Born on a Dublin street

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2020), Volume 28

Dominic Behan’s ‘Come Out Ye Black and Tans’.

By Michael Halpenny

Above: Dominic Behan—the song is often credited to his father, Stephen.

It’s not every historical debate that comes with its own ready-made soundtrack. This one came with the defiant beat of Dominic Behan’s ‘Come Out Ye Black and Tans’, the origin of which is often credited to his father, Stephen. Composed in the 1960s, the song came to prominence in 1972, when it featured on two LPs—Paddy Reilly at home and the Wolfe Tones’ Let the people sing. It is the latter version that is better known, and in the immediate aftermath of what some might call ‘RICgate’ it topped the iTunes chart, not only in Ireland but also in Scotland and England.’

The song, however, has a broader, even international appeal. It is said to be a ringtone of choice for Glasgow Celtic supporters, has an Italian version—‘Venite Fuori, Black and Tans’—and in October last year was played over the tannoy to Manchester United fans at Partizan Belgrade’s home ground, according to Belfast’s Irish News. There are, of course, other songs about the Black and Tans and their activities.

Terry Moylan’s The indignant muse (Lilliput Press, 2016) lists a number: ‘The Bold Black and Tan’ (air: ‘Brian O’Lynn’), ‘Black and Tan (air: ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’) and even one which, on the face of it, appears to be sympathetic to the Tans—‘In the Hush of the Night’. Elsewhere, compositions make reference to military engagements—‘The Boys of Kilmichael’ (‘Tans’)—or remember those who took part in such battles—Sigerson Clifford’s ‘The Boys of Barr na Sraide’ (‘But the men who dared the Auxies and beat the Black and Tan …’). Breandan Ó hEithir took it further still with his lampoon of historical revisionism—‘The Gentle Black and Tan’ (air: ‘Tipperary So Far Away’).

Few have the visceral quality or tempo of Behan’s song. And yet, despite its pugnacious invitation to ‘Come out and fight me like a man!’, it is more than just a musical rant about a body whose activities are still very much in the collective memory. Nor is it clear whether the reference is to an actual Black and Tan veteran. In a recent Irish Times article Professor Diarmaid Ferriter writes that, based on an analysis of the details of 2,300 members of the force undertaken by historian William Lowe, 14% were recruited in Dublin. Most likely the reference to the Tans is a generic one, reflecting Dan Breen’s view that ‘the words “Black and Tan” have become a symbol of terrorism’.

The tune has its origin in an old Irish Jacobite battle song, ‘Rosc Catha na Mumhan’ (‘Battlecry of Munster’) by Piaras Mac Gearailt (1702–95). Ironically, it is also shared by two Orange or loyalist songs, ‘The Boyne Water’ and ‘The Loyal Orange Heroes of Comber’. It is not unusual for the same tune to travel between different and even competing causes, or to be borrowed or shared to suit a particular occasion. However, it is the muscularity of the air that lends a perfect fit to the opening line of Behan’s song: ‘I was born in a Dublin street where the loyal drums did beat’.

If the song is autobiographical in inspiration, then the street in question is Russell Street on Dublin’s north side, a puck of a sliotar from Croke Park. Dominic Behan, composer of ‘The Patriot Game’, ‘Liverpool Lou’, ‘Off to Dublin in the Green’ and ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers’, was born there in 1928 to Stephen and Kathleen Behan, a sibling to his famous brother, Brendan, and a nephew on his mother’s side to the composer of ‘The Soldier’s Song’, Peadar Ó Cearnaigh. While Stephen Behan was a republican and Kathleen, according to Dominic’s 1961 Dublin memoir Teems of times and happy returns, a ‘practising Catholic Larkinite’, it’s reasonable to surmise that not all of their neighbours shared their views. Working-class Catholics and Protestants in Dublin’s inner-city tenements provided abundant recruits to the British army during the First World War and received their fair share of the dreaded telegrams informing them of the death in service of their loved ones at Gallipoli and the Western Front. They not only inhabit the historical record but are also represented in literature by characters such as Bessie Burgess in Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. In Teems of times and happy returns Behan writes about one Russell Street British army widow.

Above: Several Black and Tans and Auxies standing outside the London and North Western Hotel, North Wall, Dublin. Written on the mount underneath the print: ‘Tans glad to have escaped the bombs thrown at their headquarters in Dublin’. (NLI)

Nevertheless, people also changed allegiances, dramatically so after the execution of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, while at a more muted level the rising death-toll on the Western Front eroded faith in the invincibility of the Empire. Peadar Ó Cearnaigh’s ‘Down by the Liffeyside’ (also the title of Behan’s own 1959 album and of Ó Cearnaigh’s grandson Colbert Kearney’s 2019 memoir) records the singer’s delight as his beloved switches her colours from the Union Jack to the Tricolour:

‘But when she turned Sinn Féiner I nearly burst with pride,

To hear her sing the Soldier’s Song down by the Liffeyside’.

Behan’s ballad also marks significant political and physical-force milestones on the march to Irish self-determination. Thus the second verse deals with the treatment of Charles Stewart Parnell, while another references the Manchester Martyrs (Allen, Larkin and O’Brien), Robert Emmet, Henry Joy and the Wexford rebels of 1798.

Perhaps the most powerful message of the song is a broader anti-colonial one, written at a time when post-Second World War Britain had been militarily engaged in upholding the fag-end of its empire in places such as Malaya, Cyprus and Aden, where people were struggling for independence.

‘Come tell us how you slew

Them old Arabs two by two;

Like the Zulus they had spears and bows and arrows;

How you bravely faced each one

With your sixteen-pounder gun

And you frightened them poor natives to their marrow.’

Indeed, even as the IRA were fighting Crown forces in Ireland in 1920, the Royal Air Force was carrying out bombing raids to suppress a popular anti-colonial revolt in Iraq in the summer of that year.

Finally, the composer closes the circle, and the song, in paying homage to his father and the Dublin street on which he was born, by referencing ‘Stephen Behan’s chorus’ as an anti-imperialist rallying cry. In his chapter on rebel songs in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution, Fintan Vallely notes that, while political balladry tends to be very much of its own time and most ballads do not last, ‘some do persist, kept alive among singers on account of artistic merit, political favour or their adaptation to new, related issues’. Thus one such adaptation, whose provenance is not clear, replaces Behan’s final verse, updating the song to cover the events of Bloody Sunday in Derry in January 1972:

‘Oh, come out ye English Huns,

Come out and fight without yer guns,

Show yer wife how you won medals up in Derry;

Ye murdered free young men,

And you’ll do the same again,

So get out and take yer bloody army with ye.’

The collective memory of the Black and Tans endures, and if there is any message from the recent controversy it is surely one from the late singer and collector Frank Harte, quoted in the introduction to Terry Moylan’s Indignant muse: ‘If you want to know the facts, read the histories; if you want to know how it felt, read the songs’.

Michael Halpenny’s biography of Dominic Behan will be published later in the year by Umiskin Press.


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