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For decades, Irish taoisigh have been getting letters suggesting alternatives to the national anthem

Some people even wrote their own.

Ireland's rugby team lines up for the national anthem in
Ireland's rugby team lines up for the national anthem in
Image: Brian Keane/INPHO

WITH ITS REFERENCES to rifles, fighting and roaring cannons, Ireland’s national anthem has frequently provoked debate

This has been the case in recent years but government documents released to the national archives under the 30-year have shown that the debate has gone back decades. 

In fact, documents from various departments have shown that successive taoisigh and presidents have been contacted by citizens here and abroad about the potential to change the anthem. 

These calls were common throughout The Troubles but specific events, like the IRFU not using the anthem at the 1987 Rugby World Cup, also caused a spike in correspondence.

Such correspondence frequently argued that softenting the military edge of the song could be beneficial to peace efforts in Northern Ireland.

“At the AGM of the Southern Movement for Peace this year, our group the Waterford Peace People brought up the question of the National Anthem and the inappropriateness of the words we sing to present day Ireland,” Máire McKay wrote to Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald in 1982.

Another, Sister Mary Magdalene, wrote to President Patrick Hillery in 1977 that the lyrics of the anthem “have no meaning” because Irish people “do not man the gap of danger” or sit under “starry heaven”.  

In the case of the inaugural Rugby World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in 1987, the IRFU chose to use the Rose of Tralee ahead of its matches.

The decision prompted some support, with the Sunday Tribune calling it a “sensible” decision, but also a flurry of correspondence to taoiseach Charlie Haughey against it.

Haughey was in fact previously sent a suggestion for an alternative national anthem by Captain Michael Bowles, f the Army School of music and the RTÉ orchestra.

Bowles suggested that folk song Ámhrán Dóchais (sung below by The Clancy Brothers) would be a suitable alternative to Ámhrán na bhFiann.

Bowles wrote in Irish to Haughey, saying that the song is well-known to Irish speakers and those who’ve attend Irish college. 

Source: The Clancy Brothers - Topic/YouTube

Haughey replied to Bowles, saying it “is a splendid song and the sentiments are grand” but that there is no desire to change the anthem.

“It is of noble origin, it is firmly established and it is a widely accepted symbol of our nationality. In my view it would be historically wrong to change it because of the current situation, which will pass,” Haughey wrote. 

Others went further however, with London-based Derryman TP Strachan even writing his own lyrics for a new national anthem.

Strachan was a member of the Ealing branch of the Corrymeela group, a cross-community organisation that promotes peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and he said it was time for a change. 

Strachan’s alternative national anthem was called ‘Lands of Saints and Heroes’ and he included a copy of the lyrics in to taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald:

O Land of Saints and Heroes beloved by God of old,
to you we vow our loyalty, for you we would be bold
and fight your battles for the right, and march with you towards the light.Great Patrick and Columba, they served the Prince of Peace
and Eire made God’s Holy Land
where love shall never cease.
Lord, drive away all fear and hate
and make our Country truly gate.Dark was the night of sorrow
dividing your good Land.
O come today to make us one with mighty outstretched hand.
You dearly love our country, Lord.Defend us with love’s gentle sword.
And Shepherd Good, now lead us in pastures Green and Sweet,
and Golden be the Sunrise when our unity’s complete, while shines between the glorious White:

“God is our everlasting Light.”

In response, Fitzgerald said that he “appreciates the sentiments” in both the hymn and letter but that Ámhrán na bhFiann has been the national anthem for sixty years and has been “public adopted as such over an even longer period”. 

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Rónán Duffy

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