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Column: Irish fans sing because it brings unity, and what else do we have?

The history of public singing in Ireland suggests it emerges as a response to troubled times, writes Denis Buckley.

Ireland fans sing The Fields of Athenry during the game against Spain
Ireland fans sing The Fields of Athenry during the game against Spain
Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie

DURING THE RECENT European championship, the travelling Irish fans responded to a drubbing at the hands of the eventual winners with an eight-minute sing down to the final whistle.

Reaction was mixed. Some endorsed the fans’ conclusion to what was after all (in an atmosphere foreshadowed by fears of racist attacks) only a game. Others saw a chance to highlight the resurgence of the fans’ – and by extension, the country’s – continuing and endemic low self-esteem.

In some respects, by countering the olé football of the Spanish with song the Irish fans were doing no more than previous generations in weakening the blow of a traumatic defeat by the only collective action unaffected by the result. This could be added to the file marked heroic failure (again), or could be seen in the context of an abiding tradition within Irish history in the redemptive power of song when faced with a seemingly hopeless situation.

The ballad, within an Irish context, had its creative origins in the decline of Gaelic patronage. Ballads bore witness to human experience and more importantly human sufferance. In the early stages of mass emigration, affecting a largely illiterate population, the form inevitably thrived.

The ballad’s form – verse, chorus, repeated verse etcetera – is perfect for the tavern as the soloist can encourage even the most unmusical and unconscious of spectators to participate. Shared emotional experience unifies the chorus and in a time of forced expulsion the ballad of loss, in its many differing guises, becomes ever more popular. With that a didactic element appears, associating the ballad forever after with the oppressed.

Bare empty landscape

What is curious about the song the Irish fans won 8-nil with was that the ballad used is a recent creation, infused with both nineteenth century mores and narrative. It is in the style of one of great loss ballads of all time, The Rocks of Bawn. The Fields and The Rocks both convey the association with place inherent in identity. In the case of The Rocks of Bawn the stark choices left after plantation highlight the Rocks as being symptomatic of the futility of shaping an unyielding landscape. Left with no choice but to take the King’s shilling, it is still the absence from land, however barren, which rankles most.

In the voice of the master séan-nos singer Joe Heaney, The Rocks of Bawn is as wrought a Baroque classic as one can find. His low emphysemic prelude conjures the bare empty landscape from where he left in the mid 1950s. Heaney was a major influence on Luke Kelly and became feted in England. However, he was seen as a throwback in his own country. It was Kelly, Ronnie Drew, Christy Moore et al who brought back from England the collective sing along. Moving from tavern to auditorium the ballad mixed ordinary tales of gross injustice (Springhill Mining Disaster/Go, Move, Shift) with the ever-popular participatory choral work such as The Wild Rover.

Brought back also was this music’s revolutionary potential. Collective singing perfectly encapsulates the class struggle, as it is creative expression outside ownership. Imagine today an attempt by a working community to sing Springsteen’s The River. Even if they secured The Boss’s backing to end a meeting or a convention with this classic American ballad, any usage would be subject to copyright.

Why the fans sing

But sometimes a community reclaims or invents ownership to reflect the mood of a time. The Fields of Athenry, if broadcast for public use, carries the same restrictions as The River as both songs were written within the last 40 years. Yet imagine the furore if the lawyers were to set upon the Irish fans and demand royalties every time Ireland got a hammering.

It wouldn’t wash and they would be fools to try. But worse acts of ownership greed have been committed in recent memory – and that, I believe, is why the fans sing. Somewhere there in the maudlin lyrics and simplistic historical narrative is a compulsion to unify.

The embedding of a neoliberal individualism within Irish politics will take nothing short of revolution to dislodge. That the alternatives have so little prospect of change makes for a rather bleak period in Irish history. Yet the Irish are singing. Like the miners buried deep in the Springhill mine with fading possibility of rescue and with every flittering light snuffed out before it catches, a choice is made to live on in songs and hope instead.

Perhaps in time, with the ingenuity and social responsibility of a Dominic Behan or a Christy Moore, new voices may come and give the terraces a lyric apt for its intention. Not the lame appropriation of blame towards the steeple and the crown, but an arrow aimed to the heart of the indigenous guardians of power.

Ireland is at best a Championship side always to struggle against Premier opposition. But in defeat fans have lighted on something dormant, or perhaps ushered into the bin of the past when the race for progress took all before it.

It is song and singing together makes strength. In strength is unity and in unity lies the closest many of us will ever come to power.

Denis Buckley is a filmmaker, writer and performance artist. He now lives in London and was the recipient of the 2012 Eamon Kelly Arts Award. For more information, see denisbuckley.com.

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