“I Campi di Athenry”: Researching Music and The Northern Irish Troubles

“I Campi di Athenry”: Researching Music and The Northern Irish Troubles

Marches

One of our 2015 bursary winners, Richard Parfitt (Oxford) writes about how he used his bursary funding for an intensive research trip to Belfast.

With the help of the BAIS bursary, I arrived in Belfast last month for two weeks of intensive research, focusing on uses of music during the Northern Irish troubles. I managed to find a room in the Ravenhill Road area, at good value and around 20 minutes’ walk from the three archives I intended to visit. If I was at all concerned about the relevance of my topic, the flags and banners from the recent parading season that line the streets were enough to put that particular concern to rest.

My first port of call was the Linen Hall Library. I was optimistic that the library’s collection of political ephemera would contain some useful examples of political music. In fact, the amount of relevant material was staggering. Songbooks abounded, from parties of all political persuasions. A highlight was a book of Irish rebel songs, translated into Italian, part of the republican movement’s attempts to engage international support for the movement. ‘I Campi di Athenry’ was particularly entertaining. I was also inundated with manuals for revolutionaries that stressed the importance of music, concert programmes, and booklets for rallies. The latter often listed the musicians that had been invited, or printed the lyrics of rebel songs alongside the best wishes sent from North Korea. Finally, I spend a good deal of time (shut in what felt like a wardrobe) looking at microfilmed newspapers. An Phoblacht provided much of the most useful material, with songs printed regularly. Concerts in support of hunger strikers were advertised during the H-Block protests, while the deaths of IRA fighters were placed in a nationalist tradition with references to songs on the martyrs of Irish history. The headline ‘Another Murder for the Crown’, quoting the lyrics of ‘Kevin Barry’, was constantly recycled.

After a few days of frantic photography in the Linen Hall, the next stop was Queen’s University. Here I found some useful material on Comintern and the organisation of parades and commemorative events. Most valuable, however, was the evidence given to the Scarman Tribunal in 1969. Several witnesses to the riots that occurred in 1968 described crowds from both sides singing political songs. Often, they did so as a means by which to invade the private spaces of opponents where physical incursions were otherwise impossible. Nationalist Party leader Eddie McAteer described singing as a means by which the emotional fervour of crowds could be indulged outside of violence. Ian Paisley’s evidence, as one might imagine, was eminently quotable. A lengthy rant about Catholics failing to respect ‘God Save the Queen’ was met with some bemusement by the tribunal panel, and the short response of the chairman carried a heavy subtext of ‘we didn’t ask, but never mind.’ Alas, my limited time meant that I have only scratched the surface of the fifty 400-page volumes that the collection holds. Needless to say, I’m itching to revisit on my next trip to Belfast.

My final visit is to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). In the run up to this trip I was advised on several occasions that I wouldn’t find much on music in PRONI, and that I might do better to spend more time elsewhere. Fortunately, this advice was wrong. Police reports of rallies, concerts and commemorations regularly specified the nature of the music on offer. The activities of the marching organisation the Ancient Order of Hibernians are also covered in some detail, including the violence to which such demonstrations often led. Perhaps the greatest gem of the trip, finally, was the series of exchanges between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Inspector General of the RUC on a proposal from the ministry to ban the Irish national anthem, ‘The Soldiers Song’. Several such attempts were made between 1935 and 1947, one of which went so far as to specify that ‘whistling’ the anthem would also be prohibited, but were ultimately knocked back by the RUC as counterproductive.

Overall, I’m delighted with my haul over the time I had in Belfast. It was an exhausting trip, but I’ve got a solid base of excellent material, and plenty of avenue to follow up as my project develops.

Image source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/b/bc/EireNuaFlute.jpg

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