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Affirmative Ulster

Stuart Bailie | 12:40 UK time, Friday, 18 January 2013

Some songs are written with rousing intent. 'Alternative Ulster' by Stiff Little Fingers was an angry interruption of sectarian business in 1978 - a farewell to arms and the glorious call of the riff and the power chord. The song suggested that you could alter your native land and we want to believe that many young people took heed.

Other songs have the intent written into them. With the encouragement of Pete Seeger and a few others, a gospel song about heavenly deliverance became the shout for justice on this sphere. This evolved into 'We Shall Overcome', a song that continues to move Bruce Springsteen and many hopeful hearts.

There's a whole other range of songs that have accidentally fallen into significance. 'You'll Never Walk Alone' was a 1945 show tune that has become transcendental. Rodgers and Hammerstein would never have imagined a song about a suicide could take on such cosmic import, but hey, that's one of the random effects that popular music can invest in our souls.

Hence the rising consciousness of the Snow Patrol song, 'Take Back The City'. It was a top ten release in October 2008. At the time, Gary Lightbody called it "a love song to Belfast". It was written at a time of optimism, when peace seemed achievable, when the landscape and the creative vision of the place was being reimagined. There was a fresh script out there, better demands to make.

But circumstances in Belfast are mocking some of that. Bad economics and messy politics have taken the shine off the dream. The roads are cratered again and the helicopter blades mangle the night air. At the City Hall peace rallies, people have chosen to bang drums, to make noise, to exorcise some of the hate. It makes for a skewed kind of release.
Into this despondent frame, the sentiments 'Take Back the City' have been revived. Instead of blind hope, there is a determination to be there, now. To counter the dread with good company in town. To favour the social places that are taking a hit. And so the song has been rolling across social media and casual conversation and now is a kind of reversed anthem. Aspiring to normal, rather than extraordinary life is something in itself. It's a hashtag and a mindset. Gary Lightbody is also aware of the song's new value and seems to concur. He notes that he's "very proud our song about Belfast is being used as part of the campaign for peace and sanity".

You can pick a side, or pick a fight. Alternately, you might want to get the epitaph right.


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