Tuesday, November 01, 2016
An archive shot of Opera singer Suzanne Murphy singing 'There is an Isle' , accompanied by the Band of the Southern Command, at Thomond Park, Limerick. Picture: Kieran Clancy.

An archive shot of Opera singer Suzanne Murphy singing ‘There is an Isle’ , accompanied by the Band of the Southern Command, at Thomond Park, Limerick. Picture: Kieran Clancy.

By Michael Patwell

IN years gone by, if somebody else had written what I intend to write here about our national anthem, I would be heard protesting in several counties around.
Such was my misguided ‘patriotic fervour’ at the time that anything that might appear to offend against anything Irish or Gaelic would have provoked my extreme irritation, even intolerance.
I hope I am no less patriotic today, but over the years I have adopted a more ‘world view’ and pacifist approach to things. Indeed, as I may have said here before, I have changed my mind many times about many things.
Thus it is with our national anthem and my opinion of it. I really don’t think it is appropriate any more.
I will, of course, when it is played, stand to attention and feel the pride of my nation in my breast for as long as it remains our national anthem. At this stage, however, I would prefer if we could adopt a new anthem that would be less war-like and ferocious.
It is worth looking at what a ‘national anthem’ is.
It is defined as a patriotic musical composition that evokes and eulogises the history, traditions and struggles of its people, recognised either by a nation’s government as the official national song, or by convention, through use, by the people. The majority of such anthems are either marches or hymns in style and are usually in the national or most common language of the country. States with more than one national language may offer several versions of their anthem.
National anthems rose to prominence in Europe during the 19th century, but some originated much earlier. The oldest belongs to the Netherlands and is called the Wilhelmus. It was written between 1568 and 1572 during the Dutch Revolt, but did not become the official anthem until 1932.
The national anthem of our neighbouring island, Britain, God Save The Queen (or’ King’, as appropriate), was first performed in 1745.
National anthems are used in a wide array of contexts and certain etiquette may be involved in their playing. These usually involve military honours, standing up, removing headwear, etc. In diplomatic situations, the rules may be very formal. They are played on national holidays and festivals and have also come to be closely connected with sporting events. When teams from two different nations play each other, the anthems of both are played, the host nation’s anthem being played last.
We all know, of course, that our national anthem is Amhrán na bhFiann. It doesn’t, however, include the whole song but just the chorus. There are three other verses that are NOT now regarded as part of the national anthem and are not used.
Nearly everybody in Ireland can sing the national anthem, which is, as I say, the Irish version of the song. I also believe, however, that many, despite having learned it at school, don’t really know the full meaning of the Irish words. It is worth examining them here, side-by-side.

Irish version — the ACTUAL anthem
Amhrán na bhFiann
Sinne Fianna Fáil,
atá faoi gheall ag Éirinn,
Buíon dár slua
thar toinn do ráinig chugainn,
Faoi mhóid bheith saor
Seantír ár sinsear feasta,
Ní fhágfar faoin tíorán ná faoin tráill.
Anocht a théam sa bhearna baoil,
Le gean ar Ghaeil, chun báis nó saoil,
Le gunna scréach faoi lámhach na bpiléar,
Seo libh canaídh amhrán na bhfiann

English version — the original song chorus
The Soldiers’ Song
Soldiers are we,
whose lives are pledged to Ireland,
Some have come
from a land beyond the wave,
Sworn to be free,
no more our ancient sireland,
Shall shelter the despot or the slave.
Tonight we man the “bearna baoil”,
In Erin’s cause, come woe or weal,
‘Mid cannon’s roar and rifles’ peal,
We’ll chant a soldier’s song

Sinne Fianna Fáil = “We are the Warriors of Fál (Ireland)”
Le gean ar Ghaeil, chun báis nó saoil = “For love of the Gael, towards death or life”
bearna baoil = “gap of danger”
I have to question whether we are happy now, in this day and age, to glorify the screech of gunfire and the shooting of bullets.
It’s probably just as well that we don’t use the other verses of the song because they are equally violent and divisive. For instance, we claim that we are “Impatient for the coming fight”; that we are “children of a fighting race”; that “The serried ranks of Inisfail shall set the tyrant quaking” and we finish with a reference to “the Saxon foe”.
Today we are a peaceful nation, the “Saxon” is no longer our foe but our friend and we send our military to various parts of the world as peacekeepers. Perhaps something less violent is now called for.
Because ‘Fianna Fail’ is the name of one of the main political parties in Ireland, there can be some objection to those words being included in the national anthem. Some people, not enamoured with the party, have suggested it should be changed to “Sinne Laochra Fail”. Laochra = Heroes.
Arising out of that, I was somewhat involved in an amusing story on the day of the general election in 1969. I was Presiding Officer at one of the polling stations in the Cathedral School on Cathedral Road for the day. Some time that morning one of the candidates, the late Stephen Barrett (Fine Gael) — a very nice and inoffensive man, in fact — came in and said he had received a complaint from a supporter that we had the name of one political party prominently displayed in the room. My fellow official and myself were puzzled until he pointed out the words on the blackboard in the schoolroom. There were the words of the national anthem chalked on the board. Clearly the teacher had been teaching it to the class the day before. We promptly removed the “offending” words with the chalk-duster and that was the end of the matter.
Amhrán na bhFiann has an interesting history. It was originally composed in English as The Soldiers’ Song by Peadar Kearney (an uncle of the Behans) in 1907 with the music composed by Patrick Heeney. The Irish language translation was done by Liam Ó Rinn.
The Presidential Salute, played when the President arrives at an official engagement, consists of the first four bars of the national anthem immediately followed by the last five.
The first draft, handwritten on copybook paper, sold at auction in Dublin in 2006 for €760,000. The tune was used as a marching song by the Irish Volunteers and sung by rebels in the GPO during the Easter Rising. Its popularity increased among rebels held in Frongoch internment camp afterwards and by the IRA in the War of Independence (1919-21). After the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, a large proportion of the IRA’s men and apparatus became the National Army. The Soldiers’ Song remained popular as an Army tune and was played at many military functions.
The Free State did not initially adopt any official anthem. In the early days some people considered The Soldiers’ Song to be “hardly suitable in words or music” and favoured the music, though not the words, of Let Erin Remember. This was used as the anthem for the Irish athletes at the 1924 Olympics in Paris and at other events abroad for the next two years.
The Soldiers’ Song was widely if unofficially sung by nationalists. In June, 1926, the Minister for Defence responded to a Dáil question asking what the national anthem was by saying The Soldiers’ Song and on July 12, 1926, the Executive Council decided to adopt it as the National Anthem.
In 1928, the Army band established the practice of playing only the chorus of the song because the longer version was discouraging audiences from singing along.
The anthem was played by Radio Éireann at closedown from its inception in 1926. Cinemas and theatres did so from 1932 until 1972. Peadar Kearney and Patrick Heeney’s brother issued legal proceedings for royalties from those now performing the anthem.
In 1934, the Department of Finance acquired the copyright of the song for £1,200 (£980 to the copyright holders plus £220 expenses). When Copyright law changed (in 1959) the government had to reacquire copyright in 1965, for £2,500. Since then and by law the copyright expired in December 2012, following the 70th anniversary of Kearney’s death.
The inevitable question is, what should we replace it with? We are not without talented poets, composers and songwriters.
Phil Coulter didn’t do a bad job in 1995 with Irelands Call for the Irish Rugby Football Union, though I am NOT suggesting it should become the national anthem.
If I had my way, I would choose another song with rugby connections. I refer to There Is An Isle, originally a Scottish poem, put to music in 1924 by Limerick schoolteacher Anna Maria Lynch. It is, in my opinion, the most perfect song to be a national anthem. Listen to Suzanne Murphy singing it and you just might agree.



There Is An Isle


There is an Isle, a bonnie Isle
Stands proudly from, stands proudly from the sea
And dearer far than all this world
Is that dear Isle, is that dear Isle to me
It is not, that alone it stands
Where all around is fresh and fair
But because it is my native land
And my home, my home is there
But because it is my native land
And my home, my home is there

Farewell, farewell, though lands may meet
May meet my gaze, my gaze where e’re I roam
I shall not find a spot so fair
As that dear Isle, as that dear Isle to me
It is not that alone it stands
Where all around is fresh and fair
But because it is my native land
And my home, my home is there
But because it is my native land
And my home, my home is there

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