TOP 10 OF THE BEST REBEL SONGS
By Marjorie Brennan, Irish Examiner
1 THE BOYS OF KILMICHAEL
This rousing ballad remembers the politically-significant ambush near the village of Kilmichael, Co Cork, in November 1920, a week after Bloody Sunday. Thirty-six IRA volunteers, led by Tom Barry, killed 17 members of the RIC Auxiliary Division. It comes in more than one version: Both feature the Tans leaving the town of Macroom. The late Cork poet Patrick Galvin added a verse which was critical of “revisionist” takes on the ambush:
“There are some who will blush at the mention
Of Connolly, Pearse and McBride
And history’s new scribes in derision
The pages of valour deny
But sure here’s to the boys who cried, Freedom!
When Ireland was nailed to the mast
And they fought with Tom Barry’s bold column
To give us our freedom at last.”
2 THE MEN BEHIND THE WIRE
This classic protest song was composed by Paddy McGuigan of the Barleycorn folk group after he was interned during the Troubles. It was released in December 1971 and went to No 1 in the Irish charts. It was later recorded by artists that included Liam Clancy. It also cropped up in the unlikely setting of a Dido song, with the British singer/songwriter quoting the lines: “Armoured cars and tanks and guns /came to take away our sons / But every man must stand behind / the men behind the wire.” It was also co-opted in a very different way by Kerry football supporters as “the men behind Dwyer”.
3 KEVIN BARRY
Was a lad of 18 summers ever better known? This enduringly popular tune, of unknown origin, was one of many Irish rebel ballads removed from RTÉ playlists during the period of the conflict in Northern Ireland. It has been covered by singers as diverse as Paul Robeson and Leonard Cohen.
A close-run thing with Kelly, The Boy From Killane and The Croppy Boy, which also commemorate the 1798 rebellion, but Boolavogue’s melancholy gets it into the mix, not to mention the doom-laden subject matter, or that line about the heather blazing. I’m certain I’m not the only child to have heard their grandfather sing this and wonder why his eyes were getting misty.
5 THE GALTEE MOUNTAIN BOY
Opinion divides as to whether the forename of Dinny Lacey is accurately described, depending on the version, but you have to have a Tipp rebel song. They died without a sigh, after all.
6 SEÁN SOUTH OF GARRYOWEN
This ballad about the eponymous IRA member who was fatally wounded during an attack on Brookeborough barracks in Co Fermanagh in 1957 is sung to the tune of another rebel song, Roddy McCorley. It appears that some poetic licence was taken as South was from Limerick city, not the suburb Garryowen.
7 THE FOGGY DEW
Taking the air of a traditional love song, Canon Charles O’Neill, a priest from Co Down, was spurred on to write this ballad after he had attended the first sitting of the Dáil in the Mansion House in Dublin. As the names of the elected members were read out, many were received with the response: “faoi ghlas ag na Gaill” (imprisoned by the foreigner). It recounts the story of the Easter Rising and laments the fact that Irishmen fought for Britain during the Great War. There have been many versions, but Sinéad O’Connor gave a particularly spine-tingling rendition with the Chieftains for The Long Black Veil album in 1995.
Her reprisal of it for Conor McGregor’s entrance at a UFC bout in Las Vegas last year may have replicated or ruined the magic, depending on your viewpoint.
8 THE BOYS OF THE OLD BRIGADE
A jaunty number that probably most deserves some kind of progressive house backbeat, this is unashamedly emotional. The narrator is a veteran of the Easter Rising telling a younger man about his old comrades and how he longs to see them again.
Not strictly a rebel song, but, until we get a feminist revisionist take, this stirring ballad will have to suffice as female representation. It remembers Grace Gifford who married James Plunkett hours before his execution. Written by Sean and Frank O’Meara in 1995, it came to prominence with a beautiful and heart-rending rendition by former Dubliners member Jim McCann, who died last year.
10 A NATION ONCE AGAIN
In what would later become a de facto anthem, Mallow native Thomas Davis urges his fellow countrymen to stand up for their freedom, citing the example of the three hundred Spartans who fought at the Battle of Thermopylae. In 2002, after an orchestrated email campaign, the Wolfe Tones’ 1972 rendition was voted the world’s most popular song in a BBC World Service poll of listeners.