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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - Rebel Songs

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Image of Frank HarteThe Rebel song tradition is explored by Frank Harte who was born in Dublin and trained as an architect. His introduction to traditional Irish songs came from a chance meeting at a fair in Boyle, Co. Roscommon in the 1940s with a member of Ireland’s ‘travelling’ community who was singing and selling his ballad sheets. Since that chance encounter Frank has been obsessed with songs that tell stories. Over the years he has collected a phenomenal number of Irish ballads that reflect the culture and politics of Ireland.

Songs of rebellion

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Throughout Ireland’s long history of struggle for independence, each of the various uprisings has generated its own collection of songs. These invariably tell the story of Ireland’s troubled history with its more powerful neighbour, Britain, and capture and support the political dreams of the generations who sought an independent nation.

The songs that we are dealing with here are just some of those that were sung during the time leading up to, and including, the Rebellion of 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War.

The introduction of the 1912 Irish Home Rule Bill radicalized politics in Ireland. The detailed facts of the negotiations between the British Prime Minister Asquith and John Redmond the leader of the Irish Nationalist Party at Westminster are adequately dealt with in history books. However, the oral history of that period contained in the songs of the people is given cursory attention by historians.

Shortly after the passing of the Home Rule Bill in parliament, Britain became embroiled in the Great War and Redmond made a political calculation that in time would backfire. He encouraged Irishmen to join the British army in the belief that by showing solidarity with Britain, Westminster would not renege on its home rule commitments. Although Redmond received tremendous support not everyone was prepared to back him. Opposition was soon voiced in the many anti-enlistment songs popular at that time. These derided his call for the National Volunteers to enlist in the British army and fight in France. The Grand Old Dame Britannia is one of many songs which captures the spirit of that opposition.

The Grand Old Dame Britannia

Come all ye scholars saints and bards,
Says the grand old dame Britannia.
Will ye come and join the Irish Guards,
Says the grand old dame Britannia.

Oh, don’t believe them Sinn Fein lies,
And every Gael that for England dies,
Will enjoy ‘Home Rule’ 'neath the Irish skies,
Says the grand old dame Britannia.

Now Johnny Redmond you’re the one,
You went to the front and you fired a gun,
Well you should have seen them Germans run,
Says the grand old dame Britannia.
But if you dare to tread on the German’s feet,
You’ll find a package tied up neat,
A Home Rule badge and a winding sheet,
Says the grand old dame Britannia.
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