Sunday 25 June 2017

Our sporting anthems: the bland leading the band

An Ireland vs Wales match 30 years back sparked the search was for a rugby singalong

Bad day for the Irish: Wales and Ireland in action during the 1987 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand
Bad day for the Irish: Wales and Ireland in action during the 1987 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand

Damian Corless

Almost 30 years ago, in May 1987, Ireland played their opening game in rugby's first-ever World Cup. The setting was Wellington, New Zealand. The opposition was Wales. The next morning the Irish Independent reported sorely: "A tactical mistake and a single act of (Welsh) thuggery cost Ireland victory in gale-infested Athletic Park." At the end of a long list of gripes and grumbles, there was one more to vent: "The match began with the playing of 'The Rose of Tralee' - a rather insipid decision by the Irish, hardly matching the stirring 'Scotland the Brave' or the Welsh anthem. It was a sad day for the Irish."

The problem with Ireland's national anthem was political. Despite decades of bitter partition, rugby remained a 32-county game supported by Nationalists and Unionists alike, and 'The Soldier's Song' was nakedly divisive.

The 'Rose of Tralee' was retained as the signature tune of the rugby team for the rest of that first tournament, but the critical backlash to this "insipid" shanty prompted the IRFU to commission a piece that would lend itself both to crowd singing and hands-across-the-border good cheer. In other words - although this wasn't in the job spec - something bland and safe.

And bland and safe is what they got. Derry's Phil Coulter had an impeccable record as the go-to man for anyone in need of a hit tune. He'd penned the UK's Eurovision classics 'Puppet on a String' and 'Congratulations'. He'd written number ones for the Bay City Rollers. He'd been recorded by his hero Elvis, and had even scored a sporting chart-topper with 'Back Home' by Bobby Moore's 1970 England World Cup squad.

Sticking to his brief, the pop maestro ticked the boxes that called for singalongability, fighting words, and parity of esteem for all four provinces. Hemmed in by this brief, Coulter came up with a lumbering dirge that makes 'Congratulations' sound like 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. 'Ireland's Call' has attracted widespread derision from the very outset, and yet every intermittent call to seek a replacement have been kicked to touch by the IRFU.

In truth, 'Ireland's Call' got to be the theme tune of Irish rugby in much the same way as 'Amhrán na bhFiann/The Soldier's Song' got to be the national anthem. 'The Soldier's Song' was adopted largely by default while the architects of the Free State wrestled with more pressing matters, like mopping up after the Civil War. In this regard, both our national anthem and 'Ireland's Call' are an embodiment of that ingrained native spirit that says: "Ah sure, it'll do."

The Free State got by without an official national anthem for a while. However, in 1924 an official urged the need to pick a tune because "pro-British elements" were taking advantage of its absence to sing 'God Save the King' at rugby matches, the Dublin Horse Show and other events. The civil servant proposed a State competition to pen new lyrics for Thomas Moore's melody, 'Let Erin Remember the Days of Old'. Ruling out a vulgar contest, the government unofficially decided to have two anthems, with 'The Soldier's Song' to be played on home ground and 'Let Erin Remember' on foreign soil.

However, the Dublin Evening Mail put up 50 guineas for the best new lyrics to Moore's melody. The stellar judging panel was chaired by Nobel laureate WB Yeats. Following deliberation, it declared that not one of the entries was "worthy of 50 guineas or any portion of it".

The new State muddled on with two anthems until 1926, when 'The Soldier's Song' was formally adopted for all occasions, home and away. For some, this was an affront to good taste. The anthem's critics came out in force in 1933 after the co-writer of 'The Soldier's Song', Peadar Kearney, sued the State for ripping him off. As the Dáil agreed to buy out the copyright from Kearney and the late Patrick Heeney for £980, Frank MacDermot TD branded their composition "a jaunty little piece of vulgarity" that was "unworthy" of representing the Irish people in song.

"It does not serve any useful purpose to have a cheap music-hall jingle instead of some splendid and moving Gaelic melody as a national anthem," he complained.

Fine Gael's Richard Mulcahy didn't think there was much point in replacing 'The Soldier's Song' "until we have raised the standard of music and musical construction in the country", while Richard Anthony TD favoured axing it urgently: "Anyone with the most elementary knowledge of music... could not for a moment suggest that the music of 'The Soldier's Song' is either inspiring or even musical.

"The whole thing is an abomination to anyone who knows anything about music. I have hopes that some musician and some poet will collaborate one day and give us a national anthem something like the 'Marseillaise'."

One of the more bizarre Irish sporting anthem episodes took place in 1955, when 20,000 football fans flocked to Dalymount Park in defiance of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid's instruction to boycott the visit of communist Yugoslavia. The Army Band, who were to play both anthems, did boycott the event, leaving the FAI to scour Dublin for a vinyl copy of the Yugoslav song to play over the loudspeaker. When that drew a blank, a group of musicians were put in a recording studio with sheet music couriered express from Belgrade.

Perhaps the most incisive comment on our national anthem in a sports setting came not from a snooty music critic, but from a footballer making his Irish debut. As 'Amhrán na bhFiann' wound to a rousing close in Turkey, Joe Kinnear, who moved to England as a seven-year-old, was heard to say: "Cor, I 'ope our one ain't as long as that."

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