The Narrative Song Tradition in Irish Political Music

Introduction to Celtic Music



The Narrative Song Tradition in Irish Political Music

 I would like to make clear that this paper has not been impacted by my family history in terms of politics. I was exposed to these “rebel” songs because they were enjoyed by my parents but I aim to examine the way in which these ballads and lays were crafted and how they fit into the living tradition of Irish music. For the remainder of the paper, whether or not the songs should be classified as songs of rebellion or patriotism I will refer to them as political. Sources I am citing may or may not refer to them as “rebel” songs.

There is no lack of stories to be told about Ireland, the triumphs, the defeat , and the tragedies all seem to be especially spectacular for such a small island. As the 65 year anniversary of Ireland becoming a free nation looms, it is important to look back on the way political uprising has been portrayed through songwriting. There are innumerable books written on Irish politics, from the early years of the Norman invasions to books written about the year 2013 but it is the songs that will last forever because music is so easily accessible. I chose this topic for my final paper because I grew up listening to these political songs. It was only later in my life that I learned they were written about actual events and these songs inspired my interest in knowledge about my Irish ancestry. 

These songs are especially important because they convey the emotions of the common people who were genuinely affected by the political discontent. Examining the way Irish politics have been interpreted by scholars worldwide is also important but there is no denying the stories recorded on the ground in Ireland during and after the events are our most sacred means of remembrance. It is these invaluable primary sources that act as a time capsule of the passion felt throughout Ireland during and even years after the events that lead Ireland to be the nation it is today. 

According to world renowned scholar Mick Moloney, the sub genres within the living tradition of Irish music can be referred to as classical, elite, folk, traditional and popular. There are examples of political songs within these sub genres but Irish political songs generally have two main themes. The first are ballads from the perspective of the tenant farmers struggling to possess the land they work and the pleas for help during the famine. These songs did not have an effect on politics on a large scale because they were mostly regional songs, sung in the Catholic reservation of Connaught. These songs were not generally heard by the ruling class because they simply did not live there. There is no evidence that these songs were written for posterity and due to the rural setting they were written in and lack of technology many have been lost. Possibly the first song that could be categorized as political was called “The Downfall of Trade”,  which can be found in the book Songs of Irish Rebellion, is fairly calm, merely commenting on the lack of food available. 

“Our pork it is down and our butter also

And no price for yarn, the flax or the tow,

And nine pence per yard for ten thousand, that’s all

If those times they continue we  can’t live at all.”

One of the single instances that peasantry affected politics was in the 1798 Uprising which was  small scale and primarily consisted of guerilla warfare. The leader of The United Irishmen was Theobald Wolfe Tone, who inspired the name of a contemporary Irish band that specialized in politically themed songs.  In later years, the songs are less somber and more akin to battle cries from the middle class craving emancipation for the Catholic majority. These songs were heard by groups with power and did impact politics.

There was a revival of the former theme when The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who would be classified as folk revival bands, made it into mainstream American music in the early 1960s. The band was made up of Tom, Paddy, Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem. The men played folk music casually in Manhattan and were made popular due to their Irish heritage, they were a novelty during the 1950s. It was only when their manager suggested they record an album of “Irish Rebel Songs” that they were recognized nationally in the United States. The band hit their peak of success when they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1961. One of the songs The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem performed on the variety show was “Johnson’s Motor Car”. The song was written by Willy Gillespie about actual events that transpired in the 1920s when The Irish Republican Army seized a car belonging to Dr Johnston because they needed transport to a town over fifty miles away. The IRA called on the doctor then ambushed him to steal his car. The song is written from the perspective of the IRA officers. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem sang “When he came to the Reelin Bridge, he met some rebels there. He knew the game was up with him, and at them he did stare. He said I’ve got a permit for travelling out so far. You can keep your English permit, but we want your motor car.” to millions of Americans.   It’s hard to tell whether their success was due to the content of the song or the appearance of four charming Irishmen in Ayran sweaters but the fact remains that the group became an overnight success in America and later Australia and finally Ireland. 

Tommy Makem of The Clancy Brothers emerged as a composer after their Ed Sullivan performance. In 1967 he wrote “Four Green Fields” which according to Mick Moloney is one the most popular songs in both Ireland and the United States in the past forty years. “Four Green Fields” is an allegorical song that personifies Ireland as an old woman with four green fields that were subject to invasion over the course of many centuries. Ireland is often referred to metaphorically as a woman. During times of prosperity she is referred to as a Queen specifically Gráinne  Mhaol the 16th century chieftain of The O’Malley Clan.  In this song and in general songs of sorrow the woman is frail, her four fields refer to the four provinces in Ireland, Connaught, Leister, Munster, and finally Ulster the county that is still under British rule today.  She cries for the sons she lost fighting to protect her four fields but hopes for the fourth to prosper once again. “I have four green fields, one of them’s in bondage. In stranger’s hands, that tried to take it from me. But my sons have sons, as brave as were their fathers. My fourth green field will bloom once again” said she” . The song is so popular it is mistakenly thought of an old rebel song by many Irish Americans. Tommy Makem did not consider the song to be a rebel song, rather a plea to end the fighting. 

“When I wrote “Four Green Fields” it was a plea that we should be left alone. For three hundred years we had people telling us how we should run our country, and it was time for people to just leave us alone. We had suffered enough. There were people perfectly capable of running the country. It wasn’t meant to be a rebel song.” 

This sentiment is echoed in one of the most popular songs of the early 80s, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was about what is commonly referred to as “The Troubles”.  The song was written and recorded by the pop band U2 who are native Irishmen, it was not written in support or opposition of either side of the discord. Members of the band have spoken out a number of times to explain that the song was written in opposition to the glorification of the conflict. In April of 1983 the drummer of U2, Larry Mullen, was interviewed by Lucy White. When White asked Mullen about the discourse surrounding their music to be primarily concerned with politics he clarified that U2 was

“into the politics of people, we’re not into politics. Like you talk about Northern Ireland, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday,’ people sort of think, ‘Oh, that time when 13 Catholics were shot by British soldiers’; that’s not what the song is about. That’s an incident, the most famous incident in Northern Ireland and it’s the strongest way of saying, ‘How long? How long do we have to put up with this?’ I don’t care who’s who – Catholics, Protestants, whatever. You know people are dying every single day through bitterness and hate, and we’re saying why? What’s the point? And you can move that into places like El Salvador and other similar situations – people dying. Let’s forget the politics, let’s stop shooting each other and sit around the table and talk about it… There are a lot of bands taking sides saying politics is crap, etc. Well, so what! The real battle is people dying, that’s the real battle.”

Sunday Bloody Sunday is one song that can and has been universally applied. This is most likely due to the success of the song given that it would be classified in the Irish Music Tradition as “Pop- Irish Music”.

After an especially riveting performance of the song on November 9th, 1987 at The Nichols Arena in Denver, Colorado the lead singer Bono proclaimed that the song may never be performed again because the performance was so harmonious that the song was “made real”. The reason the performance was so passionate was due to the events of the day before, when a bombing that has come to be known as The Remembrance Day Bombing in the town of Enniskillen in Northern Ireland killed ten civilians and one police officer. The lead singer, Bono proclaimed mid song that he was tired of Irish Americans glorifying the deaths caused by the revolution, specifically civilian martyrdom. “What’s the glory in taking a man from his bed and gunning him down in front of his wife and his children”. He speaks about the events that transpired the day before explaining that “the revolution that the majority of the people of my country don’t want”. He goes on to call for the audience to cheer  “no more”, an interlude that was still performed in their most recent tour. This song is especially important to the Irish tradition of political songwriting because the song was written about an event that transpired decades before and was performed around the world while the conflict continued in Ireland. 

In response to U2’s proclamation that “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was not a rebel song, Irish singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor wrote a song titled “This is a Rebel Song”.  Although the song is nowhere near as popular, the discourse between songwriters surrounding Irish political songs is important because there are a multitude of opposing viewpoints. The conflict on the ground in Ireland is mirrored in the varying means of songwriting about the politics in Ireland. 

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were primarily a cover-band in their early years, as were most Irish Traditional musicians in recent memory. There was already a cornucopia of lyrics and poems on hand and the subjects were still relevant. One of the reasons so many songs about Irish politics are categorized as “Traditional” is due to their age. Most songs have been reappropriated and translated over the years but the stories  the songs are based on date back hundreds of years. There were surely songs written even earlier but they have been lost forever because they were not recorded or even passed down orally.  Because the oldest songs were passed down orally, many transformed over the ages, when they were finally written down it is likely they had transformed from their original content. 

Not all songs about Irish politics are “rebellious”,  there are many that promote Irish Nationalism. Some of earliest political songs were allegorical odes to the island of Ireland.  One such song ,Óró, sé do bheatha abhaile , only became known as a “rebel” song in the twentieth century. The title of the song roughly translates to “Welcome Home” in English. (I was introduced to this song by my grandfather when I was a toddler. I honestly had no idea what I was singing as a child and it wasn’t until about an hour into my research that I realized what song I was dissecting. I only mention this because it is evidence of the way these songs have been passed down over centuries. Seeing the title in Gaelic I had no idea I knew the song. I even read the lyrics in English and I had no idea. It wasn’t until I tried to sound out the lyrics in Gaelic that I finally realised what the song was. I listened to a few versions by contemporary musicians and the tune was not exactly the same as the one my grandfather sang. Even more interesting is the song’s relation to Gráinne Mhaol, the former leader of the O’Malley clan. Nearly twenty years ago my great grandfather was the honorary chieftain at the “O’Malley Rally” and next summer my great aunt will be Chieftain. Growing up I heard numerous stories about my ancestor, The Pirate Queen but I don’t recall hearing that the song had anything to do with her story. A few weeks ago when I saw Matt and Shannon Heaton perform at Glucksman Ireland House I met a man from Boston who mentioned the song at one point in our conversation)  Patrick Joyce Weston recalls in 1909 book Old Irish Folk Music and Songs that a number of airs, this one included, were sent to him from a man he describes as being at least 70 in 1884. His version is only recorded as having a chorus. The song is classified as a “Clan March” about the practice of “hauling home” a bride to her husband’s house about a month after the wedding presumably after the honeymoon. Later accounts of the song are referred to as  “Dord na bhFiann” or “Call of the Fighters”, a departure from the upbeat marriage tradition. The song stopped welcoming home newlyweds and began to welcome Catholicism to England at the hand of Prince Charles III. The song has been performed by everyone from The Clancy Brothers in theaters to my grandfather in his kitchen. Óró, sé do bheatha abhaile is no longer considered a “rebel song”. It is sung in primary schools across the country as a welcome back at the end of the summer. The song has transformed to fit whatever situation it found itself in.  Across hundreds of centuries, people sang the song, welcoming each other home to Ireland. 

These political songs are an important part of the living Tradition of Irish Music. They tell the history of the island as the lines on the map changed decade after decade. The books may burn, but as long as there are Irish people on this Earth the stories of Ireland’s politics will live on in song. 

Works Cited 

Bono, Edge, and B. B. King. “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” The Best of 1980-2000. U2. N.d. Web. 

Clancy, Tom, Paddy Clancy, Liam Clancy, and Tommy Makem. “Dr Johnson’s Car.” Rec. 1961. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. N.d. 13 June 2011. Web. 18 Dec. 2013. <;. 

“The Dubliners Óró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile.” YouTube. N.p., 13 Aug. 2009. Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <;. 

Joyce, Patrick W. Old Irish Folk Music and Songs: A Collection of 842 Irish Airs and Songs Hitherto Unpublished. New York: Cooper Square Publ., 1965. Web. 17 Dec. 2013. <;. 

Lee, Joseph, and Marion R. Casey. Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States. New York: New York UP, 2006. Print. 

Makem, Tommy. “Four Green Fields.” Rec. 1967. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. 1967. Web. 

Mullen, Larry. “Larry Interview.” Interview by Lucy White. U2 Interviews. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2013. <;. 

“Oro Se Do Bheatha Bhaile-Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem 3/11.” YouTube. N.p., 30 Mar. 2008. Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <;. 

“Óró ‘Sé Do Bheatha ‘bhaile- The Irish Tenors.” YouTube. N.p., 15 Mar. 2009. Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <;. 

Rattle and Hum. Dir. Phil Joanou. Perf. U2. 1988. Online. 

“The Rising of the Moon: At the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.” The Rising of the Moon: At the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2013. 

Rolston, B. “‘This Is Not a Rebel Song’: The Irish Conflict and Popular Music.” Race & Class 42.3 (2001): 49-67. Print. 

Shields, Hugh. Narrative Singing in Ireland: Lays, Ballads, Come-all-yes, and Other Songs. Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Irish Academic, 1993. Print. 

“Sinead O’Connor – Oro Se Do Bheatha Bhaile.” YouTube. N.p., 05 July 2011. Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <;. 

Sinead O’Connor. “This IS a Rebel Song.” Rec. 1997. This IS a Rebel Song. John Reynolds, 1997. Web. 

Zimmermann, Georges Denis. Songs of Irish Rebellion ; Political Street Ballads and Rebel Songs, 1780-1900. Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates, 1967. Print. 


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s