Origin of the Irish National Anthem

Sing the American national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, the Englishman’s God Save the King, not to mention The Frenchman’s La Marseillaise if they really want to know about militarism.

An anthem is a song of loyalty or devotion, a song of praise. A national anthem is therefore by definition a song that praises a nation or expresses loyally to a nation. A nation is an aggregation of people or peoples of one or more cultures or races organised into one state.

Culture is the total of inherited ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge which constitutes the shared basis of social action. It is the total range of activities and ideas of a people and the music and song are a mode of expression of culture. The Irish people are the inheritors of Irish culture, a people who believe in freedom for all nations. By freedom I mean the quality or state of being free, especially to enjoy political and civil liberties which include the liberty to sing one’ own songs, play one’s own music and to dance one’s own dances.

As with other symbols of nationalism, the Irish national anthem has been the subject of much (political) controversy since the foundation of the state.

The National Anthem “”Amhrán na bhFiann”" (The Soldier’s Song) was composed in 1907 by Peadar Ó Cearnaigh (Kearney) and by Patrick Heaney.

The Origin of the Irish National Anthem

Seo dhaoíbh, a cháirde duan Óglaigh,
Caithréimeach, bríomhar, ceolmhar,
Ár dtintne cnámh go buacach táid,
‘S an spéir go mín réaltógach;
Is fonnmhar faobhrach sinn chun gleo,
‘S go tiúnmhar glé roimh thíocht don lá
Faoi chiúnas caomh na hoíche ar seal
Seo libh canaig’ Amhrán na bhFiann.

Curfá
Sinne laochra Fáil,
Atá faoi gheall ag Éireann,
Buíon dár slua,
Thar thoinn do ráinig chugainn
Faoi mhóid bheith saor,
Seantír ár sinsear feasta
Ní fhágfar faoin tíorán ná faoi tráill;
Anocht a théam sa bhearna bhaoil,
Le gean ar Ghaeil chun báis nó saoil,
Le gunna-scréach faoi lamhach na bpiléar
Seo libh canaig’ Amhrán na bhFiann.

Kearney was born at 68, Lower Dorset Street, in Dublin in 1883, he grew up in the Dolphin’s Barn area. He was educated at The Model School, Schoolhouse Lane and by the Irish Christian Brothers in Marino. Leaving school at 14 years he worked mending punctured bicycles during the day, he carried meals to the artists of the Gaiety Theatre at night time, before becoming a house painter. He joined the Gaelic league in 1901, and was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1903. Both he and Heaney became members of the Oliver Bond 1798 Club and it was for this club that the pair of them wrote the song, with Heaney composing the music while Kearney wrote the words as he said afterwards “” in order to impress on Irishmen that they did not have to join the British army to be soldiers”". There is some evidence to suggest that Seán Rogan may have assisted with the music. Kearney was working in Wicklow at the time he composed the lyrics (1907) and he was teaching Irish at night, among his students was author and playwright Seán Ó Casey. By 1911 Kearney had obtained employment in the Abbey Theatre as a props man and he toured England with the company in that year. Touring England again with the Abbey players in 1916, Kearney left the tour despite thewishes and advice of St. John Irvine, who was the tour manager) to takepart inthe Easter Rising in April of that year, Apart from the author, the first man to sing it publicly was the playwrightPatrick Bourke a relation of Kearney.

The song lyrics were published by Bulmer Hobson in ‘Irish Freedom’ in 1912. It became the marching song of the Irish Volunteers, replacing such older songs as T.D. Sullivan’s ‘God save Ireland’ and Thomas Davis’ ‘A Nation once again’, both of which were identified with the Irish Parliamentary Party, but was not widely known outside the ranks of the military activists until after the Easter Rebellion of 1916, when the music was arranged and published by Victor Herbert in New York in December 1916.

The English National Anthem ‘God Save the King’ was used at all ‘official’ occasions at that time.

When the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) was established in 1922 there was no nationalanthem, and it was not until 1924 that the lack of a national anthem was highlighted. It was Seán Lester, who was Director of Publicity in the Department of External Affairs, who it appears, first raised the issue, stating “”but it is felt that while it (The Soldier’s Song) was excellent as a revolutionary song, both words and music are unsuitable for a National Anthem.”" He emphasised that the absence of an official anthem “”makes it easier for the pro-British elements to sing the British National Anthem at their functions,”" and suggested that a competition be held to provide new words for a national anthem to the tune of Thomas Moore’s ‘Let Erin Remember the Days of Old’ (Incidentally Moore was born on 28th May 1779 in the public-house of his father at 12, Aungier Street, Dublin 2, my sister-in-law Carmel and her husband J.J. own the building now and it still trades as a pub) The Executive Council declined to make a ruling but they informally agreed to continue using ‘The Soldier’s Song for the time being within the Free State, while the air of ‘Let Erin Remember’ would be used when the state was being represented abroad, it being considered, ‘more suitable from a musical point of view’.

The Government did not pursue Lester’s suggestion of holding a competition, however, on June 13th 1924, The Dublin Evening Mail, informed its readers that Ireland needed an anthem that would appeal to people of all classes and political beliefs and offered a prize of fifty guineas to the writer of the best lyrics for a new national anthem. The newspaper claimed that there were hundreds of entries. Lennox Robinson, James Stephens and William Butler Yeats, were appointed as adjudicators and after reviewing the entries they decided that not one of the entries was ‘worthy of fifty guineas or any portion of it.’ The Evening Mail editors choose six entries and they reopened the competition inviting readers to select the winner by voting for their favourite from the six which were published in the edition of 5th February 1925.

The editors reported that the most favoured by what the publication declared as ‘a clear preponderance of public opinion’, the opening stanza of which commenced with the lines

“”God of our Ireland, by Whose hand
Her glory and her beauty grew,
Just as the shamrock o’er the land
Grows green beneath thy sparkling dew.”"
……….The Dublin Evening Mail in it’s edition of 10th March 1925
informed it’s readers that this entry had won the competition!

The Executive Council in response to Seán Lestar raising the matter again in July 1926 decided that ‘The Soldier’s Song’ should be used both within the state and abroad. Deputy O.G. Esmonde asked a question in the Dáil about the national anthem which was answered by the Minister for Defence, whose draft reply stated ‘while no final decision has been come to’ The Soldier’s Song’ was ‘at present accepted as the national anthem’.

It may be of interest to the reader that when James McNeill, who was Governor General of The Irish Free State, was invited to attend the Trinity College races as part of Trinity week in 1929, his aide-de-camp
Captain O’Sullivan, informed T.R.F. Cox, the secretary of the Trinity week committee, that if an anthem were to be played on the Governor-General’s reception, it must be ‘The Soldier’s Song’, thus the Trinity week committee were left with no option but to play ‘The Soldier’s Song’ or no anthem at all. Two days later Cox responded saying that the procedure would be ‘as usual’, that is, that the Governor-General would be received with ‘God save the King’ , explaining that it was the custom and practice at Trinity to receive a viceroy or Governor-General with ‘the Anthem which is customary on such occasions throughout His Majesty’s Dominions.’ Further adding that this was regarded by the College as ‘ at once an expression of its traditional loyalty to the Throne, and an act of courtesy and respect to the King’s Representative.

This controversy continued until 1931 when an Irish solution to an Irish problem was devised by agreeing to play ‘The Soldier’s Song’ upon the arrival of the Governor-General at the Trinity College Sports of that year but that ‘God Save the King’ would be played at the end of the event, by which time the Governor-General would have left.

This procedure was repeated in 1932 which caused The Irish Independent newspaper to comment ‘ nobody’s susceptibilities were hurt, and the day went off beautifully in happy compromise.’ Trinity College’s commitment to ‘God Save the King’ continued until 1939, it being played at the conclusion of every Commencements.

Peadar Kearney was arrested and interned in 1920 and was released upon the signing of the Treaty in 1921. He served on the Free State side in the Civil War being a friend of Michael Collins and other leaders. After the Civil War, he returned to casual labour mostly painting, and he died in comparative poverty at his home in Inchicore, Dublin, in November 1942.

Among the other songs that Kearney wrote are: Down By The Glenside, The Three-coloured Ribbon, The South Down Militia, Nell Flaherty’s Drake, Whack Fol the Diddle, Knockcroghery, Down by the Liffey Side, both himself and Patrick Heaney collaborated in the composition of Michael Dwyer.

Peadar Kearney’s sister Kathleen was the mother of Brendan Behan or ‘Mother of all the Behans’ as her autobiography is entitled.