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Commemorating In 2016 - A Personal Reflection

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Author Profile: Patrick Egan
This Outreach member has published 17 articles.

Commemorate: "mark or celebrate (an event or person) by doing or producing something."

com - altogether 
memorate - relate

On the 13th of January this year, the Irish Times carried an article entitled "Easter Rising commemorations: 50 events for 2016... Centenary of 1916 marked by offical ceremonies and hundreds of local initiatives". Apart from its "Top 50 things to do" style, only one of the listings (number 11) concerned the context of recent histories in the north, and the connections that they have to 1916 as it was a pivotal time in Irish life. Perhaps to get down to these extremely sensitive issues this year might be a difficult task for a newspaper.

I grew up in rural Ireland in the late 1980s, at a time when The Troubles in the north were heard about on a regular basis. My parents' pub is next to our house, and I often heard and read about the events that unfolded in the early 1990's.

In my local area, I can remember having to witness arguments between Protestants and Catholics over one thing or another from time to time, on topics from land to loyalties. The divide often crossed over into music and song. I can still remember the local piper playing the national anthem at the end of a Saturday night, and following it with the tune to the song "A Nation Once Again".

This was followed by the words of one local protestant in the pub asking me, "You hear them tunes now, would you come up to my farm and shoot me in the morning?", a reminder that not every Irish person was always comfortable with nationalist songs. I heard many years later that that very person used to be antagonised in the area just for being protestant, just as much as catholics were looked down upon for being what they inherited. 

As a traditional Irish musician growing up in this environment, I was always questioning the repertoire. I naturally began an exploration that has lasted to this day with regard to what it means to be Irish, and more importantly, what it means to express your sense of Irishness. In my teens I started listening to all different types of music, and at one point brought home CDs of "rebel" songs, unionist songs and anything that existed on different sides of the divide. I read books on those who grew up in Belfast from different walks of life, those fighting in the troubles, those escaping them. 

The 1798 rebellion has many associated songs, 'Kelly the Boy from Killane', and 'The Boys of Wexford', and 'The Croppy Boy'. During my primary school days, I was encouraged to learn songs like 'Boolavogue' and 'The Rising of the Moon'. Most of these relate to events down the road from my home area in Wexford, and their potency is still felt strongly since the 1798 rebellion, especially in the Southeast. In 1998, events were marked across the country to remember the events of this period in Irish history. My brother and I were asked that weekend to play music in the local town of Clonegal. The locals had all dressed up as redcoats and pikemen, and paraded the roads until at last lining up in a field in front of a large stage made out of a lorry trailer. The music that day I remember was bizarre! - mostly country and western, a few of the songs mentioned above, with a couple of "trad tunes" from "the Egan brothers" thrown in for good measure.

Just as the 1798 commemoration played out as a strange mix of cultural 'commemorations', this year also brings with it a fresh set of complex feelings. Already it raises those old questions I have asked from twenty years ago, as they now re-appear in a different light. So much has happened since '98, when I was half the age I am now. 

Like the 1798 rebellion, the commemoration of 1916 and the Irish revolution have spurned up some songs that you might predict. Some more popular songs that come to mind are Óró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile, The Foggy Dew, James Connolly, Down By The Glenside (Glory-O to the Bold Fenian Men), and The Valley of Knockanure.

Personally, however, unlike 1798, when I think of 1916, there are some songs which I think of, indirectly related to the complexities of such times. One such song is Seán Keane's rendition of 'There Were Roses', from one of the first CDs that we had played in our pub, "All Heart No Roses". It doesn't talk about risings or oppression, but evokes senses about the reality of what happens in peoples' lives during these tough times.

Thinking of this one then also brings me back to the song, "They Wounded Old Ireland", written by Scottish man Andy Stewart. It calls on us to remember the changes that have happened in Ireland since 1916. One of the best versions I have heard was by Terry Corcoran, a mighty singer and guitarist who had a great ear for songs.


Come gather 'round you freeborn men 
And draw your chairs to mine
And I'll tell you of my country, 
That you might understand. 
And of the English armies, 
That marched in for to stay. 
Oh that night they wounded Old Ireland, 
And she's bleeding to this day.

Their dogs of war were loosed to run 
And hunt the rebels down 
They hoped to rule this land by fear 
And hold it for the Crown 
But a mighty thought was born in men 
When they killed James Connolly 
Oh that night they wounded Old Ireland 
And she's bleeding to this day.

The Border lies like an open wound 
That only love can heal 
For bitterness and cruelty 
They will never close the weal 
The mean of vision built a dream 
Which the blind men stole away 
Ah that night they wounded old Ireland 
And she's bleeding to this day.


My heart it holds a vision clear 
That thousands more can see 
Of Ireland free from hatred 
And death and bigotry 
Where Irishman to Irishman 
Can in friendship clasp a hand 
If we banish fright from the Ulster night 
Then we'll free Old Ireland.

Come gather 'round you freeborn men 
And draw your chairs to mine
And I'll tell you of my country, 
That you might understand. 
And of the English armies, 
That marched in for to stay. 
Oh that night they wounded Old Ireland, 
And she's bleeding to this day.

I think the word "commemorate" has it's own set of problems as everyone has their own remembrance of what these times really mean to them. Remembering the complexity of these situations may be just as important as the events themselves.

Patrick Egan

(For more about the song "Foggy Dew", please see Labrini's article here)

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Guest Monday, 05 June 2023