TV Eye

Published in Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), Reviews, Volume 17, World War I

A 1916 Proclamation pasted over a British Army recruiting poster —a striking visual metaphor for the lack of recognition—until recently—accorded to nationalist Ireland’s role in the Great War.

A 1916 Proclamation pasted over a British Army recruiting poster —a striking visual metaphor for the lack of recognition—until recently—accorded to nationalist Ireland’s role in the Great War.

And the Red Poppies Dance
RTÉ1
11 November 2008
by John Gibney

According to the late Frank Harte, the winners write the history and the losers write the songs. In the vexing case of Ireland’s relationship with the First World War this has a particular resonance. The broadly republican ethos of independent Ireland, rooted as it was in the securing of that independence from Britain through revolutionary violence, had little room for the hundreds of thousands of Irishmen who had served in the British Army during the Great War, for they had done so in the same army that the IRA later fought. Arguably, and largely because of this awkward reality, the eventual ‘winners’ (if such a term is appropriate) wrote the First World War out of Irish history (or at least out of the official history of independent Ireland: for Protestants in Northern Ireland it was a very different matter). In recent years a more generous attitude has begun to prevail, as the significance of the war in Irish terms, and consequently Ireland’s role in it, has met with both popular and academic recognition. The most recent book on Ireland and the First World War and the accompanying series of Thomas Davis lectures on RTÉ Radio 1 (reviewed pp 46–7) carried the provocative title Our War. The absence of a question mark suggests an act of appropriation, but it is probably better to think of the First World War as simply one of our wars. There are others; for example, the numerous wars of British imperialism in which the Irish willingly participated, not to mention the Anglo-Irish War of 1919–21 that secured a form of independence and inadvertently damned the veterans of the trenches to a mistrusted obscurity. Yet if they were losers in this regard, they still retained the songs. The Irish military tradition at home and abroad had, over time, produced a cultural tradition of striking vitality: ballads, music and songs. Perhaps taking a cue from the British canon, one of the relatively few well-known examples of Irish participation in the war lies in the occasional attention accorded to the work of Irish poets such as Tom Kettle and Francis Ledwidge, both of whom were killed in it. But there is another corpus of verse that is arguably of far greater relevance: the songs and ballads adopted, written and sung by the Irish Tommies themselves.

One of the ‘plucky four’—the stereotype of the martial prowess of the ‘fighting Irish’ was used to induce volunteers to enlist.

One of the ‘plucky four’—the stereotype of the martial prowess of the ‘fighting Irish’ was used to induce volunteers to enlist.

And the Red Poppies Dance was an impressive and elegant documentary that approached the topic of Ireland’s involvement in the war through the songs that were both appropriated and generated by the war—in other words, through the often-neglected lens of a crucial aspect of Edwardian popular culture. Changes in available technology had ensured that by the early twentieth century music was being easily reproduced in commercially available formats, and was thus more readily available to the generation on the cusp of 1914. Equally, there was an established tradition of Irish martial songs, such as ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ (written for a bet before being adopted by the Connaught Rangers and popularised by John McCormack) and ‘Faugh a Ballagh’ (adopted by the predominantly Irish ‘Fightin’ 69th’ in the American Civil War before becoming a specifically Dublin anthem in the trenches). At the same time, songs were forged in the heat of the moment. The Protestant loyalists of the Ulster Division, for example, did a neat line in reworking hymns, such as a version of ‘Abide with me’ that bemoaned the lack of beer for the troops. But as the true nature of the war gradually became apparent, songs came to reflect the shifting, sombre emotions that this engendered; they also sought to provide an escape, and to instil some semblance of hope and fortitude amidst the horrors (‘Pack up your troubles’).
An impressive array of talking (and singing) heads were on display to guide viewers through the subject at hand: Paddy Harte, Keith Jeffrey, Kevin Myers, Liam Clancy, Jimmy Crowley and Mick Moloney. The documentary was superbly illustrated with an array of contemporary footage, music and artefacts—not least the remarkable recruiting posters that, given the sensitivities of the Irish context in which they were deployed, went to considerable lengths not to mention the British Army. Themes such as the threat to civilisation and homesteads, or the stereotype of the martial prowess of the ‘fighting Irish’, were used to induce volunteers to enlist. Other factors also came into play: the strong tradition of Irish enlistment in the British Army; the assumption by both Nationalists and Unionists that loyal service would be rewarded by either the granting or withholding of Home Rule; and the simple necessity of a job. Such recruitment proved to be of particular relevance in Dublin, where much of the hostility directed at the defeated insurgents of the Easter Rising came from the families of Dubliners who had enlisted and who now perceived their loved ones as having been betrayed by rebels who were understandably seen as far less courageous. O’Connell Street, after all, could never compare to the Somme. But the ambiguities and tensions that emerged in Irish life after 1916 were reflected in the differing politics of songs such as ‘Salonika’ (with its contemptuous depiction of Sinn Féiners who stayed at home) and ‘The Foggy Dew’ (with its rueful bemoaning of the fact that so many Irishmen were fighting for the British overseas rather than against them at home).

Recruiting posters went to considerable lengths not to mention the British Army, stressing instead themes such as the threat to civilisation and/or homesteads, as here. (NLI)

Recruiting posters went to considerable lengths not to mention the British Army, stressing instead themes such as the threat to civilisation and/or homesteads, as here. (NLI)

It is extraordinary that, with regard to the recollection of the First World War, a genuinely popular medium such as contemporary songs and music might be accorded less significance than pedestrian fiction such as Sebastian Barry’s recent A long long way. In unearthing these songs about the war, this impressive and undeniably powerful documentary served to illustrate the complexity and vitality of a sadly forgotten song culture that is often reduced to ‘rebel songs’ and little else. If there is a quibble, it is that only segments of the songs were played rather than fuller versions. It would be a worthwhile venture should some enterprising soul adopt the mantle of Frank Harte and record or compile a selection of songs from this usually neglected facet of modern Irish history. Judging by this documentary, such an album would be well worth a listen. HI

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