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Anthem of revolution stirs hearts and minds

It was to the south of France that duty called this week. To a port city, for a football match. The port city that's lent its name to the country's national anthem, La Marseillaise.

What a great song, what a great tune. It dates from the era of French Revolution, written in the spring of 1792. The composer was an army engineer by the name of Claude Rouget de Lisle.

It was a time of huge upheaval. France had just declared war on Austria. The mayor of Strasbourg, strategically important and under threat of invasion, commissioned a marching song to boost morale. Captain Rouget de Lisle, stationed in the city at the time, dashed off his tune in a single sitting, and called it Chant de guerre de l'armée du Rhin ('The Battle Hymn of the Army of the Rhine'). The music, catchy and upbeat, was an instant success.

Down in Marseille, where they were holding a banquet for a newly formed volunteer militia that was about to head off to play its part in Paris, the song was performed by the general in charge. It went down so well he had copies printed, and the troops took it with them.

When they reached Paris at the end of their long march, they sang the song with gusto as they made their triumphant entry. The locals loved it.

The music captured the public imagination. The Parisians nicknamed it La Marseillaise for it had been the soldiers from Marseille who they'd heard sing it. It became the unofficial anthem of the French Revolution, and on Bastille Day, July 14, 1795, La Marseillaise was adopted as the national anthem of France.

Over the course of the next century, first Napoleon, then Louis XVIII, and Napoleon III had it banned because of its revolutionary associations. You can understand why, as it contains references to the "bloodied flag" ("l'étendard sanglant"), "ferocious soldiers" ("féroces soldats"), and an explicit call to arms ("aux armes, citoyens!").

But in 1879, under the Third Republic, it was finally reinstated. A measure of the importance of the song was the honour afforded its creator. In 1915, the ashes of Claude Rouget de Lisle were transferred to Les Invalides, the military complex in Paris that is the resting place of France's war heroes.

His part in French history was the creation of a great anthem, with one of the most famous of opening lines, the call to the children of the nation ("Allons, enfants de la patrie") that rings out today at all French state occasions and sporting events.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning ghamilton@independent.ie

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