Give Ireland Back to the Irish: Paul McCartney's forgotten protest song

Paul McCartney and British soldiers in Northern Ireland

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In February 1972, Paul McCartney released a song with his new band Wings that caused a storm of controversy and was promptly banned as "unsuitable for broadcasting".

The song Give Ireland Back to the Irish was McCartney's reaction to the events of Bloody Sunday just weeks before, in which 13 protesters were killed (a 14th person later died in hospital) by British soldiers in Northern Ireland.

Many were surprised that McCartney had entered the debate. Until then the former Beatle had avoided overt political activism and was widely regarded as a congenial sheep farmer.

Radio 2's The People's Songs on Give Ireland Back To The Irish

Stuart Maconie, presenter of BBC Radio 2's The People's Songs

Some dismissed it as a cynical attempt by McCartney to prop up a flagging post-Beatles career.

What motivated McCartney?

But Stuart Maconie, who discusses Give Ireland Back to the Irish on The People's Songs on Radio 2, believes it was a natural response to events in Northern Ireland.

"I think, like many people, he was simply horrified by Bloody Sunday," says Maconie. "And as a child of the huge Irish diaspora in the North West of England, he felt it even more keenly.

"I don't believe he was trying to 'outdo' Lennon. I think he was utterly sincere and it was a very brave move."

McCartney's former bandmate John Lennon, who had Irish heritage, had been increasingly politically active and appeared at a New York protest against the British Army's presence in Northern Ireland.

Eamonn McCann, a veteran journalist and political activist from Londonderry, believes that while McCartney probably had genuine reasons for writing this song, the 'Irish question' was a convenient one for musicians to associate themselves with for publicity.

John Lennon

"The cause of Ireland had floated in and out of the British 'trendy left'," says McCann. "The Irish issue was quite an easy one to get involved with. It represented a progressive line of thinking in England at the time."

McCartney later told Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn the sense of outrage he felt about Bloody Sunday:

"From our point of view it was the first time people questioned what we were doing in Ireland. It was so shocking. I wrote 'Give Ireland Back to the Irish', we recorded it and I was promptly phoned by the chairman of EMI, Sir Joseph Lockwood, explaining that they wouldn't release it.

"He thought it was too inflammatory. I told him that I felt strongly about it and they had to release it."

Impact of Give Ireland Back to the Irish

The song was banned in the UK by the BBC, Radio Luxembourg and the Independent Television Authority. BBC DJ and Top of the Pops presenter Alan Freeman refused to mention it by name. In his Radio 1 chart countdown he referred to it only as "a song by a group called Wings".

The events of Bloody Sunday

The events of Bloody Sunday

Despite the lack of airplay it reached number 16 in the UK charts and number 21 in the US. It was a number one in both the Republic of Ireland and, oddly, Spain.

McCartney later explained the song's Spanish success: "I'm very proud of that. Basque separatists loved it."

The two 'Irish' songs John Lennon released the same year, Sunday Bloody Sunday and Luck of the Irish, largely went unnoticed. It was McCartney who caused the storm.

Music journalist and BBC Radio Ulster presenter Stuart Bailie believes the fact it was banned actually helped.

"The ban gave it more kudos because in my opinion it was a poor song with weak lyrics," he said.

Eamonn McCann felt the song was well received by nationalists in Derry, but is sceptical about any lasting impact.

High-profile songs banned or censored

The Sex Pistols
  • A Day in the Life by The Beatles - 1967
  • Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood - 1984
  • God Save The Queen by the Sex Pistols - 1977
  • Fairytale of New York by The Pogues - 2007

"Nationalists were cheered by any expression of support or solidarity as it was good for morale. But it is arguably McCartney's most banal song. You can't compare it to classic protest songs such as Bob Dylan's Only a Pawn in Their Game. I don't think it changed the trajectory of events at all."

McCartney had formed Wings with his wife Linda in 1971. One band member, guitarist Henry McCullough, was from Northern Ireland. McCullough's brother was beaten up because of the song.

Stuart Bailie says McCullough didn't hold Give Ireland Back to the Irish in very high regard. "I spoke to Henry about the song and he was slightly embarrassed and underwhelmed by it," he added.

Should music and politics mix?

So is it wise for musicians to politicise their songs? Stuart Maconie is adamant that musicians should involve themselves in politics.

"They're artists and it's the duty of artists to engage with all spheres of human affairs. Sometimes they do it very crassly but sometimes they can capture the complexities and the passion of a cause or issue far better than politicians can."

Painting Paul

Sir Paul McCartney

Stuart Bailie believes history has proved banning songs is counterproductive.

"It's like taking a large hammer to a small nut when you attempt to ban a song. You can't stop public interest, especially today with YouTube.

"The IBA [Independent Broadcasting Authority] banned the Pogues song Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six, and then looked a bit a silly when they lifted the ban after the Birmingham Six were released.

"When Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood was banned by the BBC it only made the song seem cooler."

Similar controversy was seen recently in April 2013, over the 1939 song Ding Dong the Witch is Dead from the Wizard of Oz. It reached number 2 in the charts after the death of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Did McCartney ever protest again?

Some believed McCartney's follow-up single, Mary Had a Little Lamb, was a dig at broadcasters for banning Give Ireland Back to the Irish, but McCartney denied this.

Bono with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and SDLP leader John Hume in 1998 Bono with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and SDLP leader John Hume in 1998

In the four decades following Give Ireland Back to the Irish McCartney has shied away from such overt politics, beyond embracing a passion for vegetarianism and animal rights.

It was left to another musician to make an intervention in the story of the Troubles that is still warmly remembered.

As Northern Ireland edged towards an end to conflict in 1998, Bono, of the band U2, famously brought leading politicians from both camps together on stage at a gig in support of a 'yes' vote for the Good Friday Agreement. It remains an iconic image of the peace.

McCartney has since become an establishment figure, receiving a knighthood, and in June 2012 closing the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Concert.

Give Ireland Back to the Irish represents an anomaly, though undoubtedly a noteworthy one, in the career of this elder statesman of British music.

Listen to The People's Songs Give Ireland Back to the Irish - The Troubles.

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