The Normans, perhaps? Strongbow was a Norman lord from Wales who started the Norman conquest of Ireland, around 1170. Though some of them ‘went native’ and were absorbed into Gaelic (Irish) culture, that was maybe the start of the disparagement and racism against the Irish in our own land.
The Tudor Conquest began with Henry VIII in 1536, and he’d declared himself King of Ireland by 1541. That continued through Elizabeth, and James I, and ended (officially) with the ‘Flight of the Earls‘ in 1607.
We were firmly under the English boot by then. Through the 1500s and 1600s CE we’d been subjected to the Plantations, where ownership of our land was forcibly stripped by the English crown, and re-settled with citizens from England. This officially ended in the 1650s with thousands of Parliamentarian soldiers settled in Ireland under the direction of Oliver Cromwell. Ulster was a hotspot for plantation settlement, and this created large strongholds of communities with British and Protestant identity.
English settlers in Ireland did not think highly of our native Gaelic, and by that time firmly Catholic, culture…
How godly a deed it is to overthrow so wicked a race the world may judge: for my part I think there cannot be a greater sacrifice to God.
– Edward Barkley, describing how the forces of the Earl of Essex slaughtered the entire population of Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim, 1575
All wisdom advises us to keep this [Irish] kingdom as much subordinate and dependent on England as possible; and, holding them from manufacture of wool (which unless otherwise directed, I shall by all means discourage), and then enforcing them to fetch their cloth from England, how can they depart from us without nakedness and beggary?
– Lord Stafford, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in a letter to King Charles I, 1634
They took our natural resources, the strength of our labour, and grew rich off the skin of our backs, ate well and drank merry while our people drowned in blood, sweat, and tears. They fed us slave food – this, the Irish potato, and when it failed us they refused to allow us to eat of anything else fed from our own lands, grown from our own rich soil.
You’ve all heard of “the Famine” I’m sure, but first the Irish Famine of 1740 killed at least 38% of our 2.4 million population; proportionally, a greater loss than during the worst years of the Great Famine of 1845–1852. In that time, we lost more than a million people to starvation, and a million more to forced emigration, and they said it was our fault.
…being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure had been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and as unthought of as it is likely to be effectual.
The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.
– Charles Trevelyan, head of administration for famine relief, 1840s
[existing policies] will not kill more than one million Irish in 1848 and that will scarcely be enough to do much good.
– Queen Victoria’s economist, Nassau Senior
The United Irishmen (and women) Rebellion in 1798 was perhaps the beginning of the first organised attempts to overthrow the oppressors in hundreds of years, and it officially started in Belfast in 1791 (read my post about Vinegar Hill). A counter campaign of martial law used tactics such as house burnings, torture of captives, pitch-capping and murder, particularly in Ulster where large numbers of Catholics and Protestants had joined in common cause. That just couldn’t stand.
The Act of Union in 1801 was a betrayal, and highlighted a particularly Catholic vs Protestant struggle for Catholic emancipation, and following from that the The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB; in Irish: Bráithreachas Phoblacht na hÉireann) began in 1858 – it was a secret oath-bound fraternal organisation dedicated to the establishment of an “independent democratic republic” in Ireland.
And then, my dear Readers, our Troubles became focused in ‘the North’.
Tensions were rising and we seemed on the brink of civil war from 1912, with opposition to ‘Home Rule‘ from Ulster Unionists, who formed the ‘Ulster Volunteers’, which led to Irish Nationalists forming the ‘Irish Volunteers’. World War 1 averted some of the crisis, but it didn’t go away anywhere.
Of course the famed Easter Rising didn’t happen in a vacuum, and we’ve just celebrated the 100 year anniversary of that these last few months, so we’re very much into recent history now after a run down of what… nearly 750 years of English rule? The history of that is well know, I guess, though the depth and breadth of it is often glossed over and washed green instead of red, swathed in beer and rebel ballads.
The Partition of Ireland was the division of the island of Ireland which created two distinct political territories – Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, as it was called at the time, on the 3rd of May in 1921, under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Today we still call the 6 counties ‘Northern Ireland’, and it is a self governing part of the larger ‘United Kingdom’, with Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and England. The rest of the island is a sovereign state, the Republic of Ireland, or just called Ireland.
To refer to us now as ‘Southern Ireland’ is offensive. To say we are part of “Great Britain” will get you verbally slapped at least, and even though technically and geographically our island can be classed as part of the ‘British Isles’, if you’ve read this far you may now have an inkling of why it might rankle and burn to be proprietorially inferred as owned by Britain in such a way.
I’ve brought you this far, through 800 years of systematic oppression and genocide, shown you the seeds that were planted on our island that were cultivated and grew to be ‘the North’.
I didn’t grow up there. I’m reluctant to talk about the horrors that direct immersion in ‘the Troubles’ has brought for the people who did.
My great grandparents, my grandparents and their siblings were directly involved, and maybe even my parents or their siblings, I don’t know. We don’t talk about the more recent loyalties and actions in the same way as we tell stories which are a generation or two removed. I can tell you the stories I’ve heard of the Black and Tans that make me want to scream when I see a product named this way in ignorance, my awareness and fears through the long years of Bombings in the North, and the Republic, and in the heart of England too – and if you ever order an ‘Irish Car Bomb’ drink in my presence you will not be in my presence for much longer, of that you can be sure.
I can share memories of crossing into the North, across the border, maybe once or twice… and the soldiers aiming guns at us frightened kids in the back of the car, their harsh questions and suspicious peering, poking, prodding with the tip of a machine gun.
I can tell you of the confusion and anger I felt when I first learned of the Hunger Strikes, at the age of 4 or 5 years old, and later on when I understood the dirty protests, and the stark reality of a person starving themselves to death for what they believed. Of how the energy of hunger has seeped so thoroughly into this land that it seems forever stained with the raw, gnawing, hollowed out fear and pain of starvation, and how teenage me was tormented by that before I even knew what it was, or how to manage it and protect myself from the ravenous pockets of it that are a part of our landscape. And maybe even begin to heal some of that, in time.
And I can tell you of the sweet, cautious, dawning of hope with the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, two weeks before my 20th birthday. That unsteady peace has grown, and things have stabilised in the North for the first time any of us can remember.
Nearly one year ago now (24th June 2016), we woke to the news that Britain had voted to exit the EU – Brexit – and still nobody knows what that means for Northern Ireland. I’m not going to speculate on that… but about the only good I saw from the last year’s news and social media chatter is the idea that both Unionists and Nationalists in the North may be agreed that leaving the United Kingdom is the way forward for Northern Ireland.
Borders have always been a problem for us, as you can perhaps imagine.
Note: Throughout the article are clickable direct links to further resources… which I’ve kept to general Wikipedia articles to aim for as much source neutrality as possible. Please do educate yourself further, as this article is only scratching the surface.
Ah, the Celtic tribes – they painted themselves blue with woad and ran naked into battle. Right?
Got high as a kite to scare the bejaysus out of their enemy and improve their ferocity because, as we all know, woad is a powerful hallucinogen. Right?
We’ve all seen Braveheart, and that King Arthur film on the telly box – they even called the people ‘Woads’ in that, didn’t they? Sure, then it must be true…
Though seemingly well attested in eye witness accounts, scholars question the veracity of this belief, but that doesn’t seem to filter into the body art or Celtic re-enactment communities with any great speed.
Personally, I believe that ancient tribes of Ireland and the British Isles, such as the Picts and more southern Britons, did utilise methods of tattooing and body decoration as part of their battle, spiritual, and even everyday rituals.
Herodian, in the First Century CE (Common Era), said of the tribes –
“they puncture their bodies with pictured forms of every sort of animals. And this is the reason why they wear no clothes, to avoid covering the drawings on their bodies.”
I am inclined though, to at least challenge the ‘fact’ that they used woad to dye themselves blue.
The most often quoted source for this prevalent belief is the Roman emperor Caesar’s recorded description of the Brittani, a Celtic tribe. It has been commonly translated as:
“All the Britons dye their skin with woad, which produces a blueish colour and makes them appear horrifying in battle”.(1)
The original Latin, however, says: “Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem”. The “vitro inficiunt” could translate classically as ‘stain/dye with glazes’, or ‘infected themselves with glass’.(2)
The blue colour he describes could have been caused by body paint rather than tattoos, or it is possible the tribe used scarification techniques or glass ‘needles’ to tattoo themselves. But probably not with woad. Why not?
Although it makes a wonderful indigo coloured dye for materials, a safe, biodegradable natural ink, and is also showing usefulness as a wood preservative; it’s pretty crap as a body paint, or a tattoo ink.
It’s extremely caustic – when used as tattoo ink it literally burns itself to the surface, and though it heals fast, it leaves an excessive amount of scar tissue. Alas, none of it blue.
A tattooist, Pat Fish, is often quoted as saying she believes that Celts used copper as a blue colour and firewood ash or lampblack for a black.(3)
Traces of copper based pigments were found on an ancient body, excavated from a bog in Cheshire, UK. This would seem to indicate the presence of copper tattoos of some sort, which would have been coloured blue. Of course, we now know that copper is highly toxic, and would not use it on or in our bodies.
From my own experiences with powdered woad, using it as a body paint, I’ve had to mix it with something (I’ve tried hair gel, commercial body glitter gel, and even PVA glue!) to try and get it to stay on at all. Even then it streaks all over the place or just dries up and flakes off. Not entirely reminiscent of a battle hardened warrior.
It also doesn’t seem to particularly stain the skin. Perhaps it would stain in certain areas, such as the finger tips or elbows, through prolonged contact. But so would pretty much anything.
And besides, blue smudged cuticles and tinted elbows aren’t going to particularly impress anybody in battle, even if you take the time to assure them that it’s genuine Celtic woad.
And to the other common belief, that of high Celts running round?
Woad is not a strong hallucinogen. A mild psychotropic, at best. Reports of woad induced ancient battle/modern festival madness must have, to my mind, been greatly exaggerated. Pagan types, collect your people?
All in all, the only practical possibility is that woad was used on the battle field as a possible wound cauterising agent, on account of its astringent properties.
It’s a nice thought for those of us who are proud of our ‘Celtic’ heritage – and I use the term in the academic sense, please understand that – being able to use the same materials or techniques as our ancestors, to look the same or perhaps even produce the same effects.
I can see why it can be difficult to give up on. Even if the actual evidence or effect achieved is disappointing at best, and at worst, somewhat risky in the hands of the inexperienced.
A possible alternative to woad or copper, which would also have been available at the time, is iron.
Julius Caesar, while commenting on early Celtic tribes, said that they had “designs carved into their faces by iron”.(4) Iron could possibly be used to produce a blue coloured ink or dye, if handled by an expert.
Don’t try this at home, girls and boys! However, with the sheer beauty of the Celtic art and wonderful tattoo artists that are available now, I’d be encouraging the use of these to connect with or emulate the warriors of old, rather than the crude inks they employed.
After all, the Celtic people were nothing if not highly adaptable. If they had the kind of high quality ink that we have available to us now, I seriously doubt that copper filings, or woad, would even get a look in.
(1) – Philip Freeman, “War, Women, and Druids”, University of Texas Press, U.S.A. ISBN: 0-292-72545-0
(2) – Encyclopedia, Columbia University press (online): http://www.answers.com/topic/picts
(3) – e.g. In her article for ‘An Scathán’, entitled “Celtic Tattooing: Primitive art form emerges in America”, available online at: http://www.underbridge.com/scathan/archive/1995/11_november/11.11.tattoo.html
(4) – Julius Caesar, “Commentarii de Bello Gallico”, circa 55 BCE (Before Common Era)
First North American Publication, Tattoo Revue Magazine.
First Canadian Publication, Celtic Heritage Magazine
There’s lots of stories with Táin in the title, but this article relates specifically to the best known of them – the Táin Bó Cuailnge, or ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’.
Early Irish manuscripts are the oldest remaining extant literary source material in Europe, opening a fascinating window to the Medieval society in which they were written down, and the older tales and oral traditions which they record for us to enjoy today.
The Táin Bó Cuailnge, the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’, (often just called “the Táin” – pronounced TAWn – though there are actually a number of different Táin stories as we said) lies at the heart of Ireland’s epic storytelling legacy.
This is a great battle saga tale set around the 1st Century CE, in the middle of the Iron Age – told and re-told through the ages. The story survives in a couple of different versions, called ‘recensions’; there are 3 of these remaining to us today.
The Book of Leinster scribe may have thought the tale worth re-telling, or perhaps he was reluctant and had been ordered to just get on with it, as there are elements of the Táin that didn’t sit well with him at all. His note in the margins, written in formal Latin script, tells its own tale:
But I who have written this story, or rather this fable, give no credence to the various incidents related in it. For some things in it are the deceptions of demons, other poetic figments; some are probable, others improbable; while still others are intended for the delectation of foolish men.
For those of us who want to have a look through the text today, we don’t have to go digging through the library archives of ancient manuscripts (thankfully, those things are dusty as all hell). There’s many options available to us both (free) online, and in tree book format if you like the paper stuff.
This is the most accurate translation of the epic Irish tale, the Táin Bó Cuailnge, and includes the major remscéla or pre-tales which go a long way towards putting some of the madder stuff into a bit of context.
There’s still a lot of mad stuff in there, but sure it’s all good.
Starting at Rathcroghan, in County Roscommon, the story wends its way across the country to Cooley in County Louth. Featuring CúChulainn, Lugh, the Morrigan, Ferdia, Conor MacNessa, Fergus Mac Roich, and the notorious warrior Queen of Connacht, Medb (Maeve) – you won’t be short of an interesting character to keep track of.
I really like the artwork included in this version, by Louis le Brocquy; it captures well the tenuous nature of the meanings and symbolism that are woven into the fabric of this teaching tale.
This is Brian Boru’s Fort, Ballyvally, Co. Clare, in the South West of Ireland. The Record of Monuments and Places (RMP) number is CL045-031. For your Sat Nav, the GPS co-ordinates are approximately 52.819486, -8.451598, and it’s in Irish State ownership, so you don’t have to get permission to walk the site.
Brian Boru (Old Irish: Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig; Middle Irish: Brian Bóruma; modern Irish: Brian Bóramha; c. 941 – 23rd April 1014) was an Irish king who ended the domination of the Kingship of Ireland by the Uí Néill. He is the O’Brien ancestral progenitor.
Brian belonged to the Dál gCais (or Dalcassians), a newly styled kin group of ultimately Déisi origin who occupied a territory north of the Shannon Estuary, which today would incorporate a substantial part of County Clare and then formed the core of the new kingdom of Thomond.
To visit his home today, you can fly straight into Shannon Airport and be here within the hour, and I highly recommend booking into Glocca Morra B&B, just down the road in Ogonnelloe. There’s an excellent atmosphere, with consistent top reviews for the host there, Mike, who just can’t do enough for you when you stay, and with the views over Lough Derg, fresh coffee and scones on arrival, and healthy countryside walks, you won’t want to be leaving. It’s worth a trip into Scarriff though, to visit the gorgeous little health food and gift shop, the Grainey, and the Irish Seedsavers Project.
From Killaloe, you’re taking the R463 for Scarriff, and driving to approximately to the co-ordinates 52.818708, -8.456329. Park safely (unfortunately, the only available parking is by the side of the road), and you’ll see a shaded woody laneway in to the right, with an information panel on the entranceway, and a sign pointing to ‘Brian Boru’s Fort’. Follow that lane to the end, and you will see the monument off to your left.
See my YouTube videos of our family visit:
‘We need not claim that in quantity and quality of achievement he was great as a writer; but we surely can say that he did write well, that he did help others to write greatly – that he did help Irish letters, in all its branches, to be native, continuous, rooted, branching and fruitful.’
Robert Farren, ‘Douglas Hyde the Writer’, in Irish Press (14 July 1949) [obituary notice on the day following his death]
A boy, transplanted to Roscommon soil – in an alien garden; he not only put down firm roots, but proceeded to flourish and bloom like no other before him, to cross pollinate thoughts and ideas that would wake and revive the native life, all the while respecting, caring for and nurturing the fields and gardens which surrounded him – Douglas Hyde.
Born by accident in County Roscommon, on 17th January 1860; while his mother, Elizabeth, was on a short visit to Longford House, in Castlerea. Raised in his father’s Church of Ireland rectory in County Sligo, Hyde didn’t return to Roscommon until he was 7 years old. His father, Arthur, was appointed Rector and Prebendary (a type of Canon) of Tibohine, and the family moved to the village of Frenchpark in 1867.
There were 4 brothers, but the youngest, Douglas, was educated at home due to illness, by his father and his aunt. At the time, Irish people were still suffering the after effects of the extreme poverty and denigration of the Big Famine. An Gorta Mór, ‘the Great Hunger’, took about a million people in death, and approximately another million in emigration. That was about 25% of our population. And the anger that remained! The loss and grief were terrible, but the anger and frustration felt by the Irish people equaled, and even surpassed it – to know that there was plenty of food all along, grown on our land, with our labour, and leaving our country to grace the tables of Landlords and their class, while our children starved to death.
The Irish ‘peasantry’ were suffering and struggling still by the time Hyde was born, to a county that was among the worst affected. His family were well off, of a higher class, and it would have been unseemly for their child to mingle with the peasantry.
But mingle he did. In particular, he was fascinated by listening to the older people in the community speaking the Roscommon Gaeilge dialect. He became friends with an old Gilly on his father’s estate, a gamekeeper by the name of Seamus Hart. The job title ‘Gilly’, by the way, comes from the old Irish term Giolla, meaning servant or slave. The Irish language was deemed coarse, backward, savage – old-fashioned, at best. It had been made shameful to speak it, to teach it to your children. Parents were convinced that their children would never, ever, get anywhere, progress at all in life unless they could speak with a proper English tongue. But to the young Douglas Hyde, the language was lyrical, eternally pleasant to listen to, witty and wise and unendingly beautiful. He fell in love with the Irish language, and began to study it of his own accord.
The boy would roam the estates, and the countryside, listening to the stories, exploring the ancient places, talking to the older people in their own tongue. Learning. He loved the legends of Rathcroghan, home of Queen Meadbh (Maeve) and Gaelic royalty for over 2000 years. He carved his name in Uaimh na gCait, the Cave of the Cats – fabled entrance to the Irish Otherworld. He was devastated when Seamus Hart died, 7 years later, when Hyde was just 14. He flagged a bit, stopping his studies of the language and the culture, but his interest and passion began to rally when over the course of a few visits to Dublin he discovered there were others like him; groups of people who wanted to preserve and speak the Irish language, to whom it was just as important and wonderful as he found it to be.
Hyde rejected family pressure to follow their traditional career in the Church, and instead went to Trinity College, Dublin, where his flair for languages continued into fluency in French, German, Latin, Hebrew and Greek.
At the age of 20 (1880), he joined the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, and published over a hundred pieces of Irish language poetry under his pen name An Craoibhín Aoibhinn, ‘the Pleasant Little Branch’. The Irish Language movement was viewed as eccentric at first, the province of bored academics looking for novel ways to spend their time.
But it gained respect, and a huge following, steadily in the years to follow. Hyde was a huge influence on this, helping to establish the Gaelic Journal in 1892, and speaking publicly on topics such as “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland”, where he said:
But the Irish language is worth knowing, or why would the greatest philologists of Germany, France, and Italy be emulously studying it, and it does possess a literature, or why would a German savant have made the calculation that the books written in Irish between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, and still extant, would fill a thousand octavo volumes…
We must arouse some spark of patriotic inspiration among the peasantry who still use the language, and put an end to the shameful state of feeling — a thousand-tongued reproach to our leaders and statesmen — which makes young men and women blush and hang their heads when overheard speaking their own language…
To a person taking a bird’s eye view of the situation a hundred or five hundred years hence, believe me, it will also appear of greater importance than any mere temporary wrangle, but, unhappily, our countrymen cannot be brought to see this…
We must teach ourselves to be less sensitive, we must teach ourselves not to be ashamed of ourselves, because the Gaelic people can never produce its best before the world as long as it remains tied to the apron-strings of another race and another island, waiting for it to move before it will venture to take any step itself…
I appeal to everyone whatever his politics — for this is no political matter — to do his best to help the Irish race to develop in future upon Irish lines, even at the risk of encouraging national aspirations, because upon Irish lines alone can the Irish race once more become what it was of yore — one of the most original, artistic, literary, and charming peoples of Europe.
The following year, the same in which he married a German lady by the name of Lucy Cometina Kurtz (1893), Douglas Hyde helped found the ‘Gaelic League’, Conradh na Gaedhilge, to preserve and promote Irish culture and language. Contrary to other organisations of the time, Conradh na Gaedhilge accepted women as full members right from the start, and did not assign them to subordinate roles. Many notable women, such as Lady Esmonde, Lady Gregory, and Mary Spring Rice, played an active part in establishment of the League, and in leadership roles in their local communities. At the 1906 annual convention, out of 45 executive roles, 7 were filled by women. Hyde resigned in 1915, when the League formally committed to the Nationalist political movement, as he felt that the culture and importance of our language should be above politics. His influence though, was huge, as many of the prominent Irish leaders (such as Earnest Blythe, Pádraig Pearse, Éamon De Valera, and Michael Collins) first became educated and passionate about Irish independence through their involvement with Conradh na Gaedhilge.
It seems he tried his best to stay out of politics, and returned to the life of academia. He did get sucked in briefly, accepting a nomination to Seanad Eireann, the Irish Senate, after the creation of the new Irish state. But things got messy in 1925, and a Catholic smear campaign caused the loss of his electoral seat, so he settled in to be Professor of Irish at UCD (University College Dublin), instead. In 1938 though, then Taoiseach (Irish political leader) Éamon de Valera, re-appointed him to the Seanad. From here he was nominated and elected uncontested to the position of An tÚachataráin, first President of the Irish Republic, on 26th June 1938. Although the President could choose either English or Irish in which to recite the Presidential Declaration of Office, Hyde set the precedent by (unsurprisingly) declaring in his chosen native tongue. His speech, the first ever recitation of the Irish Republic’s President, is one of the few remaining recordings of the now lost Roscommon dialect in which he was fluent.
He was a very popular president, cultivating friendship with many world leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and the English King George V, but due to ill health decided not to run for a second term, leaving office on 25th June 1945. He never returned to Roscommon, his wife having died early in his presidential term, but moved to a residence in the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin, the President’s Residence in the Phoenix Park, Dublin; where he died quietly on 12th July 1949, at the age of 89. Douglas Hyde is buried with his family at Portahard Church, which is now the Douglas Hyde Museum, beside the Main N5 road between Tulsk and Frenchpark, in County Roscommon.
The Irish Poet and Writer W.B. Yeats had this to say on Douglas Hyde:
‘He had much frequented the company of old countrymen, and had so acquired the Irish language, and his taste for snuff, and for moderate quantities of a detestable species of illegal whiskey distilled from the potato by certain of his neighbours’…
‘the cajoler of crowds, and of individual men and women … and for certain years young Irish women were to display his pseudonym Craoibhin Aoibhin in gilt letters upon their hat-bands’.
‘The man most important for the future was certainly Dr Douglas Hyde. I had found a publisher while still in London for his Beside the Fire and his Love Songs of Connacht and it was the first literary use of the English dialect of the Connacht country people that had aroused my imagination for those books. His faculty was by nature narrative and lyrical, and at our committees […] he gave me an impression of timidity or confusion. His perpetual association with peasants, whose songs and stories he took down in their cottages from early childhood when he learned Irish from an old man on a kitchen floor, had given him. Though a strong man, that cunning that is the strength of the weak. He was always diplomatising, evading as far as he could prominent positions and the familiarity of his fellows that he might escape jealousy and detraction. […] He never spoke his real thought […] for his mind moved among pictures, itself indeed a premise but never an argument. In later years the necessities of Gaelic politics destroyed his sense of style and undermined his instinct for himself. He ceased to write in that delicate, emotional dialect of the people, and wrote and spoke, when he spoke in public, from coarse reasoning’.
He said Hyde ‘wrote out of imitative sympathy’; he was to create a popular movement (the Gaelic League) but Yeats nonetheless mourned for ‘the greatest folklorist who ever lived’… ‘his style is perfect – so sincere and simple – so little literary’.
National Anthems come about, not because of the suitability of the particular words or notes, but because they are adopted generally by the nation. That is exactly how the “Soldiers’ Song” became a National Anthem in this country. It happened to be the Anthem on the lips of the people when they came into their own and when the outsiders evacuated the country and left the insiders here to make the best or the worst of the country. It was adopted by the people here before ever it was adopted by the Executive Council.
Did you know there are 3 whole other verses to ‘Amhrán na bhFiann‘, which has been the national anthem of the Republic of Ireland since 1926 (officially)? What we generally hear is just the chorus – which is the only part of the song that’s the official Irish anthem, mind you – but many of my generation don’t even know the words to that much.
When I was growing up, you’d hear it on the telly when the stations were shutting down for the night. Yeah, they used to do that, genuine downtime – weird isn’t it? You’d hear it after the show in cinemas and theatres, and at the end of every disco or dance.
It was written in 1907 by Peadar Kearney and Patrick Heaney, called “A Soldier’s Song”, and first published by ‘Irish Freedom’ – a monthly publication by the Irish Republican Brotherhood – in 1912. The Irish Volunteers sang it on the march, in the internment camps, and the rebels sang it in the GPO during the Easter Rising.
Most of the versions you’ll see online will be just the chorus, but you can Click Here to Get the Full Vocals. If anybody wants to link to a more, shall we say, pleasant sounding or better quality version, please do in the comments below. Or y’all who can sing could sing it out for us, and upload or send it over to me. Ideal!
Most of us though, should learn the words as best we can. It’s not just a political formality – this is the song your ancestors sung for their freedom. The lyrics to the national anthem of Ireland are as follows, in Irish and English… but nobody sings it in English.
Seo dhibh a cháirde duan oglaidh
Caithréimeach, br’oghmhar, ceolmhar.
ár dteinte cnámh go buacach táid,
`S an spéir go min réaltógach.
Is fionmhar faobhrach sinn chun gleo
‘S go tiúnmhar glé roimh tigheacht do’n ló,
Fa ciúnas chaoimh na h-oidhche ar seol,
Seo libh, cana’dh amhrán na bhFiann.Curfa
Sinne Fianna Fáil atá fé gheall ag Éirinn
Buion dár slua thar toinn do ráinig chugainn
Fémhóid bheith saor. Seantír ár sinsir feasta
Ní fhagfar fé’n tiorán ná fé’n tráil
Anocht a théam sa bhearna bhaoil,
Le gean ar Ghaeil chun báis nó saoil
Le guna screach fé lámhach na bpiléar,
Seo libh, canaídh Amhrán na bhFiann.2.
Cois banta réidhe, ar árdaibh sléibhe.
Ba bhuadhach ár rinnsear romhainn,
Ag lámhach go tréan fá’n sár- bhrat séin
Tá thuas sa ghaoith go seolta;
Ba dhúthchas riamh d’ár gcine cháidh
Gan iompáil riar ó imirt áir,
‘Siubhal mar iad i gcoinnibh rámhaid
Seo libh, canaidh amhrán na bhFiann.Curfa
(seriously, NOBODY sings it in English)
We’ll sing a song, a soldier’s song
With cheering, rousing chorus
As round our blazing fires we throng,
The starry heavens o’er us;
Impatient for the coming fight,
And as we wait the mornings light
here in the silence of the night
We’ll chant a soldier’s song.Chorus
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 Ireland
Shall shelter the despot or the slave;
tonight we man the Bearna Baoghal
In Erin’s cause. Come woe or weal;
‘Mid cannon’s roar and rifle’s peal
We’ll chant a soldier’s song.2.
In valley green or towering crag
Our fathers fought before us,
And conquered ‘neath the same old flag
That’s floating o’er us,
We’re children of a fighting race
That never yet has known disgrace,
And as we march the foe to face,
We’ll chant a soldier’s song.Chorus
Chorus (repeat as if life depends on it)
In 1798, the United Irishmen Rebellion – between May and September – led to over 20,000 deaths, and some estimates would place the toll as high as 50,000. The Irish were still suffering under the Penal Laws, a system of rule which was called “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man”, and they’d simply had all they could take.
Vinegar Hill was the base camp for the Wexford Irish Rebels, an estimated troupe of about 20,000 men and women, and even some children who were there seeking shelter, God love them. The Irish were armed, for the most part, not with firearms or black powder, but with long wooden pikes – a spear between 10ft and 22ft long (up to about 6m), topped with a spearhead of iron or steel. On 21st June, 1798, about 15,000 British troops, well armed with musket and cannon, attacked the rebel camp in an attempt to crush the insurgency completely. The Rebel Irish were woken to an artillery bombardment just before dawn, and though they tried at least twice to charge the British lines and break through the encircling forces, they were driven back each time.
A detachment of about 5,000 British soldiers were, at the same time, trying to take the bridge across the River Slaney at Enniscorthy. Although the Irish were slowly driven out of their barricaded buildings in the town, they held the bridge. There are recorded tales of stalwart leadership and valorous women, as well as the ensuing horrific atrocities. Though the Irish had to abandon the hill, the town, and make a tactical withdrawal to re-group the rebellion to the West and North, the battle wasn’t quite the defeat to the Wexford rebels that is often depicted. You can get the full story and decide for yourself at the distinctively designed National 1798 Rebellion Centre, located just off the N11 and N30 roads. They are open all year round, and an adult ticket is just €5.50, but check their website for times and full details.
This is Vinegar Hill, in Templeshannon, Co. Wexford, in the South East of Ireland. The Record of Monuments and Places (RMP) number is WX020-032. For your Sat Nav, the GPS co-ordinates are 52.503266, -6.553774, and it’s in Irish State guardianship, not ownership, so you don’t have permission to walk the site out across the hill, unless you meet the landowner.
The closest hotel is the Riverside Park Hotel, which can be busy and a bit noisy on weekends but great for those who want to experience some of the culture in historic Enniscorthy. There’s a great B&B not too far away on the other side of town, Teach Failte, which does a fantastic breakfast and has a warm family welcome. For something good to eat, the Bailey Café Bar is in a handy location, with free parking, and does a very busy lunch trade for good reason. Treacey’s Hotel does a great Sunday lunch and The Alamo is hard to beat. You’re spoiled for choice round here!
From Enniscorthy, head out over the river to the R744, turning off to the right at first crossroads (signposted ‘Vinegar Hill’). You’re following those brown heritage signs out the road, until you reach GPS 52.500836, -6.547658, and there’s another one there pointing up a narrow lane. Follow it to the end, and you’ll be looking out across the hill where the battle took place.
I went down to this little child, because she was a child… I got down on my knees in the aisle, and I asked her was she ok? She said, “No”. She was upset, and she said, she had had an abortion that afternoon in London. Now if you know anything about flying, you don’t fly after having a tooth out, for fear of haemorrhaging. Now she’s sitting in her seat… there was nobody with her, she was on her own… because of the severity of the matter, we had no choice, we couldn’t wait to get back to Dublin. That plane was diverted into Liverpool. And my memory… was of that girl – the ambulance men came on, they very discretely looked after everything, and nobody knew anything, they took her off – and she SCREAMED, all the way down on that stretcher, for us not to tell her parents back in Ireland.
That was an experience from the 1980’s, told by Derry-Ann Morgan, a former employee of Ireland’s national airline, to the crowd of activists, protestors and passers-by attending a Pro-Choice Rally on a very cold Saturday in May 2013, in Ireland’s capital city. That a girl of 15 years old would be subjected to such trauma, on finding herself pregnant in circumstances that simply did not allow for her to birth and raise a child, is unthinkable. But sure, that was 30 years ago. So much has changed in Ireland since then!
Highlights from the 80’s here on the island include an amendment to the Irish constitution, just to be sure to be sure than none of our poor wee Irish babbies might get killed unnecessarily. Driven by fear of abortion in other countries, the 8thAmendment in 1983 made it illegal for a woman to travel for an abortion, and illegal to even provide information, or speak to a pregnant woman in Ireland about how or where she could travel for abortion to another country. That same year, it was reported that an Irish mother of two named Sheila Hodgers was refused treatment for her progressive cancer, even down to not being allowed tramadol pain medication, due to the risk it posed to the foetus she was carrying at the time. Her husband repeatedly requested an abortion, but was refused. The hospital had to abide by a code of ethics drawn up with the Catholic Church, which would not even allow for a Caesarean section, as there was a chance of damage to the foetus. Following a premature labour, the baby died a few hours after birth, and Ms. Hodgers lasted only two days longer.
It’s a good thing the Government of Ireland has managed to wriggle out from under the thumb of the Church in 2017, so a travesty like that couldn’t possibly happen again, isn’t it?
Oh no, wait, they haven’t yet.
When the death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist residing in Ireland, hit the news, the nation, and the world, was shocked. Ms. Halappanavar died in October 2012, after she had sought help at the University Hospital in Galway as she was suffering a foetal miscarriage at 17 weeks. On being told the foetus was not viable, Savita requested an abortion, but was then informed the hospital could not perform an abortion under Irish Law as the foetus’s heart was still beating. A few days after, Ms. Halappanavar was diagnosed with septicaemia, leading to multiple organ failure, and death of both mother and foetus.
This happened despite the 1992 ‘X Case’ in which the Supreme Court decided that a pregnant woman could have an abortion to save her life, including from suicide – which was based on the case of X, a 14 year old girl who had been made pregnant by rape, and wanted the right of an abortion. This led to the 13th, and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, stating that the prohibition on abortion would not limit the freedom of pregnant women to travel out of the state, and that the prohibition of abortion would not limit the right to distribute information about abortion services in foreign countries. Neither of which was of any use to Savita, whose husband reported that a nurse in the hospital told them their repeated requests for abortion had to be denied, because “Ireland is a Catholic country”.
How horrific. How utterly, incomprehensibly tragic all of that is. Janet, who has been a pro-choice activist in Ireland for 24 years, recounts what she views as the best experience for a woman in Ireland today:
At 5 to 7 weeks… they illegally obtain the medical abortion pills online… they order them, risking charges for importing a Class A drug without a license, and with their partner or friend take them over the course of a weekend and have an abortion at home with everything they might need, or booked into a hotel room.
And what, in her experience, is the worst experience for an Irish woman who faces the choice today?
It is not to do with if they have travelled, or how far along they were, or what type of abortion they have had. It is simply the isolation which comes with not having anyone to talk to about the experience… We know that 150,000 women who gave Irish addresses have travelled to the UK, it may be more… That is so many women passing each other each day and not knowing they have that shared experience, and being unable to support each other.
The Pro-Choice Rally in May 2013 was timed to coincide with a 3 day Government committee hearings on proposed new legislation, following publication of the ‘Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013’. Dr. Sinead Kennedy of the ‘Action on X’ group, organisers of the rally, spoke of her feeling with regard to the Bill, and the debate that surrounds it:
We had the spectacle beginning yesterday of politicians debating the merits of allowing women lifesaving abortions. Debating how many years in prison – 5, 10, 15, 20 – vulnerable women in difficult situations will be subjected to, if they try and access abortions here in this country. Listening to politicians who seem to think that they’re bishops back in the 1950’s, who think that women are no more than vessels or incubators.
We need to tell this government that we will not accept legislation that excludes suicide. Women will not be subjected to panels of 3, 4, 7 doctors (to decide if they may have a termination). This is outrageous, it is barbaric. And women must not and will not be criminalised in their own country, for accessing abortion. (This Bill doesn’t provide) access to abortion for women who are victims of rape or incest, it doesn’t provide access for women who have fatal foetal abnormality, it does nothing to address the issue of when a woman’s health is in jeopardy because of her pregnancy – and more than that it doesn’t do ANYTHING to address the 5,000 women who travel abroad every single year to Europe, who are criminalised in their own country, and treated like exiles. And we will not tolerate this anymore.
It is surreal to think that under the proposed legislation, a 14 year old rape victim such as the girl in the X case, who is proven to have taken abortion pills in Ireland, would be subject to a 14 year prison sentence. Her attacker, if convicted, would be likely to face a 7 year jail term, the current average. As reprehensible as the situation is though, Dr. Kennedy is satisfied that things are moving in the right direction. She said that this legislation is the bare minimum we need, and while it is highly restrictive, and insulting that we have to stand out and demand this, it is nevertheless an important defeat for anti-abortionists. This, finally, is a step in the right direction.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 now defines the circumstances and processes within which abortion in Ireland can be legally performed. It allows for abortion where pregnancy endangers a woman’s life, including through a risk of suicide. It was signed into law on 30 July by Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, and commenced on 1 January 2014. To determine whether the pregnant person is truly at risk, her case is put before a panel of up to 4 doctors and specialists, who must concur on the ruling.
There are no restrictions or checks in place for the religious beliefs of any of those doctors.
In a conversation with Katherine O’Donnell, director of the Women’s Studies Centre at University College, Dublin, she speculated:
Besides women who are ‘out’ about needing terminations for medical reasons, there is no big visible presence of women who have chosen to terminate pregnancies for other reasons, it is left to a few activists and organisations (such as Choice Ireland and Doctors for Choice)… so many thousands of Irish women annually terminate pregnancies, but there is no visible mass movement. We seem to have as many Irish women who are saying they were ‘hurt by abortion’ or that abortion is harmful, as those who are affirming it as a positive choice in their lives. If even a small fraction of Irish women told their abortion stories, I think it might be the way to unlock the long impasse where the argument about abortion goes into arcane abstractions rather than lived lives.
In 2013, it was estimated that 12 women leave Ireland every day to secure an abortion, while countless others are taking pills purchased online. Abortion is the most common gynaecological procedure an Irish woman is likely to have. It is variously estimated that between one in 10 and one in 15 Irish women of reproductive age have had an abortion. An Irish woman is more likely to have had an abortion than appendectomy or tonsillectomy.
It is time for Ireland to accept that the Abortion War will not be won by anything but safety and support for Ireland’s women, and the right – regardless of the situation – of an Irish woman to make the best possible choice she can for her own life.
You can provide support and keep up to date at the Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland Website.
[A version of this article was first published in Ms. Magazine, in the Summer issue of 2013, researched and written by Lora O’Brien.]
The Longest Night.
A woman sits by her fire, wrapped in a blanket to keep out the chill, watching the flames in the quiet of a room.
Her house is silent around her, family sleeping as she waits. Lights burn through the darkest hours.
When the deep blackness begins to lessen, she makes her way outside, searching the horizon.
A shaft of light appears, a bright lance across the land – winter is broken… Summer will return.
She smiles, then returns inside, sticks on the kettle and hops in the shower, before driving herself to work.
What? Did you think we were looking at a scene from long ago? Perhaps, but come the 21st of December, this ancient ritual will be repeated in houses all over Ireland. Meán Geimhridh, Midwinter, brings a vigil through the darkness, waiting for the new-born sun.
Irish people have been marking the return of the sun for at least 5,000 years. We have built vast and complex monuments around it, and not just Newgrange. You don’t even have to be a politician or lucky in the Winter Solstice lottery to see these wonders of a by-gone age.
Knockroe Passage tomb in Co. Kilkenny, which has been called ‘the Newgrange of the Southeast’, is a fine example, which contains extensive megalithic art, and not one, but two, chambers with astrological alignments; showing light through the chambers at both sunrise and sunset on the Winter Solstice. Or take a look at Drombeg Circle in Co. Cork, a beautiful ring of standing stones which frames a flat topped rock, aligning to the horizon where the sun sets on the Longest Night.
Many traditions, now associated with Christmas and the holiday season, have their origins in the pre-Christian past. We are lucky now to have such a beautiful blend of customs, fitted exactly to the Irish psyche and community spirit.
In bringing the evergreen tree inside, we remind ourselves of life within the seeming death of winter, of sustenance and growth that continues through the darkest times. Plants such as holly and ivy compliment this theme, and not forgetting mistletoe, which was especially sacred to our Druidic ancestors as a fertility symbol. Be careful who you kiss under the mistletoe at this year’s parties!
Decorating the tree with candles, and reflective items such as mirrors and silver coins, in the past stood for an amplification of the natural energies of the living greenery; bringing more light and life to the darkness, throwing it around the room. Today we use dodgy flickering fairy lights, glitter and tinsel, but the principle is the same. And safer, for the inevitable puppy or toddler tree attacks.
Green is the colour of life, and health, but so too is red – the bright blood of life that flows through our veins, keeping our hearts beating and our senses alive. Before a certain drinks company decided it’d look great on the jolly fat guy with the beard, the colour red was valued as a decoration and a reminder of life throughout our homes for the Winter Solstice season.
Wren Day, or Lá an Dreoilín in Irish, was continued until recent times on Stephen’s Day, with troupes of kids (known as wrenboys) going round the village or town with a fake bird on a decorated stick, singing or dancing and asking ‘a penny for the wren’. A little further back, we see a more grizzly form of this, in the hunting and capture of a live bird, which was then used to decorate the pole and held pride of place as a centrepiece for the dance that followed.
In a time of sickness and death for the weak, this may be an echo of an older sacrifice to the Gods of Winter; take one life and spare the others through the darkness until the coming of Spring. Or with the ‘winter-wren’ being a symbol of the old year, maybe the people simply wanted to make sure that it was well and truly done with.
The singing and dancing part of that tradition is pleasant, at least, and brings us to another Winter Solstice favourite, the feasting and the parties. This is one that most of us keep up, to one degree or another, and having a good party to look forward to can get us through the darkest, coldest mornings.
Winter is the time we naturally draw in on ourselves, it can be the loneliest, harshest time of year. It’s not just the cold that brings us down, it’s the lack of light, and company. In days gone by there was a serious food scarcity through the dark winter days too – but a bright feast, filled with family and friends, was the perfect reminder that the time of dark death still held strong seeds of light and life.
So, enjoy your parties!