Kevin Myers: We do not have a settled identity for our anthem
Published 25/02/2010 | 05:00
AT this time of year, I usually reach for my annual national-anthem column, dust it down, put a new crease down its front, pat its bottom, and send it on its way.
A debate about the utility and the suitability of Amhran na bhFiann is as seasonal as spring: it's what we do, whenever the rugby season isn't going so well. Which is perhaps why I didn't need to take the national-anthem column from the linen-press last year.
An opinion is only an opinion if it can be altered. It is not a faith, or a belief, or a dogma, or a creed, or a compulsion. It is a thought that is open to analysis, and capable of being destroyed by rational argument or by the discovery of fresh facts.
Faith-based emotions such as dogmas and beliefs are not amenable to rational or empirical destruction. If you believe that Amhran na bhFiann should be the national anthem of an all-Irish rugby team, no matter the arguments against it, then you have already wasted your time. Go. Farewell.
National anthems are fundamentally irrational things. The American anthem was written during the war with Canada, which, essentially, the US lost. (So painful is this that every attempt by Canadians to put it into the historical record in Wikipedia is almost instantly corrected by Wikipedia's US monitors). And as every participant in this (almost) annual debate knows, the French national anthem is all about the enemy's bloody fertilising fields, the British national anthem was once upon about frustrating the enemy's "popish tricks", and the Norwegian national anthem is all about recovering the ancient provinces lost to Sweden.
No it's not.
The actual content of our debate on anthems is less important than its regularity. It says we haven't settled on an agreed mythology, with which we can live at ease. But this is not unusual. 'La Marseillaise' was a highly divisive anthem for generations, and is still loathed by French royalists. 'God Save the Queen' has a bizarre currency in Britain, where the English apparently think it is their song, which is perhaps consonant with the pathological English failure to be aware of the difference between England and Britain. David Dimbleby's recent BBC series -- which presumably passed every layer of editorial supervision -- repeatedly referred to Queen Elizabeth I as a British queen. Against that kind of invincible ignorance, there's not much one can do.
Yet invincible ignorance is actually quite useful in the creation of a national identity. It enables most Americans to view their war of independence with a fondly glowing eye: bad redcoats and Hessian mercenaries being defeated by the patriotic Minutemen.
In fact, it was a very nasty civil war, in which fratricide, exclusion, boycotts, intimidation and cold-blooded murder were commonplace. Nobody wrote a song about that at the time, because it was too squalid and too terrible. A mythic fiction (involving dawn, ramparts, et cetera) only emerged some two generations later, and so -- in terms of anthems at least -- all was well.
We have not got the luxury of a settled state or identity in this island, and the endless debate about the name Derry/Londonderry is another expression of that flux. It is, to be sure, tiresome, but it is merely further proof that we do not quite know who we are -- save for those people who insist that Amhran na bhFiann should be good enough for everyone, regardless.
Indeed, one day, with different words, it might be. But the dogmatists are probably as wedded to the current words as they are to the fiction that Peadar Kearney wrote them. He didn't. He wrote the English lyrics, which are seldom sung.
The Irish words were a translation by a civil servant named Liam O Rinn. They are, as you know, all about shooting and violence, which are fairly usual themes for national anthems -- but not while the shooting and the violence continue. Such things must be the stuff of history before they can be safely incorporated into a country's anthem: and alas, thanks to the most martial supporters of the Amhran na bhFiann, they are instead the stuff of news.
It's not complex. The unionist community in the North, who remained loyal to a united Irish rugby team throughout the Troubles, do not regard what they see as the anthem of the IRA as their own anthem. It should not require neurosurgery to understand that nobody accepts their enemy's anthems as their own. (And no, Lilli Marlene was not an anthem)
On the other hand, we all know that 'Ireland's Call' simply doesn't work, which would be fine, but for another wild-card factor: the IRFU.
These are the fine people who are building a stadium with a capacity more than 30,000 less than the known demand, merely because of its address. So how can we expect wisdom or rationality from such people? That in itself would be irrational.
As for me, let me take this annual favourite out of the linen-press, to be ignored, as usual: what's wrong with "Saint Patrick's Day", the great marching tune of the Army, the Royal Irish Regiment, the Connaught Rangers, the Irish Guards and the US 7th Cavalry?