Last week the Ireland women’s football team beat Scotland one nil to qualify for the World Cup, which is more than the men can do. They celebrated by singing songs including ‘Celtic Symphony’, which includes a line ‘Ooh Aah Up the ‘Ra’ (repeated 23 times in case you missed it the first time).
Cue much declaration of outrage by a whole range of people forming a rather disorderly queue with much taking of offence.
For foreign readers, this phrase indicates support for the Irish Republican Army and in particular in its Provisional IRA incarnation, which is supposed not to exist anymore, and if it does, only in a much-reduced form that has no intention of renewing its previous armed struggle. In fact, if the IRA was still blowing things up it is very doubtful the song would have been sung. It therefore signals no meaningful endorsement of anything currently existing.
Well, that’s not exactly true, since it is a football song and was written by the Wolfe Tones to celebrate 100 years of Glasgow Celtic which, unlike its Glasgow rivals, has never gone into liquidation and had to form itself into a new club. I’m not sure that all its listeners will understand its references to ‘Paradise’ or ‘the Jungle’ but the offending part is clear enough, although its meaning and significance is not. As a football song it’s passable but even as a Celtic supporter myself it must be admitted that it will not win many Grammy awards. I doubt it would even make a Eurovision song contest entry.
So, as explained above and for the avoidance of doubt, the IRA or ‘Ra in question is not the one which fought British rule in the War of Independence between 1919 and 1921. That would not have caused offence, or at least not to the talking heads within the Irish State, which owes its existence at least partly to this earlier IRA. Whether its violence was kinder, comparable, or even relevant is not something anyone wants to dwell upon lest it all get too complicated. It’s harder to justify offence taken when it involves considerable deliberation and circumlocution to avoid explaining how some historical violence is ok and some is not. For some if it’s not ok, well, it’s far enough in the past to consign to history. The past is a foreign country as they say, so nothing to do with us presumably.
So, if it cannot be consigned to the past, even though, as I have said, the most recent IRA is mostly retired, this must be because the question is not really about this IRA directly but about the current embodiment of Provisional republicanism in Sinn Fein. It’s about the present. To quash even further doubt, it is not because anyone believes that Sinn Fein will seek to create the conditions in which a new IRA campaign can begin. The party has shown often enough, especially in relation to dissident republicans, that it opposes armed action against the British state even if these assurances are laced with lies and hypocrisy.
No, it’s not about the prospect of renewed republican violence, not about the continuing argument over its historical legitimacy and not even about what reflection this has on the current representatives of republicanism. It is more straightforwardly directed against Sinn Fein’s current project, which is actually light years from opposing British rule in Ireland through armed struggle, or any other political struggle if we think about it. Today it is the major Party seeking to implement the favoured form of British rule in the North of the country, and if it has any complaint about the British, it is that they are not pushing this project hard enough against unionist opposition.
One can only imagine therefore how pleased Sinn Fein must be that the traditional expression of Irish nationalism through song is now associated so much with itself, knowing that nationalism dominates politics in the Irish State, as all its main parties are a variety of it, and its history of opposition to British rule is widely viewed, especially by the working class, as popular and legitimate. We see this reflected in the fact that ‘Celtic Symphony’ reached number 1 in the iTunes chart and number 2, to be sure, to be sure that you can’t miss the message.
This shouldn’t be a surprise as controversy over a previous song – ‘Come Out Ye Black and Tans’ – followed attempts by the Irish Government to go a step too far in equating Irish nationalist resistance to British rule with the defenders of that rule. Ironically, this song is also not a very good example of the better strains of the Irish nationalist tradition, but the continuing hold of this tradition was shown when it too reached number 1 in the iTune chart. Perhaps the outraged were seeking some revenge but if they were they failed, again.
However, much of the reaction against the faux outrage of the various constituencies ‘offended’ by the singing of the song is also missing the point, or several. While it is absolutely correct to dismiss the hypocrisy of the British media, which laughably thinks the women need to learn Irish history; and politicians who lament its damage to the ‘shared future’ with unionism, which requires for example that the mass slaughter of the First World War is commemorated by nationalists as a symbol of respect for their politics, it is also important to look at what the controversy means for those rushing to defend its use.
Yes, this ‘outrage’ and ‘offense’ is synthetic and if taken at its word would prohibit any expression of Irish nationalist opposition to British rule. This tradition did involve violence, but nothing on the scale of that perpetrated by British imperialism. Many of those lamenting the glorification of violence, and its traumatic effect on some who are still living, are wilfully blind to the violence of the British state. Their sensitivity to its cruel effects is very discriminating. Almost all of them are incapable of explaining why this violence occurred, which means their expressions of sorrow are objectively so much cant.
But some of the defensive reaction to it is unsatisfactory, to put it mildly.
One of the Wolfe Tones is reported to have dismissed complaints by saying that some of it came from people who ‘aren’t really Irish’, which if it refers to Northern Protestants, and who else could it refer to, is exactly the argument of Irish unionism. More apposite however, it is in perfect harmony with Sinn Fein’s policy of ‘respecting the two traditions.’
So, one republican said in response that “I feel very sorry that anyone died in the Troubles. I feel very sorry that the troubles were visited on us.’ It’s as if the Provisional IRA played no active part in creating what has been called ‘the Troubles’, which simply paid a visit on it. It too has played the victim along with every other participant, playing along with the idea that we were all responsible (so no one was) and that we all have to move on – together. And moving on together means partnership with unionism and continuing British rule, all washed down with the hope that the Catholics in the North will out-breed the Protestants and enough will be true to what is expected of them and support a united Ireland.
It has been argued that the young women didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t actually mean support for the Provisional IRA. Well, yes and no, or rather no and yes. They knew what they were singing and what, to them, it signified, and that very likely didn’t mean support for an IRA armed struggle that’s over.
What is represented, what it was, is increasingly common – young people expressing their rebelliousness and defiance of the conventions of older generations, as always happens, through support for an Irish republicanism that is increasingly popular among younger generations. It expresses both increased confidence and increased anger. Confidence that being Irish is no longer to be in a backward country compared to its neighbour and confidence that comes from almost full employment and many working for big US tech companies. Anger that despite this they can’t get a house and renting means queueing with dozens of others for a viewing and paying enormous amounts for sub-standard flats. What often results is young people having to live with their parents – no wonder there’s generational friction.
‘Up the ‘Ra’ is therefore what has been called ‘an umbrella toast to republicanism’ which is now the politics they support in the belief that it will sort out their problems. It combines both youthful rebelliousness, a common generational cultural meme, and a declaration of confident national and political identity with the measure of each varying by individual.
Like much youth rebelliousness it’s not as radical as it thinks it is. Such republicanism has its support among older generations too and actually has a long history in various forms. Sinn Fein is not going to lead any revolution and is keen to project its pro-business identity, most recently by declaring its consensus with the rest of the Irish establishment parties by supporting Ukraine and damning Russia. US multinationals in Ireland have nothing to worry about.
The song from the young footballers is a cultural refection of the fact that, as the last Irish Times Ipsos opinion poll reported, while support for Sinn Fein among all voters was 36 per cent, it was 44 per cent among 18-24 year olds and 43 per cent among 25-34 year olds.
That this rebelliousness of the young against the precepts of older generations draws upon such old traditions and aligns itself with a party that has ditched its own rebelliousness should tell us something about the nature of the ‘offensive’ behaviour, about those ‘outraged’ and ‘offended’, and about how we should respond to it as socialists.
There was no call to apologise for the singing and no requirement to make more of it than was there by those in sympathy with it.