Saturday, April 4, 2009

A Bitter Legacy: Dominic Behan's "The Patriot Game"

A warning here at the outset is, I think, appropriate. Two of this week's videos are graphically and disturbingly violent, one with scenes from the Liam Neeson biopic Michael Collins and another with actual footage of the IRA in action. Newscasts always post such a warning, and I think it's a good idea.

A few weeks ago, something remarkable happened in Northern Ireland. On March 11th, crowds of thousands in several cities rallied in silence to protest the killings in previous days of a policeman and two British soldiers by splinter groups of the militant Irish Republican Army (IRA). Demonstrations and protests are not uncommon in that still-troubled land - but protests in which Catholics and Protestants, Unionists and Nationalists unite, embrace, and weep together are all but unprecedented. And that's what happened on March 11th in Belfast, Derry, Lisburn, and elsewhere.

The events inevitably bring to mind what is probably the most famous song composed about what they have called in Ireland for nearly a century "The Troubles," Dominic Behan's "The Patriot Game." Behan, whose brother Brendan was one of the most celebrated Irish playwrights of the century, was commemorating the deaths of two very young IRA volunteers, Fergal O'Hanlon and Sean South, who were killed on New Year's Eve of 1956 while trying to blow up a barracks of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a police force that itself has been accused over the decades of brutality and extra-legal violence in attempting to suppress Nationalist sentiment in the North.

Few of the scores of artists who have recorded this song sing the full lyric, which includes a verse about the execution in 1916 of labor leader and poet James Connolly following the Easter rebellion, Connolly having been wounded so badly in the battle at the Post Office that he could not stand to be shot and consequently was strapped to a chair -

They told me how Connolly was shot in his chair,
His wounds from the fighting all bloody and bare.

His fine body twisted, all battered and lame;
They soon made me part of the patriot game

or the verse condoning the killing of policemen -

I don't mind a bit if I shoot down police
They are lackeys for war, never guardians of peace

And yet at deserters I'm never let aim

The rebels who sold out the patriot game.

or the half verse condemning Ireland's first president Eamonn de Valera for permitting the partition of the country -

This Ireland of ours has too long been half free;
Six counties lie under John Bull's tyranny.

But still De Valera is greatly to blame

For shirking his part in the patriot game.

Behan's song came to the U.S. in the late 50s, as many Irish songs did, with the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. That's ironic, because Behan hated that group's rendition because they left out the verses above, transforming the piece from an Irish Nationalist anthem into a more generalized lamentation over the sorrow of war. And when Bob Dylan, influenced strongly as he has always acknowledged in his early days by all the Clancys but especially sole surviving brother Liam (whose signature song this became) borrowed the melody for his own anti-war reflection "With God On Our Side," Behan was further enraged by Bobby D.'s supposed failure to acknowledge "The Patriot Game" as his inspiration (even more ironic because Behan had himself adapted an existing folk song, one that may well have originated in the US).

Today's first video is the aforementioned Liam Clancy's solo from the 1963 Columbia album In Person At Carnegie Hall. This is pretty much the benchmark version, the one that inspired Dylan and the Kingston Trio and Judy Collins and many more:

Here is my simple upload of the Trio's version from their landmark 1964 album Time To Think:

This is a fine and pretty straightforward rendition. I'm not a big fan of the choice to narrate John Stewart's verse because I think it over-dramatizes an already intense lyric, not unlike the KT's drumming on "Roddy McCorley." But the passion and sincerity of the Trio's performance is beyond dispute.

Every one of the scores of versions on YouTube that I checked out for this weekend's selection has dozens to hundreds of flaming comments both pro- and anti-IRA - including this masterful rendition by the The Wolfe Tones, ardent supporters of the IRA through their nearly 50 years of existence:

The artist is likewise unidentified (it may be Ralph McTell) in this powerful version of most of the song, used as a score for real life video of masked IRA gunmen in action shooting at British soldiers and blowing up cars:

A more modern-sounding version is next by Harvey Andrews, whose lovely singing voice seems to me influenced simultaneously by Liam Clancy and the various "Idol" shows.

No discussion of the song would be complete without a version by the Dubliners, here singing it after Luke Kelly's premature death in 1984. The lead is taken by Bobby Lynch, and a fine version it is:

Finally - regarding the March 11th silent memorial in which Northern Irish citizens of both persuasions joined together to protest any attempt at renewing the violence that has cost 4,000 lives since 1969 - maybe, just maybe, we are witnessing the emergence of a consensus for peace that will someday render this fine song as dated and quaint as a madrigal. Maybe not. But I'd like to think so, or at least as Winston Churchill remarked in another context, "This is not the end. It is not the beginning of the end. But it is,perhaps, the end of the beginning."

Appendix - 5/16/09

Courtesy of Bobcat08, whose comment appears below, here is Dominic Behan himself performing his own song, in fine voice and with a powerful reading:


Bobcat08 said...

Terrific post. Since you're missing the original, I've posted the Dominic Behan version from his 1960 "Irish Rover" LP on YouTube, which you'll find at:


Jim Moran said...

Hi Bobcat -

I just saw your comment now - thanks so much for this! I'm going to add your video to the article, if that's ok!

- Jim Moran

Bobcat08 said...

Glad to make it available. By the way, I'm a huge John Stewart fan, saw him many many times and treasure is work. Jeff

Catherine said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Johnston said...

Excellent article. Just one error: James Conally may have wrote poetry but was in fact the socilist leader of the Irish Labour movement.

Jim Moran said...

Thank you Michael Johnston - I will revise. I knew Connolly was a labor leader, though I knew of him first from his writings. I will emphasize his socialist/labor work in a revision.