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Saturday 3 December 2016

I can finally belt out Amhrán na bhFiann with the best of them

Ann Fitzgerald

Published 22/03/2016 | 02:30

Shoulder to shoulder: Donncha O’Callaghan (left), Peter Stringer, and Paul O’Connell sing ahead of a 2007 match
Shoulder to shoulder: Donncha O’Callaghan (left), Peter Stringer, and Paul O’Connell sing ahead of a 2007 match

Almost everyone has heard the saying "confession is good for the soul." I've done it so many times in the life of this column that you'd think I'd be all confessed out by now and my soul would be all-good. But here goes again.

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I never learnt the Irish national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann.

In my 52 years on this planet, most of them living in this country, how did that happen?

I don't know. It seems our paths just never crossed.

However, since my open confession, I have discovered that I am far from alone.

I don't know if my mum knew it. I doubt it. I certainly never saw her sing it. The kinds of events we attended were usually based around horses and didn't involve singing the anthem.

Nor did it happen in primary school which would be the next obvious place. And it wasn't even a case that I was out the day the day it was taught because my siblings didn't learn it there either.

The situation wasn't unique to our school. One of my friends was taught the English, not the Irish, version while a teacher friend tells me that she and her classmates were taught it in teacher training college.

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It seems so obvious to me today that it was one of the first things we should have been taught in Irish. Though that's looking at the situation in hindsight.

In my single socialising days I attended numerous functions when the anthem was played at the end of the night as the lights went up but, in fairness, they probably wouldn't have been great teaching environments and I would not always have been in the best frame of mind or shape of body for learning.

I also learned that, a few years back, after some fuss about Ireland's Call being played at an international rugby match abroad, RTE's Nationwide asked a dozen people at random to sing Amhrán na bhFiann but none could recite more than a few words.

The anthem is widely used by the GAA, but the lyrics now appear on match programs and on the big screen before a match is perhaps some acknowledgement that it's not universally known.

Indeed, the more people I observe and talk to, the more I wonder whether I am in the majority! I myself have long known the air and was aware of the song's sentiment but didn't know the words.

So for years I would have belted out the first couple of lines, then mumbled along for another bit looking vaguely otherwise occupied before apparently regaining my focus for the run home, onwards from "fé lámhach na bpiléar …."

But that changed in the past couple of weeks in the run up to the Proclamation Day, when the country's educational establishments were charged with commemorating the 1916 Rising.

Our girls came home from school saying about how they were learning the anthem and I was determined not to be shown up.

So I did what I usually do nowadays when I want to know something, I googled it. And then I practised it. It's only 58 words.

When the day came round last week, I felt proud to be able to belt it out along with the kids, on what was a very powerful and emotional occasion.

I know some people have reservations about teaching a fighting song but isn't life a constant battle and it doesn't have to be with physical weapons.

In the fullness of time, the last government will at least be able to say they were responsible for teaching the national anthem to a generation of young people.

Also, in the course of preparing for the event, they engaged with history like no previous generation.

Occasion

In particular, they learnt about the people and history of their own areas and often their own families. I hope it will be remembered as a special occasion in their lives.

I do regret I did not know it when I was younger but am very happy that I now do.

So is Amhrán na bhFiann the best anthem, the right one? It's a question which journalist Kevin Myers once said is as "perennial as spring".

In a Dáil debate in the early 1930s about the song's merits or lack thereof, Frank MacDermot described it as "a jaunty little piece of vulgarity, and I think we could have done a lot better."

In response, Thomas F O'Higgins put it well when he said: "National Anthems come about, not because of the suitability of the particular words or notes, but because they are adopted generally by the nation .. the "Soldiers' Song" … happened to be the Anthem on the lips of the people when they came into their own and when the outsiders evacuated the country and left the insiders here to make the best or the worst of the country."

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