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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 0°C
Alamy Stock Photo Belfast, Northern Ireland. 8 Aug 2015 - Tommy Byrne from the Irish rebel band "The Wolfe Tones" play the Feile an Phobail to an ecstatic audience.

The Wolfe Tones A sensation once again, but why?

“Commentators are actually the ones who need to educate themselves,” one Electric Picnic goer tells Dean Van Nguyen.

IN THE END, Electric Picnic’s biggest mistake this year was underestimating the popularity of three Irish balladeers with a combined age of over 230. Last Sunday – amid a festival of superstar pop acts, indie-cred bands, and celebrity comedians – The Wolfe Tones took to the Electric Arena stage. They played songs that date back as far as the mid-19th Century, and shattered all previous attendance records for the tented venue.

“I was expecting it to be full, 14,000 in the tent, but I couldn’t believe the crowds outside,” The Wolfe Tones’ Brian Warfield tells me. “And they were singing as loud outside as they were in the tent. They were singing so loudly in the tent that I couldn’t hear my monitor. The decibels were almost deafening. They were singing louder than we were. They took over the songs, they were leading me more than I was leading them because I couldn’t hear my monitor. But it was just amazing, the enthusiasm and the spectacle that I saw there was incredible.”

All weekend there had been a buzz around the band’s impending appearance. The to-do list at Electric Picnic is substantial and diverse, but the chatter among young people was that The Wolfe Tones were a must-see. When the moment came, The Electric Arena began to resemble a kind of holy pilgrimage site. An aerial camera captured thousands suddenly descending on the area, like the rush of water after the bursting of a dam.

’50 people deep’

Áine Mhaoir was among those who left the main stage area as soon as retro-cool pop tart Rick Astley finished his set. Very quickly, Mhaoir’s group started to feel overwhelmed. It was hot and the huge crowds meant movement was slow. But they made it to their destination, albeit settling, like thousands of others, for a spot outside the tent, under a baking sun. The size of the audience unable to fit into the arena extended to 50 people deep, according to

“We couldn’t really see The Wolfe Tones on stage, but we could hear everything,” says Mhaoir. “People were trying to squeeze in. There was no room inside that tent. People were trying to get past us. It was crazy, but it was just amazing to see the amount of people. When I looked behind me there was just a sea of people. It was the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen.”

ostrava-czech-republic-23rd-march-2013-from-left-brian-warfield-tommy-byrne-and-noel-nagle-of-the-band-the-wolfe-tones-perform-during-irish-cultural-festival-in-ostrava-czech-republic-march-23 Alamy Stock Photo Ostrava, Czech Republic. 23rd March 2013. From left: Brian Warfield, Tommy Byrne and Noel Nagle of the band The Wolfe Tones perform during Irish cultural festival in Ostrava, Czech Republic, March 23, 2013. Alamy Stock Photo

The Electric Arena’s sound set-up wasn’t designed to cater to so many people outside of its borders. But it didn’t matter. As songs such as “Come Out Ye Black and Tans” and “Grace” rippled through the tent, the sing-along reached fans all the way at the back.

“It was music that was very familiar to us that we’ve all grown up with,” says Mhaoir, who opted to leave early because of the intense heat. “There was a very nice sense of community coming together that we felt at that particular act, more so than the other ones I saw over the weekend.”

“The energy was amazing,” says Christine O’Mahony. Having shuffled over from Astley’s performance, she also had to accept a place outside the tent. “Next year they should re-book The Wolfe Tones and have them on the main stage,” she adds, echoing criticism that Electric Picnic organisers should have arranged the band to play the event’s biggest arena.

Ignorant of history?

Clips soon emerged online, including footage of a performance of “Celtic Symphony”, a song first released in the 1980s that includes the lyrics, “Ooh ah, up the Ra”. The Wolfe Tones were pulled into the news cycle last year after the Ireland soccer team were filmed singing along to a recording of the tune in their dressing room.

The condemnation of this new footage was as swift as it had been predictable. Radio waves and social media lit up with disapproval from those who see the band’s ethos as fostering sectarian division.

Among those who weighed in was Bertie Ahern, who suggested young people should “educate themselves” to understand our “difficult history.”

Denouncing The Wolfe Tones is not fresh discourse. In 2002, The Late Late Show dedicated the best part of half an hour to a debate on the group, with Warfield and his bandmates Noel Nagle and Tommy Byrne defending themselves from the criticisms of columnist Fintan O’Toole.

What is new is a generation of fans who have come of age after The Good Friday Agreement and are accused of being ignorant of history. There’s been a tendency to explain away the singing of songs like “Celtic Symphony” as simply an act of subversion – that is, they’re doing it because they’ve been told not to. But these explanations are insufficient.

What’s apparent is that a huge number of people in their 20s identify as being republicans or nationalists. Polls show a majority want to see the end of partition. For many, The Wolfe Tones offer a way to assert parts of their identity in a country where opportunities to do so are increasingly scarce.

“A lot of people are really still into traditional Irish music and into rebel songs in general,” says O’Mahony, 25 years old and raised by a republican father who’d play some of the best known numbers in his car. “The younger generation realises that we were colonised, we were oppressed. We should be proud we are the nation we are today because someone decided to fight on our behalf.”

“Personally, as a woman in my 20s, I would love to see a united Ireland and I can say most of my friends feel the exact same way,” says Mhaoir, whose father is from Tyrone, but was raised in Clare. Mhaoir also participated in a panel discussion on the prospect of Irish reunification at this year’s Electric Picnic. “When people sing these songs they’re trying to get in touch with their own culture, their own heritage, and their own history.

“Anyone who is saying that we shouldn’t be listening to the likes of The Wolfe Tones and the likes of Kneecap [a youthful Belfast rap trio whose lyrics reference republican slogans], they’re intimidated or annoyed that the younger generation are enjoying this kind of music. They [young people] are enjoying getting to know our own past. I think it’s important, I think we need to be more in touch with our past and what happened in this country.”

‘Boiling the themes down’

​​Rather than showing little awareness of history, the Electric Picnic attendees I speak to accuse critics of The Wolfe Tones of boiling the themes of their songs down to the lowest reading, thus exposing their own political illiteracy. “Commentators are actually the ones who need to educate themselves,” says O’Mahony.

“I think there are certain media in Ireland that give a very poor image of what happened,” says Mhaoir on this perceived simplification of 20th century Irish history. “It’s a lack of trying to understand what actually happened, the reasons people did what they had to do. It’s not as black and white as certain media like to portray it.”

belfast-northern-ireland-8-aug-2015-brian-warfield-from-the-irish-rebel-band-the-wolfe-tones-play-the-feile-an-phobail-to-an-ecstatic-audience-credit-stephen-barnesalamy-live-news Alamy Stock Photo Belfast, Northern Ireland. 8 Aug 2015 - Brian Warfield from the Irish rebel band The Wolfe Tones play the Feile an Phobail to an ecstatic audience. Alamy Stock Photo

It was always my intention to question Warfield about the backlash. But as we chat about the Electric Picnic performance, I’m surprised when, without provocation, he segues into a defence of his band from the criticism they received, as if it’s right on the edge of his mind. “People love their song and their story,” he affirms. “I don’t think they’re going to give it up because people don’t want them to sing it anymore, or tell them, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that, you can’t sing that song because there’s a word that we don’t like, don’t mention the IRA’.

They try everything and I don’t know who these people are, because I know there’s a certain cohort within our island who just don’t like anything to do with republicanism. They don’t like the fact that they’re too far away from England, they’re still hanging onto the Union Jack in some way or another.

For the last few years, I’ve lived above a pub in the centre of Dublin. Almost every night, I hear live musicians perform “Celtic Symphony” and patrons sing “Ooh ah, up the Ra” vibrantly and with no self-consciousness. During renditions of “The Fields of Athenry”, crowds fill in the gaps of the chorus by shouting “Sinn Féin” and “IRA”. Wedding bands sing rebel songs. O’Mahony says that when she was in school, the kids on her school bus would chant, “Ooh ah, up the Ra” and the teachers would not stop them. Though clips of such instances can gain traction, it’s an observable truth that, in Dublin, it is not considered anti-social or taboo.

Young people may know why they say “Up the Ra”, but there is still the question of whether or not they should. To very many people – victims of a conflict they never asked to be part of – these are hurtful words that cannot be divorced from their tragedy and grief.

I ask Warfield if, in the spirit of reconciliation, the expression “Up the ‘Ra” should be put out to pasture. His answer is a lengthy one. Firstly, Warfield bemoans the intense focus on a single line of one song that he has composed over a long career. He cites a tune he wrote in the mid-’80s about peace called “Song of Liberty” (not a number The Wolfe Tones performed at Electric Picnic) that he claims no radio station would agree to play.

Warfield tells me of the origins of “Celtic Symphony”. Written as an ode to Celtic Football Club, the lyrics draw from graffiti Warfield saw as he was walking through Glasgow. I’ve heard him make the claim that “Ooh ah, up the Ra” was simply an observation of what was scrawled on those walls, though it was Warfield who transformed it into a catchy mantra. (I always assumed the melody to “Ooh ah, up the Ra” had been pilfered from The Gap Band’s funk number “Oops Up Side Ya Head”, but Warfield believes he was actually inspired by a latin rhythm he picked up somewhere.)

He goes on to speak about his travels around the North during the Troubles, claiming an attempt was made on The Wolfe Tones’ lives by the Glenanne Gang, a unit of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and it was the local IRA who helped steer them to safety.

He talks about the band’s support of The Guildford Four and the thanks they received from the wrongly convicted group after its exoneration. Warfield points to the 160 songs he’s written that he says cover every aspect of Ireland. I get the sense that in telling me all this, he’s asserting his sense of authority as a teller of Irish history.

“Irish people should be allowed to express their heritage and their story,” says Warfield. “Whether you like it or not, that’s all it is. A song like ‘Sean South of Garryowen’, they sing that in Limerick and are proud to sing it. It’s one of their heroes. You’re trying to stop that? You can’t stop that. You can’t stop somebody singing a song.”

That, for certain, is true. The Wolfe Tones won’t stop playing “Celtic Symphony” and like some of the old traditional numbers they play, it will outlast the band themselves. The day after my chat with Warfield, it’s announced that The Wolfe Tones will celebrate their 60th anniversary as a group with a gig at The 3Arena in October 2024. Would they also be keen on returning to Electric Picnic next year, to play the main stage that many felt more suitable?

“If we’re asked, I’d be delighted to do it, why not? It’s a great event, loved it.”

Dean Van Nguyen is a music journalist, cultural critic and author of a forthcoming book on Tupac Shakur.


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