Politics and song

Now, the whole business of Irish nationalism can get very serious if you’re not careful.

– Liam Clancy [1]

My father, Joseph Connelly, abandoned his family when I was two years of age.  I probably should have hated him and be done with it; but that’s not how children respond to their abandonment.  There’s a lot of self-questioning – ‘was I the cause of his leaving?’ – and attempts to prove worthy of a love that will never be acknowledged.

So up to his death of a heart attack in 1989, I went through periods when I tried to adopt Irish culture as somehow my own; as my inheritance.  In the long run, these efforts failed, and they left me realizing that I had no cultural inheritance beyond the common culture of the United States.  When people ask me where my family came from, I answer without hesitation, “Brooklyn” [2].

Nonetheless, the efforts to identify with an Irish heritage left me with considerable sympathy for a people that had long suffered the most miserable oppression as a colony of the British Empire.  (The British long maintained that Ireland was a willingly subservient kingdom, aligned to Britain in the laughable pretense of a “United Kingdom,” but this was believed only by British colonialists stealing farmland from the Irish and putting them to work as, in effect, serfs.)  The oppression really began with Cromwell’s bloody conquest of the Catholic Irish, whom he called “barbarous wretches”; the massacres were bad enough – and the Irish were no saints in these engagements – but the immediate aftermath really established the Anglo-Irish relationship that followed:  the policy of suppression “included the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement, and killing of civilians” [3].  It cut the population by nearly half.

Difficulties, including the occasional Irish rebellion, continued throughout the history of this “union” of Ireland and England, but reached a turning point with the notorious Potato Famine of 1845.  The potato had become a staple, because it could be grown in private gardens.  When a serious blight stuck, the Irish faced starvation. Cash crops in Ireland were routinely sent to England for wholesale, and if they returned to Ireland for retail sale, they were priced way beyond the ability of the Irish peasantry to pay. These practices were unaddressed by the British government for some five years [4].  By the end of the famine, roughly 1852, the Irish population was estimated as having lost more than 2 million, half to starvation, half to emigration.  The British – many of whom agreed with Cromwell’s assessment of the Irish character as barbarous and wretched (and shameless Catholics to boot) – thought that with the famine ended, markets would naturally stabilize, and relations with the Irish could be restored to way they were under the Acts of Union of 1801. They were wrong.  Survivors of the Famine and their heirs remembered what they had gone through and who had put them through it.  Irish political activists were no longer interested in “protesting” impoverished economic conditions that the British colonialists could exploit.  They knew that any such conditions would inevitably recur as long as the colonialists controlled the economy.  So began the long hard struggle that would lead to Irish independence.

Irish rebel songs had been recorded since at least the 17th century (“Seán Ó Duibhir a’Ghleanna” on the Battle of Aughrim during the Williamite War, 1691).  Indeed, there are so many of them that they form a genre of their own.  (Going by Wikipedia, they seem to comprise about a third of all catalogued folk songs of Ireland [5].)  However, they truly embed themselves in Irish culture in the decades leading up to the War of Independence (1919-21).   They include exhortations to fight for “dear old Ireland,” reports of battles, like “Foggy Dew” (Easter Rebellion, 1916), elegies for slain soldiers; as well as opinions on differing perspectives on the politics of the era, especially concerning those that erupted into violence during the Civil War of 1922.

One might object that I haven’t remarked on “the Troubles” in Northern Island, so I will.  There have been political songs on both sides of that conflict, as well as, in recent decades, admonitions to peace. [6]  They are all Irish.  Because as much as some citizens of North Ireland like to think of themselves as somehow British, no one else does – not even the British, who in signing the accords that brought peace to Ulster (1998), effectively agreed to the right of all the Irish to self-determination.

One can no more remove politics from Irish song, than one could remove the Guinness Brewery from Dublin [7].  But the matter goes much deeper.  In fact, throughout the years of occupation, pretty much whatever the Irish sang about was political in nature.  They sang of the success of their gardens – that violated British economics.  They sang of their children – they weren’t supposed to have so many, those damned Catholics!  They sang out their love of their God – in the 17th Century, this got them killed; in the 18th matters improved, it only sent them to prison.  They sang of the beauty of their countryside – and were kicked off it left and right.  They sang of their trades – which they couldn’t independently practice, without a British approved overseer.  All they had to do was warble a note in Gaelic, and they were suspected of some dark satanic plot against the crown.  In other words, the very existence of Irish song, the very singing of it, was a politically rebellious act against British domination.

It must be kept in mind here that for 400 years, the British were engaged in what might be called genocide-by-attrition of the Irish people.  This is difficult to discuss in America, where the media has such a fascination for the health and marital antics of the ‘royal family’.  I suppose the long-range plan was to have the Irish simply die off, but since most of them were Catholics, that wasn’t going to happen.  So the British settled for total suppression of the Irish way of life and domination of its economy. They reduced the Irish to something less than serfs, since serfs were recognized as being a part of the land they worked.  The Irish were not recognized as belonging to the land, they were seen as somehow an annoying infection, needing to be cauterized.  The British did worse than destroy Irish culture, they stripped the Irish of the resources needed to produce culture.

But the body is a resource, and it can only be stripped from the possessor through death.  As Hitler realized, the only way you can completely erase a culture is through complete eradication of the targeted people.  But the British, although cruel and destructive, had a peculiar image of themselves as fundamentally “decent,” so all their crimes needed to be rationally explicable and moderated with some sense of “mercy” (and with some sense of moral superiority).   Goering once declared in a speech, “Yes, we (Nazis) are barbarians!”  A British politician would never admit such a thing.  So the Irish were allowed to starve to death, but there were no death camps to be found in, say, County Clare.

That may have been a mistake.  Song is of the body.  One feels it singing. It reverberates deeply in the lungs and shakes the innards.  It rises up with every breath (Latin: spiritus).  Sing a song and one is that song.  Sing a song for others, and one produces culture.  The British could take everything from the Irish, but they could not take away their breath; they could not stop them singing.

There are actually two ways to listen to a song.  One is to hear the voice simply as a part of the music itself.  One doesn’t actually pay attention to the words; perhaps one doesn’t understand the words.  This is how we listen to songs in languages we do not speak.  But the practice extends beyond that.  Where I work, my older colleagues and clients generally tend to be political and social conservatives.  Yet the public address radio is set to a “classic rock” station.  So I find myself frequently bemused watching these conservatives hum along to songs promoting recreational drug use (“White Rabbit”), sexual promiscuity (every other song by the Rolling Stones), political revolution or anti-war resistance (Steppenwolf’s “Monster”), non-Christian religious belief (a George Harrison song extolling Hari-Krishna), or even a song of anti-American hostility (“American Woman”).  They listen to something like the Chambers Brothers’ burst of outrage, “Time Has Come Today,” and don’t seem to have any idea that they are the targets of that outrage.  The words are meaningless to them, because they’re not listening to the words.  The voice they hear and hum along with, that’s just part of the music.

I have a suspicion that this is how most of us listen to songs in our own language, especially songs we have been hearing since very young.  My colleagues and clients don’t want to be reminded of the ’60s with all that era’s political turbulence.  They want to be reminded of their own youth.

What the British did in their aggressive disenfranchisement of the Irish on their own soil was to force the Irish to listen to their own songs, to pay attention to the words as well as to the melodies.  Because we listen to the words of a song when they are touching us directly in our immediate circumstances.  So even ancient songs can be made meaningful again if the events they refer to are replicated in the events of the current day: they are recognized as contemporary as a newspaper or a political broadside.

The British thus made the rebel song the touch-stone, the embodiment of Irish culture.  One can see how this plays out in the Irish ‘cheer’ (that’s its technical genre), “Óró Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile.” [8]  This probably originated as a shanty, welcoming sailors home from voyage (its structure is quite similar to “Drunken Sailor,” with which it probably shares a common original).  During the Williamite War, it transformed into a plea for Bonny Prince Charles to reclaim the throne and set conditions aright for the Irish.  In the early 20th Century, it was slightly revised by Patrick Pearse, who some say was murdered – or as others would have it, executed – by the British for participation in the Easter ’16 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. [9]  The song is in Gaelic, and roughly less than a third of the Irish report using Gaelic.  That may be less among today’s young Irish, and perhaps they don’t quite understand the full meaning of this song.  But anyone in Ireland forty years or older does.  A call for heroes to oust the “foreigners” (British) from Ireland, it was used as a marching song during the War of Independence.  Even if one doesn’t understand the words, the historical context reveals the meaning, a context remembered and passed on through generations.

Let’s clarify that.  Obviously, however moving the music, and however well known the context, the words technically have no meaning, until they’re explained.  So imagine a young person, unable to speak Gaelic, yet hearing his parents and their friends singing this song and noting their attitudes of pride and determination.  Such a one would feel impelled to ask after the song’s meaning.  And here’s where attempts to suppress a language and its song swing back to bite the oppressor’s hand.  The young person now pays closer attention to the meaning of the song during and following the explanation than he or she would if it were sung in a language already understood.  In other words, the effort to suppress Gaelic song actually backfired:  Rebel songs in Gaelic achieved greater respect as audiences struggled to place them meaningfully within the context of the Irish revolution and take possession of them as their own.

In fact, the problem for any empire is that colonization, oppression, slavery, and mass slaughter do not make friends.  Empires generate hatreds and enmities that last for generations.  The good natured Irish tend to adopt a “live and let live” pragmatic attitude even towards those they have battled in the past.  But they also tend to carry a grudge.

The British are a very proud people.  Writing this in America, I know it is expected of me to continue, “and they have every right to be.”  But I don’t believe that.  The history of England includes important eddies of remarkable writers and scientists.  But these appear to the sides of a great river of blood, clogged with the remains of slaughtered natives of colonized lands.  And for every one of those dead, whole families are left behind to this day, battling to redefine the wretched political and economic confusion the British Empire left behind in its collapse – a collapse that the British still won’t admit or deal with honestly.

I write this in America, the nation that long acted as inheritor of that collapsed empire, while flattering the British ego, by pretending we are all somehow the same people because of a common language.  By functioning in a more paternalistic, “caring” fashion, acknowledging the sovereignty of other countries, spreading around aid programs, enlisting allies (as long as they didn’t threaten our hegemony and wealth), Americans have deluded themselves into believing they are not imperialists and have made no enemies.  But they are and they have, and this will continue to haunt and befuddle their foreign affairs for many generations to come.

But America has another problem.  There is no such thing as “the American people.”  America is a collection of many peoples from around the world.  Some of these have been historically oppressed, although later assimilated into the mainstream.  Others have not been able or allowed to assimilate.  And others may feel themselves oppressed where there is no empirical evidence that this is so, beyond their own disappointment, given the nature of the economy or the nature of constitutional government.  Consequently, there are an awful lot of people here who have, or who have had, or who believe they have, reason speak out.  And when the means for doing so are blocked or when speaking seems unlikely to convince others – they can always sing about it. [10]   That’s what song is for.  Politics is not an add-on to song; song is an inevitable expression in politics.

Mark English wrote here recently of the dangers of relying on mythical thinking in matters political. [11]  The desire for respect, for the ability to live without oppression or risk of theft or murder, for the opportunity to realize one’s full potential unhindered by stigma – are these mythical aspirations?  Quite probably.  The world is a cold home to a lonely, anxious species of over-developed hominids.  But I would not be the one to reassure those starving in a famine that, rationally, their deaths would (in the words of Scrooge) “decrease the surplus population.”   Some myths are worth living for, even fighting for; and worth singing about.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3zOVi0C5X4

[2] My oldest sister never quite got over it, and became obsessed with developing a family tree.  She traced the Irish roots back to an 18th century poet, Thomas Dermody, aka Dead-Drunk Dermody, who, as his nickname would suggest, drank himself to death at an early age. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Dermody

The first stanza from his “On a Dead Negro;” https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/on-a-dead-negro/:

AT length the tyrant stays his iron rod,

At length the iron rod can hurt no more;

The slave soft slumbers ‘neath this verdant sod,

And all his years of misery are o’er.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cromwellian_conquest_of_Ireland

[4] The British response to the famine – heartless indifference – was a purely rational one.  Remember that this was the age of Malthus, who once wrote, however ironically:

“(W)e should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality [of the poor]; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use” Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798.

Lest any think this was not in minds of the British during the Famine, consider the following:

“Ireland is like a half-starved rat that crosses the path of an elephant. What must the elephant do? Squelch it – by heavens – squelch it.” – Thomas Carlyle, British essayist, 1840s

“The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.” – Charles Trevelyan, head of administration for famine relief, 1840s

“[Existing policies] will not kill more than one million Irish in 1848 and that will scarcely be enough to do much good.” – Queen Victoria’s economist, Nassau Senior

“A Celt will soon be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as the red man on the banks of Manhattan.” – The Times, editorial, 1848

Source of additional quotes: http://www.politics.ie/forum/history/22143-anti-irish-quotes-throughout-history.html

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Irish_ballads

[6] For instance: U2: “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” Simple Minds: “Belfast Child,” The Cranberries: “Zombie.”

[7] Until Guinness bought out the brewery building recently, they held a 9,000 year lease on it.

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Sje2VYw99A

About the song: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%93r%C3%B3_s%C3%A9_do_bheatha_abhaile

Translation in English: http://songsinirish.com/oro-se-do-bheatha-bhaile-lyrics/

Revisions author: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Pearse

[9] The execution of the leaders of Easter ‘16 was perhaps the most profound mistake the British could have made.  Initially, they sentenced 89 men and a woman to death; but the first 15 executions were staggered over 9 days, as crowds stood outside the prison weeping, and politicians both Irish and British protested.  Author James Stephens described it as “like watching blood oozing from under a door.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Stephens_(author)  The sentences of the other 75 sentenced to death were commuted.  But the damage was done.  The effect was to galvanize the Irish people in support of independence.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Rising

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

[11] https://theelectricagora.com/2017/02/22/nationalism-and-mythical-thinking/


This essay originally appeared at: https://theelectricagora.com/2017/03/03/politics-and-song/