Rebel Art Friday: Irish Rebel Songs – Part I

Nobody sings a rebel song quite like the Irish.

And having dropped fully down the rabbit hole recently – touring as many corners of a mighty canon of Irish rebel music as a clueless, arrogant American can find – the song that, for me, best captures the essence of the genre is “Four Green Fields.”

I love the metaphor of Ireland as a “proud old woman,” the four Irish provinces as lush, green jewels; I love the way the imagery intensifies and darkens as the melody lifts, and the way that – at least in the above version by The High Kings – the soaring harmonies rise with the “wailing cries” of the Irish people.

And I love that Tommy Makem’s song ends on an undeniably hopeful note – not the false, wishful-thinking kind, but rather hard-earned recognition of a generational, but ultimately winnable, battle against oppression:

But my sons have sons
As brave as were their fathers.
And my four green fields
will bloom once again’, said she.

“Four Green Fields” spoke to me on a hundred different levels, and inspired me both to launch Rebel Art Fridays a couple of months ago, and to dig deeper into the rich history of Irish rebel music.

That history is so rich – coming from a people who have endured centuries of pain, with their romantic brogues, their trembling baritones and perfect tenor harmonies, their innate sense for the poetry of heartache – that I decided to break this post up into two.

This Part I will take a narrow (and wholly inadequate) look at the broader history of Irish rebel songs, right up to the beginnings of the escalation of the modern Troubles in Northern Ireland, in the late 1960’s. Part II, which I hope to get to before the end of the month, will focus on the raw, violent, mesmerizing music that marked the Troubles.

Irish Ways

It’s striking how much Americans share with the Irish, especially culturally – my stroll through just the most popular, outer rings of Irish folk music reminded, again and again, just how much our music, literature and language owe to the Irish.

But for as much as we share, equally striking is the massive gulf between Ireland’s national self-identity – proud defiance of hundreds of years of suffering and oppression – and ours, which, until recently perhaps, was built around our unmatched power on the world stage.

That juxtaposition is impossible to avoid listening to this solemn, earnest version of “Irish Ways and Irish Laws” by the Dublin City Ramblers:

There are certainly portions of American society that can fully identify with this song: the nagging knowledge that your people have always been subjected to “ways” and “laws” that were built for your oppressors, not for you.

But when it comes to America’s national identity (which is, of course, an American “way” in its own right, defined by and around our troubled internal power dynamics), we define ourselves by our confidence that “the American way” is absolute, unalienable, the envy of the world.

We cannot conceive of living under the yolk of oppressors, and in our battle, today, against forces that seek to destroy both “American ways and American laws,” our unbreakable confidence in the durability of our “ways” has proven, again and again, to be naive and dangerous.

The Irish suffer no such delusions when it comes to their perilous historic place in the world, and their ongoing efforts to shake free of oppression, and it is fascinating to listen to their rebel music in this context.

Easter Rising I
Dublin, following the Easter Rising in 1916.

For instance, much of Irish history is marked by times when Irishmen fought – sometimes conscripted, sometimes for pay or as part of a treaty – in the armies of more powerful European nations, forced to spend years in foreign lands, fighting foreign wars.

Those ill-fated Irishmen sent overseas came to be known over hundreds of years as Ireland’s “Wild Geese,” and one of the oldest rebel songs I stumbled upon (written sometime in the late 1800s), the lovely lament “Carrigdhoun,” cries out to a lost love who’s “gone to France / To wear the Fleur-de-Lis” in 1691:

Given that history, it’s impossible not to hear echoes of “Carrigdhoun” in the classic rebel ballad, “Foggy Dew,” which implicitly rebukes the “Wild Geese” tradition by urging Irish soldiers, in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising, to come home from fighting World War I under the British banner, and instead fight for their own freedom at home.

All of which makes “On the One Road,” a jaunty 1940 composition, particularly interesting.

I initially mistook the song as a World War II anthem of unity and brotherhood – “we’re on the one road / sharing the one load” – before being reminded that Ireland (soon to be the Irish Republic) was determinedly neutral during WWII.

Ireland took a lot of flack for its neutrality. But when viewed through the lens of the history of the “Wild Geese,” and the tug of war in 1916 between a foreign world war on one hand, and the pull of Irish nationalism on the other, it becomes easier to wrap your head around Ireland’s steadfast neutrality, and focus on the homeland.

To that end, the unique self-awareness of the Irish, their innate understanding of how, rightly or wrongly, the world sees this “very funny place” and “very funny race,” is on full display in the merry send-up of British condescension, “The Man from the Daily Mail”:

I love this song for its wit and energy, which are all the more remarkable for the fact that the song was written in 1920, in the middle of the Irish War of Independence.

I think we Americans can learn something essential from a people who, in the middle of a volatile, guerilla-style war, can have a laugh about the way their snobby enemies look down on them.

Indeed, as we slide further into disarray under Trumpism, patriotic Americans should start getting used to the idea that, if we want the world’s help (and we may well need it), we’re going to need to start caring about, understanding, and shaping how the world sees us.

Bland and Tans
The “Black and Tans,” a British police force stationed in Dublin in the 1920s.

The other crucial way Ireland’s self-identity informs its rebel music is in these amazing songs’ willingness to speak plainly – and at times with a level of righteous belligerence – about stark, undeniable reality.

One great example of this is the classic “Come Out Ye Black and Tans,” a barn-stomper recounting unrest between nationalists and British police forces in 1920s Dublin. There’s a more traditional version by the Brobdingnagian Bards here, but I’m partial to the recent, harnessed-fury version by the aptly named, American-based band, 1916:

I listen to that boldly pugnacious chorus – “come out and fight me like a man!” – and can’t help but think about the way we Americans lost our shit – some in quivering excitement, others in absurd anger – when Beto O’Rourke used (gasp!) the f-word in addressing our mass shooting crisis, or when Alexandria Occasio-Cortez dared to use the frightful term “concentration camps” in describing the human rights atrocities at our border.

Because when your national identity is tied up in unbridled power – when you’re used to being the boot, rather than the one beneath it – using heated language like that all seems very uncouth and untoward, does it not? When we get mad about injustice, aren’t we just enflaming an unfortunate, unavoidable unpleasantness? Shouldn’t we tone things down just a tad, be a little more polite?

But when the bulk of your history has been spent underneath the boot, you understand innately that politeness only serves those in power, and that clear-eyed truth-telling is how masses are moved.

And that’s my favorite thing about the Irish rebel music I’ve encountered to date: the way that every song – through bleak, naturalistic, unflinching imagery, unspooled via soaring, gorgeous melody – is intended not just to entertain, but to persuade.

The best example I’ve encountered yet of this uniquely Irish alchemy – mixing potent, full-dark subject matter with uplifting music – is the classic martyr ballad, “Kevin Barry,” performed here by the contemporary musician Damien Dempsey:

“Kevin Barry” tells the tale of one of the “Forgotten Ten” – 10 IRA soldiers who were executed by the British in 1920, buried in unmarked graves – and it was written by an unknown author very soon after Barry was killed. The song became an internationally-known resistance anthem in the first half of the 20th century, and would become an anthem of the republicans during the Troubles, a link between the martyrs of Independence, and those of Northern Ireland in the 1970s, 80s and 90s (stay tuned for Part II…).

I love this song because it is a straightforward recitation of martyrdom – “shoot me like an Irish soldier / do not hang me like a dog” – and yet its ethereal melody would suit, just as nicely, a facile tale of teenage love (although the effect would be far less haunting).

Compare this approach (which I think Mr. Dempsey channels especially well) to the American masterpiece “Strange Fruit,” a song that doubles down on horrific, unsparing imagery with a jarring, discordant melody, to devastating effect.

Both approaches are powerful, and I suspect both reflect that same gaping divide between American’s sense of unchallenged power, and the Irish history of resistance against foreign power. “Strange Fruit” was intended to shock and unnerve, to shake Americans out of complacency; “Kevin Barry” needn’t worry about complacency from the long-suffering Irish people, its goal is to call them to arms.

And in that regard, the beauty of the melody of “Kevin Barry” allows the song to revel in discomfort – it dutifully recites the torture of Barry, his slow walk to the gallows – and to use this bleak reality to build up to its closing stanza:

Lads like Barry are no cowards.
From the foe they will not fly.
Lads like Barry will free Ireland,
For her sake they’ll live and die.

This is, indeed, a call to arms, but in the context of the 1920s – when the Irish people were  divided about the many implications of independence – it is also a hardly-discreet bit of shaming: “lads like Barry are no cowards,” we’re told, but anyone not willing to sacrifice for a free Ireland most certainly is.

Those final lines of “Kevin Barry” reflect another key theme of Irish rebel songs, a sense of intense moral clarity, steadfast loyalty, and disdain for those who don’t join the fight.

Indeed, by the mid-1960’s, as tensions in Northern Ireland were beginning to mount, much of the Irish rebel music called out the martyrs of old to challenge the manhood of a new generation.

The Tommy Makem classic “Freedom’s Sons” lionizes the fighters of the Irish Independence – “they were the men with a vision, the men with a cause / the men who defied their oppressor’s laws” – and closes by lamenting that “six counties are in bondage still /They died brave men, was this their will?

And I especially love the 1965 ballad “Only Our Rivers Run Free,” performed a half-century later by its composer here:

The challenge laid down by this song to the young men of Ireland in 1965 could not be more clear:

I drink to the death of her manhood
Those men who’d rather have died
Than to live in the cold chains of bondage
To bring back their lives were denied

Oh where are you now when we need you
What burns were the flames used to be
Are you gone like the snows of last winter
And will only our rivers run free?

This is, no doubt, an inspiring call to arms, one that speaks to our current, fraught American moment, and the apathy that so many of us sense in our friends and neighbors, in our institutions and leaders.

And while our national identity may lack martyrs and heroes of resistance (at least compared to Ireland, and at least since 1780), we do have our own powerful history of internal oppression, and resistance, to call upon for inspiration.

But its important to remember – even in our moment of unique moral clarity – that absolutism, and unchecked pride and loyalty, can be dangerous. As the Irish rebel song “The Patriot Game” warns ominously in its first verse:”the love of one’s country is a terrible thing / It banishes fear with the speed of a flame.

Those romantic appeals to the manhood of Ireland’s youth in the 1960’s were powerful, and they proved effective. But while there is much to celebrate about both the courage and the music of the Irish during the Troubles, it is also a profoundly complicated, and sad, period of history.  

My plan is to unpack all of that in Irish Rebel Art, Part II, coming soon…

Bonus Materials: 

First, a DISCLAIMER: I am a hopelessly arrogant and uninformed American – we think the world starts and stops at our shores, and I fully recognize that my understanding of Irish music and Irish history is woefully inadequate. So to any true Irish reading this post, my sincere apologies, and my thanks!
Second, I’m one of millions of Americans who, thanks to my family tree, fancies himself  “Irish.” I learned a good deal about the “motherland” traveling there with my dear fam a couple of years ago, and have learned infinitely more since that trip.
But before all of that, the bulk of my knowledge about Irish Independence came from the 1996 film, “Michael Collins,” with Liam Neeson playing the controversial hero.
Michael Collins
As a teenager, I thought the film was brilliant, thrilling and deep as hell. Upon re-watching recently, I discovered that it is a sort of rough and shallow attempt to cram a massive amount of history into a series of frantic set pieces.
But it can be tough to let go of the passions of youth, and I think the film is still worth a watch – if only for the bizarre appearances by Julia Roberts as Collins’ love interest, and Alan Rickman as Collins’ collaborator and later-nemesis, Eamon de Valera.
Just have your device handy so that you can hit “pause” and google some of the seminal events that are given short shrift!

Finally, in researching this post, I came upon the below song, “Out of My Hands,” from the contemporary Irish R&B group Wyvern Lingo. I hope to write about this song someday in another context, but just in case, wanted to give it a shout out immediately.
It’s lyrics are written from the perspective of an asshole in a pub, who gets in a fight with a woman who wants him to stop being so apathetic about everything from women’s rights to refugees.
“Out of My Hands” shares a lot with those scolding calls to arms from the mid-1960s, and it is a powerful (and catchy) reminder that (i) women are taking the lead in every fight against injustice across the globe right now; and (ii) in times like these, apathy is never okay.

Enjoying “Rebel Art Fridays”? You can check out previous editions, from past Fridays, here:

8.23.19 – Radical Decency in the Face of Fascism

8.16.19 – Anna Akhmatova’s quiet defiance of Stalin’s Great Purge

8.9.19 – Malvina Reynolds, Nina Simone, and the importance of being “nice”

8.2.19 – Agnes Humbert – A diary of Resistance

7.26.19 – Richie Havens’ “The Klan”

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