Culture: Irish Republican Music

Irish Republican Folk

Click image to buy download of 'My Little Armalite'

It may seem strange that we should devote space to an analysis of Irish Republican Folk music. For this reason I shall explain our thinking. Folk music should be of interest to all Nationalists — after all it is by definition an art form which is both traditionally based and which springs from the experiences of the people. Republican music offers a perspective of struggle which we as political activists are drawn to respect – of course we come from a different tradition and have our own perspective. We should, however, be able to understand, and perhaps even identify with aspects of, the feelings and traditions of our opponents. One day this may become of vital importance. There are many Republican protest songs as well as many versions of these songs. I offer my own views on ones which are familiar to me and which are relatively easy to obtain. The three tapes upon which I have based this review are:

  •  The Best of Irish Rebel Songs Volume 1 
  •   The Best of Irish Rebel Songs Volume 2 
  •   25 Irish Republican Songs
    Others are available and we have provided some links.


Much of Irish Rebel music seems over-sentimental in a modern context. A theme which has been treated in different ways is the death of a hunger-striker. Shall my Soul Pass Through Old Ireland for instance deals with the death of a hunger-striker in Brixton Prison. Here we find a deathbed plea to a priest: “Will you see my little daughter… will you make her understand?” This is weeping into your beer stuff. Personally this sort of song irritates me as it doesn’t really communicate whysomeone would starve themselves to death for a political aim. The use of archaic language (for which I have a liking) does save it somewhat: “With his heart pure as a Lily, and his body sanctified”. It is also interesting to note the use of religious turns of phrases in such songs. The theme is to my mind better treated, however, in Take Me Home To Mayo which relates the deathbed thoughts of a Parkhurst hunger-striker. Of the more sentimental songs, however, my favourite is the Lough Sheelin Eviction by the Tara Folk. This song manages to conjure up images of the people involved for whom I find it a lot easier to have sympathy with than a member of the IRA. This song also cormmunicates a strong wistful element – something I find very appealing and which is also present in other Rebel Songs such as Sweet John Carey. Some of the songs communicate emotion most eloquently. Many have a bitter-sweet quality. In different ways, two songs are like this: Only our Rivers Run Free and Patriot Game.

Click on image to buy download of 'Only our Rivers Run Free'

Only Our Rivers Run Free contrasts the natural beauty of Ireland with the position of the people of the country:–

when there’s sorrow and sunshine and flowers,
and still only our rivers run free…

The Patriot Game, on the other hand is a more politically complex song. It is also interesting from the standpoint of its music, which came from an Appalachian Mountains folk tune called The Bold Grenadier which itself had Irish origins, Irish people having moved to this area for work on the railways and around the mines. It indicates why an individual was motivated to join the IRA: “I read of our heroes and wanted the same”, and speaks of “the traitors who bargained and sold” – the supporters of the Treaty with Britain. At the heart of this song is the feeling of betrayal, of looking back over a life whose purpose seems to have been falsified by others. Although the context is particular, the general theme, if not universal, may be seen to be widespread. The explanation of motivation is important.
Heroes and Heroines are role models, and Republicanism has them to offer, immortalised in song. There are perhaps fewer heroines than heroes, but they too are there. The song Ann Devlin concerns one. As the lyric reminds us:

In 1851 Ann Devlin met her maker.
But her story’s with us still, as a lesson for the wise…

Revolutionary immortality?
Treatments of Republican heroines are rare in song. A related subject, however, is the personification of Ireland as a woman (in different guises). This fascinating subject was considered in the documentary  Mother Ireland. Unfortunately, the documentary made no mention of Republican Songs and their treatment of the topic. Four Green Fields for instance depicts the four traditional Counties – Ulster, Connaught, Munster and Leinster – as fields belonging to an old woman. This powerful allegory treats the problem in a very easy to understand, if too simplistic, fashion — one of the fields has been ‘stolen’ by interlopers, and her sons must fight for its return.


Another link to the struggles of the past is provided through emphasis on generations. The continuity of struggle is of central importance to the Republican tradition. Two songs which I think illustrate this are Boys of the Old Brigade by Wolfhound, and Broad Black Brimmer by Bogside Volunteers.

 Boys of the Old Brigade is filled with links to the past. A Father relates to his son on the anniversary of the Easter Rising tinged with sadness for his fallen comrades. There is also mention of the awareness he ancd his-comrades had of history being made, which I believe still influences many Republican recruits. Just another way in which Republican ideology can reinforce individual self-worth.

Broad Black Brimmer deals with a small boy being allowed by his mother to try-on the IRA uniform of his father. This generational emphasis also fulfils the function of harmonising a human quality and the ideology. Some, of course, would find that this jarred rather than dovetailed — it all depends on your initial perspective. Undoubtedly, however, to Republicans such songs reinforce a tradition of resistance.


Some songs display the way in which the Republican tradition seeks to absorb other natural elements of life. We can see in Little Armalite by Wolfhound, and Ireland’s 32 the way in which local loyalties are – consciously or otherwise – exploited.

Little Armalite varies its chorus to include the names of geographical areas and link them with the activities of IRA Active Service Units.

Ireland’s 32 is basically a toasting song to the 32 counties, associating each with a Republican exploit (although some get mentioned because of their geographical features, or because the girls are reputedly good-looking, and nothing political is said of them!).


Little Armalite also shows how the use of humour is used to belittle the enemy as well as making a carefully calculated political aside on the relationship of RUC and Army:

Sure a brave RUC man came-up into our street,
Six hundred British soldiers were gathered round his feet,
“Come out you cowardly Fenians!” said he,
“Come out and fight!”
But he cried “I’m only joking!” when he heard my Armalite.

This is also a song celebrating a feeling of empowerment felt by the Provisional IRA after the arrival of the first substantial consignment of lightweight (seven pounds approx.) Armalite rifles in August 1970. It makes a propaganda point by contrasting large British forces and small IRA ones.
 Come Out Ye Black & Tans also has an element of humour in its portrayal of a drunken Republican bawling for a fight with his neighbours:

 Each and every night when me Da’ would come home tight,
He’d invite the neighbours out with this fine chorus,
“Come out you Black and Tans,
Come out and fight me like a man…
Show your wife how you won medals down in Flanders!”

Perhaps the best-crafted use of humour is to be found in Lid of Me Granny’s Bin which opens to the sound of banging dustbin lids and the screech of whistles:

Scream, bang, shout, raise an awful din —
You’ve got to spread a warning when the army they come in.
A Soldier came right up the stairs his rifle in his hand
She kicked him with her button-boots and along the hall she ran
Then up and came another one, some medals for to win…
But all he got right up the gob was the lid of me granny’s bin.

Go home, good friends, and go to bed; sleep as best you can,
But if trouble comes along, get out and lend a hand,
To all you fair young ladies, if trouble should begin,
Get out into your back-yard and rattle away at your bin.

We can see in this song a contrast in humour between the Army and, ‘ordinary’ people in the shape of granny. We can appreciate how humour acts as a release for the tension which must be present — hasn’t it always been thus?


Perhaps one of the saddest things one feels when listening to this music is that here are obviously some very sensitive people – with an eye for beauty, not without humour and many other fine qualities, who none the less see violence as the solution to the problem they perceive. One song which brings this out is A Sniper’s Promise. This depicts the potential victim, a Soldier, as human — not just a uniform to be shot at. Perhaps it’s just a cynical attempt to, incorporate war-weariness into the tradition and thereby defuse it? If not, then somehow I find it worse, a sensitivity which none-the-less sanctions brutal actions. Certainly through these songs revolutionary Nationalists in mainland Britain can come to appreciate that here we have a problem which cannot be dealt with through normal political structures.

For some of the psychological reasons indicated in this article, the Republican tradition would be very difficult to eradicate – it can only be transcended by an  alternative vision. It is my conviction that only an ideologically motivated force can counter the physical force of the Republicans. A highly motivated force, with a deep sense of history and identity and a positive vision of an Alternative Ulster. Where are they today? Nowhere to be seen, but perhaps somewhere a Goddess is starting a new dream?


1 Comment »

  1. Glyn Hope said

    Your comment ‘Only an ideologically motivated force can counter the physical force of the Republicans’ makes no sense as the loyalists fitted that description to a tea and also had (and still do) a deep sense of history. It was the terrorism on the USA that made Americans aware of ‘what’ terrorism is that ruined things for the republicans.


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