Eoghan Harris

Monday 28 July 2014

Call off the carping about 'Ireland's Call'

Eoghan Harris

Published 09/03/2014|02:30

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Last March I thought T Ryle Dwyer had put an end to carping about Ireland's Call by asking: "Since so few people know the words of Amhran na bhFiann, and fewer still know what they mean, why is playing Ireland's Call at rugby matches such a big deal?"

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Actually it's only a big deal to naff nationalists. They come in two categories. First, Hick Hibernians who want to bully Northern Ireland rugby players of the Unionist persuasion into singing the Republic's anthem.

Second, and more nauseating, are the Haute Hibernians. These spineless fence-sitters pay lip service to the pluralist political reasons behind Ireland's Call but cravenly suck up to media Hicks by criticising Ireland's Call on pseudo-musical grounds.

That snob stance fools nobody. As well as being politically appropriate, Phil Coulter's song is musically superior to Amhran na bFiann. Its simple chords and anthem structure make it suitable for massed singing, the lyrics are easy to learn, and fans like to sing it lustily – when they are let.

Let me remind the Hicks and Hautes that real republicanism today takes the form of real pluralism. To drive that point home I must draw on my own family background, and that of the Lord Mayor of Cork, Councillor Catherine Clancy, who last weekend told me about her recent visit to the First World War cemeteries of Flanders.

Last Sunday, I stood in Cornmarket Street Cork, where a hundred years ago, on August 30, 1914, my grandfather, Pat Harris, paraded with 1,000 members of the Irish Volunteers to make a hard choice: support John Redmond's call to fight in Flanders or stay loyal to republican beliefs in an armed rising in Ireland.

As Pat Harris recalled in old age, Captain Talbot Crosbie repeated Redmond's call. Then drill orders rang out and the vast majority, some 950 volunteers, marched away to join Redmond's National Volunteers. Only some 50 Irish Volunteers still stood firm, lonely figures in a city run by Redmondites.

Pat Harris was one of them. Refusing Redmond's call, he supported the romantically republican but practically pointless resolution drafted by his leader and friend, Tomas MacCurtain: "That the Irish Volunteers are prepared to join with the Ulster Volunteers for the defence of Ireland."

But while I warmly cherish the memory of Pat Harris's moral courage, I refuse to impugn the motives of the majority who marched off, many to join the Munster Fusiliers. Some were motivated by anger at atrocities in catholic Belgium, some saw it as a step to Home Rule, but most probably went to see the world.

But all went because they wanted to. That is why I condemn the current habit of patronising them as simply pawns in an imperial game. Let's not retrospectively revise their choices to suit our own passing political fashions.

* * * * *

A few weeks ago Councillor Catherine Clancy, Lord Mayor of Cork, gazed in awe at the endless graves of Tyne Cot cemetery, the biggest British war cemetery in the world. Some 70 per cent of the nearly 12,000 graves have no name, identified only by a line devised by Rudyard Kipling: "A Soldier of the Great War. Known Unto God".

But Catherine Clancy somehow spotted one stone that was different to the rest. It not only had a name, it also had a home address that closed the historical and geographical distance between Tyne Cot and the North side of Cork City from which Catherine comes.

The stone said: "Private John Harris, aged 20, 303 Blarney Street, Cork." Almost alone in the cemetery, it also recorded the names of his parents, Thomas and Margaret Harris, who must have made a major effort to have them put there.

Catherine could empathise with their enduring grief. Her own mother had lost her brother, Brian O'Flynn, 21, in the Second World War. Recently, aged 88, she confided to Catherine that she missed Brian every day.

Like many who visit these vast First World War cemeteries, Catherine was moved to speak to the spirit behind the stone. So as a mother and as Lord Mayor of Cork she spoke to the boy from Blarney Street as follows:

"John, I'm the Lord Mayor of Cork. I want you to know I'm here. I want to say you are not forgotten, just as you were not forgotten by your Mum or your Dad, because they went to huge trouble to get your name up on the stone as well as their own names. You lived on Blarney Street, the longest street in Cork, and you came a long way to where you are buried. But you are not forgotten."

Catherine Clancy is a member of the Labour Party, a party which I constantly complain has lost its way. But the Lord Mayor of Cork has not lost her way. She is a credit to her city and her country.

* * * * *

The politics of commemoration are also the subject of "Comrades In Death" a fine, but to my mind, flawed review by John Gibney in the Dublin Review of Books of David Crane's Empires of the Dead.

The first flaw is Gibney not questioning the insistence of republican leaders, in the early years of the State, that they did not object to the commemoration of the First World War dead, but only to the "jingoism and glorification of imperialism that accompanied it", citing TCD students' antics and the British Legion's alleged militarism.

Gibney should have pointed out that this limited tolerance still smacked of republicans wanting the West Brits to keep their heads well down; that TCD students, surrounded by Catholic nationalism, had to stand up stridently for their traditions; that the British Legion could hardly honour its military dead without some display of military regalia.

Furthermore, I also take issue with this sanitising sentence: "True, ex-servicemen in Ireland were often viewed with hostility and suspicion by republicans." It went a lot further than "hostility and suspicion". The IRA shot 29 ex-servicemen in County Cork as suspected British informers

Finally, referring to Rudyard Kipling's role in writing a moving speech for King George V in 1922, Gibney says that given the words were spoken by a British monarch and "crafted by a writer who largely detested the Irish (for unionists he made an exception), one can forgive an Irish audience for dismissing these as platitudes".

This is depressing stuff coming from the contents manager of the Decade of Centenaries website, which is promoted by the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht. Leaving the ambivalent remark about unionists aside, while it is true that Kipling disliked Irish nationalism – so do many of us – it is very doubtful that he disliked "the Irish".

Kipling's early stories and later songs do not support that charge. From Soldiers Three to Kim most of his heroes are Irish soldiers. And his 1918 Song for the Irish Guards shows a sensitive and dialectical grasp of Irish history.

We're not so old in the Army List,

But we're not so young at our trade,

For we had the honour at Fontenoy

Of meeting the Guards' Brigade.

Time we gave up the green carping. Time we made pluralists like Lord Mayor Catherine Clancy our role models. Time we sang Ireland's Call with pride.

Sunday Independent

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