. One listen to God Save Ireland, and you’re voting Sinn Féin. It’s a very dangerous ditty, and I thank providence that I was too young for the polling booth when it first battered me with its seditious charms.

Don’t listen to that if you’re not ready to fall in love with Gerry Adams. You have been warned.

For God Save Ireland triggers something deep within the Irish breast. Something ancient, something battle-born, something something delirium-of-the-brave something. Not quite innate, for nationalism was man-made to fill the gap left by Jesus when he rose from the dead, had a spot of lunch, and traipsed off the mortal coil again for some reason. But it’s a feeling that’s long-rooted and therefore profound and unfathomable, all the same. It’s like Fionn mac Cumhaill playing your heartstrings like a fucking fiddle while a bunch of 1980s London skinheads make fun of your freckles. You want to belong to something bigger than you. You want to feel like there’s someone to blame for your not being able to yammer as Gaeilge. You want to fight someone wearing a sneer and a monocle…not with you wearing the sneer and the monocle, obviously. I meant your enemy would wear the sneer and the monocle. Irish rebel songs don’t allow for sneering or pretentious eyewear.

They allow for enemies, though, and impressionable people (like wee Galway-bred cailíní hearing God Save Ireland for the first time) need enemies. Something to rail against like the proud badass you are. Listening to rebel songs is the Irish equivalent of reading Lord Of The Rings if you’re a yokel or listening to Faith Hill mangling the Spangled at the Super Bowl if you’re American. It makes you feel like you’re part of something, whilst at the same time instilling strange and exciting feelings of bottomless rage. Like you want to take your shirt off and punch a wall / kill a Nazgûl  / mutilate a herd of steer.

Knowing your Irish rebel songs really starts to pay dividends when you’re old enough to get served in pubs, and the whole blistering love affair with your own masked xenophobia begins anew. Except this time it’s bolstered by alcohol. Alcohol and pickled friends. Rebel songs make you want to be part of something, and for the entire length of a stanza, you are. You’re part of a swaying, weeping choir of stain-shirted supermen, each more moved by the misdeeds of the Black and Tans than the last.

Come out, ye Black and Tans, come out and fight me like a man!

And without fail, some young fella, his face still in the throes of pubertal disharmony, will slap his fist down on a table and spill someone’s pint.

If you don’t know your Irish rebel songs by the time you start college, for example, your entire social worth will disintegrate as soon as someone chokes out the first few lines of Streets of New York. You’re nothing if you can’t howl back at them about Uncle Benjy and how he got shot down in an uptown foray (sure, even if you can get through the last four lines without your voice cracking, you’ll be thought of as highly suspicious and most likely taken out back and robbed). Irish rebel songs go with Irish drinking culture. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to determine which came first; the rebel songs, or the drinking culture. They sustain each other, a symbiotic muddle of blood, sweat, and needlessly sentimental tears. Kevin Barry died for Ireland. Ireland’s dying for a pint.

“Needlessly sentimental” is the key here. The denizens of modern Ireland have no real claim to the misery of our history; it doesn’t define us in any way but nostalgically. We don’t sing Sean Nós shopping in Brown Thomas and we don’t vow vengeance in the queue at Abrakebabra (unless it was the queue for refunds). I’ll make a concession to exception for the emigration songs, although it’s hard to sing plaintively about how tough it is to work in a dentist’s surgery off Bondi Beach. In general, you lead an Irishman to balladry, and you’ll open the floodgates of hyperbole and hazy threats of international payback. It’s boorish. It’s ignorant.

It’s glorious.

We are Irish and we are collectively excitable and more prone to reminiscence than a spinster with a sherry. Irish rebel songs provoke in us feelings of pride that we’re not entitled to and leanings towards martyrdom that we won’t be celebrated for. Their lyrics are cynically romantic, the flag-waving equivalent of Kim Kardashian’s arse trying to sell you cheap perfume. Sing them at a sober person, and you’ll look like an angry lemming. Sure I can’t sing the entirety of Only Our Rivers Run Free without having an inexplicable emotional meltdown. Honestly. Misdirected patriotism is my party piece. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s funny, because I listen to a lot of folk music now – hipster folk, the kind sung by foppish boys with guitars and check shirts – and I suspect the communal joy of singing evocative rebel songs is the cause of my current aural inclinations. And I’m not alone. Why else would Mumford and Sons – who mostly sing about God, with whom we fell out with in a big way – be so damn big in Ireland?

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

(by Lisa McInerney)

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2 thoughts on “History Is Written By The Singers

  1. nlgbbbblth says:

    “Knowing your Irish rebel songs really starts to pay dividends when you’re old enough to get served in pubs,” – too right it does. I was always too self-conscious to lead a tune but instead would try and mumble my way through them. Great piece Lisa.

  2. Sarah - OGW says:

    Ah there’s nothing quite like singing rebel songs at the top of your voice in the early hours of the morning after Paddy’s night. In England. Noticing your English friends faces drop after three verses when they figure out what you’re singing about. The best of times, the worst of times.

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