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Sounding Dissent

Rebel Songs, Resistance and Irish Republicanism


Stephen R. Millar


Music and Social Justice Series

Ann Arbor:University of Michigan Press, 2020

Hardcover. xv + 248 pp. ISBN 978-0472131945. $80/£64.50


Reviewed by Stephen Hopkins

University of Leicester



In the autumn of 2020 Irish republicans commemorated the centenary anniversaries of the deaths of two ‘hero-martyrs’ of the movement: one was the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, who died in Brixton prison in London on 25 October 1920, after 74 days on hunger strike. Despite restrictions imposed due to the pandemic, a small gathering, with music from a piper and speeches from organisers and relatives, took place outside the jail to honour MacSwiney’s sacrifice. The second centenary was remembered on November 1, marking the date when Kevin Barry, who was 18 years old, was hanged in Mountjoy jail, Dublin for his part in an Irish Republican Army (IRA) ambush of a British Army supply truck two months previously, during which three British soldiers had been killed. A new biography of Barry was published in 2020 (written by Professor Eunan O’Halpin, a relative of Barry). Of more relevance for Stephen Millar, ‘there are more than twenty songs and poems’ written about Barry, and the most popular (‘Kevin Barry’) has reached an international audience, having been recorded by Paul Robeson, Leonard Cohen and Pete Seeger, as well as a plethora of Irish traditional groups [76-79]. 

Both centenaries attracted extensive media coverage in Ireland. It should be noted, however, that there was almost no coverage in the mainstream press or broadcast media in Britain. As pivotal events in the War of Independence (Anglo-Irish war) of 1919-21, the legacies and memories of these deaths are now subsumed within the broader national narrative of the struggle for Irish independence and the foundational story of the overthrow of British colonial rule (at least in what is now the Republic of Ireland). In this regard, these legacies enjoy a certain degree of ‘official’ or mainstream support from within the contemporary Irish state, although the ‘ownership’ of these historical narratives is still highly contested amongst different shades of Irish republican and nationalist opinion. The inter-generational transmission of ideas and memories associated specifically with the veneration of ‘hero-martyrs’ as a tool for recruitment and mobilisation, has been a core feature of the Irish republican movement since at least the United Irish rebellion of 1798.

This book delves into one important dimension of this mnemonic politics, namely the ‘rebel song’ tradition. In particular, the doctoral research upon which the volume is based involved an ethnomusicological study of the contemporary rebel music scene in Northern Ireland; the author interviewed Irish republican musicians and audiences, mainly in Belfast, with the objective of examining the complex relationship between the rebel song movement and traditions of ‘physical force’ and the violent expression of republican politics. This is further complicated by the contemporary contestation within the ‘republican family’: the ‘mainstream’ Provisional republican movement (exemplified in Sinn Féin) has eschewed most IRA violence since the movement called its ceasefire in 1997, whereas several so-called ‘dissident’ republican groups (including the ‘Real IRA’, the ‘Continuity IRA’ and the ‘New IRA’) have maintained their commitment to using ‘armed struggle’ in an effort to destabilise, if not overturn, the political settlement signed up to by SF in 1998 (the Good Friday / Belfast Agreement).

Millar illustrates the dynamics of the historical evolution of republicanism and rebel song in a series of carefully constructed chapters. The structure of the book follows a broadly chronological examination of the origins and evolution of rebel song, the intersection of this tradition with (the much smaller) socialist movement in Ireland and its use of a similar repertoire from the later nineteenth century, and the renewal of this corpus of cultural resources with the onset of the modern Troubles after 1970. Millar examines the continuities, but also the innovations, associated with rebel music. One of the particularities of the republican tradition is its focus on failure; he cites Bowyer Bell who argued that ‘no tradition runs deeper in Irish politics than to turn physical defeat into spiritual victory, the slain rebel into a patriot’ [85]. According to Millar, this regular trope in Irish rebel song has provided a powerful counter-hegemonic narrative, opposing the power of the (British) state to control the flow of information and communications in Ireland. During the twentieth century, this tradition also served to permit dissenting republicans to challenge the ‘official’ narrative of the Republic of Ireland state, and in the twenty-first it is being utilised by some ‘dissident’ groups to contest SF’s credentials as a legitimate inheritor of this cultural patrimony. There are layers of nuance involved here, with many melodies being recycled and new lyrics often changing, or even inverting the meaning of a song.

Millar provides an enlightening introduction, which seeks to place rebel music in its historical and contemporary context. He argues that this sub-genre is both participative and performative, indeed that it can be ‘interpreted more as a ceremony than a “gig” in the traditional sense’ [4]. It is also significant to his analysis that this is an underground subculture, ‘largely unheard by those outside its immediate world or by those likely to be offended by its message: most performances are confined to pubs, social clubs, and community festivals in republican areas badly affected by the conflict’ [4]. This distinguishes the rebel scene from republican marching or flute bands, which do engage in the public display of political difference and may be interpreted as a challenge to the ‘ethno-religious Other’, namely the Protestant and unionist community. It would have been interesting had the book examined the online manifestations of the rebel song movement (such as YouTube videos), which arguably do alter the enclosed, self-referential character of this social world. However, Millar is surely correct in his argument that much of the contemporary rebel music scene takes place in locations (such as the Rock Bar, situated at the junction of the Falls and Whiterock roads in West Belfast) where patrons can ‘celebrate a heightened and highly performative form of Irish republicanism free from the complexities of the outside world’ [148]. This reminds us of Richard English’s argument regarding the solipsism of Irish republican politics and culture, particularly in the post-revolutionary era.(1)

Millar also delves into the contested question of rebel songs’ ambivalence with regard to sectarian division in Ireland. He persuasively argues that from the outset such songs tended to promote simplistic binaries between ‘perfidious Albion’ and heroic ‘freedom fighters’; this was understandable in terms of a song’s capacity to operate as ‘an effective propaganda tool’ [17], but it often made for a poor historical appreciation of the communal dynamics of political division. Millar recognises that the political ballads and broadsides of the early nineteenth century often contained an explicitly sectarian animus, but they could later be ‘cleaned up’, particularly as the Catholic church began to exercise moral and political hegemony in nationalist Ireland. He cites Theodore Hoppen’s judgment that this decline in violent and sectarian lyrics was part of a process of ‘cultural laundering’ of the musical inheritance of this era, and also Maura Cronin’s finding that collective memories of 1798 (as expressed in rebel song) were ‘vividly recalled but actively repressed’ [33]. Arguably, the rebel song tradition embodies and reflects a tension deeply rooted within the broader Irish republican movement: namely, that between the egalitarian and universalist political values of republicanism, on one hand, and the sectarian impulses of at least some self-professed followers of the ideology on the other.

Another dimension of the debate concerns the recurring question in Irish republican circles of whether the cultural expression of the movement, including rebel song, was a distraction from or a supplement to the ‘real’ business of physical force and resistance. According to Millar, in the mid-nineteenth century John Mitchel (an Ulster Protestant and Irish nationalist) ‘strongly criticised the substitution of songs for direct action’ [38]; he took a more militant position than his predecessor as editor of the Nation, Thomas Davis (leader of the Young Ireland movement and author of one of the most enduring rebel songs, ‘A Nation Once Again’). Mitchel was impatient for military action and left the Nation to set up his own newspaper, the United Irishman, a vehicle for fomenting rebellion. Even if he was scornful of the ‘taproom patriots’ who sang of rebellion, without being willing to rise up in arms, nevertheless this did not prevent the British authorities from punishing singers or balladeers, some of whom were transported under the Treason Felony Act of 1848 (like Mitchel himself, who received 14 years of penal labour). In a further irony, Mitchel became the subject of ballads, and anyone caught singing ‘John Mitchel’s Farewell’ was liable to arrest [38-39].

In a similar vein, there is an ambivalence which surrounds the ‘nostalgia’ associated with the veneration of ‘martyr-heroes’ in the rebel song tradition. James Connolly was himself an author and publisher of rebel songs, some of which were aimed at both Irish republican and proletarian audiences in the USA (such as the booklet Songs of Freedom, 1907). Millar [54] cites Connolly’s pamphlet of 1897, Socialism and Nationalism, which attempted to uphold a nuanced position, arguing against

stereotyping our historical studies into a worship of the past, or crystallising nationalism into a tradition – glorious and heroic indeed, but still only a tradition. […] If the national movement of our day is not merely to re-enact the old sad tragedies of our past history, it must show itself capable of rising to the exigencies of the moment. It must demonstrate to the people of Ireland that our nationalism is not merely a morbid idealising of the past […].

Connolly appeared here to embrace the orthodox Marxist disdain for nationalist movements and specifically, for the ‘worldwide necromancy’ they peddled, with their tendency to mythologise the past; Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is probably the best exposition of this critique.(2)

As Glazer acknowledged, ‘there is a consensus among many scholars that nostalgia, as a force in culture and society, is reactionary in nature. Its sentimental and uncritical gaze into the past can tend to freeze the present and empower the status quo’.(3) However, as Millar briefly discusses, it can be argued that the force of nostalgia, as exemplified in the rebel song movement, may be harnessed as a vehicle for active resistance, rather than (or, as well as) passive, backward-looking stasis. He cites [118] Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘revolutionary nostalgia’, which might be understood as the power of active remembrance by subaltern groups, a power which can be marshalled to challenge hegemonic ideologies. In this interpretation, whilst nostalgia can sometimes be ‘undesirable and disabling’, it can also ‘move beyond compensation for mourning over loss and instead represent a more active effort at reclaiming what seems lost’.(4) As regards the political uses of nostalgia, Keightley and Pickering argue that ‘it can be about keeping certain alternatives open within the public domain and keeping alive certain counter-narratives that rub against the grain of established social orthodoxies and political pieties’.(5) Ten years after his critique of cultural nationalism and its tendency towards morbid reflection, Connolly published his songbook in the United States and made a stirring case for rebel song as a form of radical nostalgia. Millar [55-56] cites Connolly’s preface to the songbook its purpose was two-fold: to provide the movement with a form of ‘poetical expression’ which would be ‘marked by the joyous, defiant singing of revolutionary songs’, such that it may become the ‘faith of the multitude’, rather than the ‘dogma of a few’; second, all of the songs collected were written in Ireland, ‘by men actually engaged in the revolutionary struggle of their time’ and they were thus ‘born in the stress and strain of the fight, and not in the scholarly seclusion of the study.’ Another decade on, and Connolly would be badly injured in the General Post Office in Dublin during the Easter Rising, where some of these revolutionary songs were sung to keep up the spirits of the doomed rebels [70]. Of course, Connolly was one of the leaders subsequently executed by firing squad in Kilmainham jail, and a significant body of songs has commemorated him as a hero-martyr [72-73].

The cyclical continuity of rebel song production is examined in depth by Millar. He points out that the leader of the 1981 Provisional IRA hunger strikers (and first hunger striker to die), Bobby Sands, was both author and subject of rebel songs. Several of his compositions, written whilst in jail, were made famous by Christy Moore (including ‘Back Home in Derry’ and ‘McIlhatton’). In this regard, he has taken his allotted place in the republican pantheon, which began with Theobald Wolfe Tone in the 1790s and subsequently encompassed James Connolly. As Millar argues, ‘the construction of a canon of republican revolutionaries was conscious and deliberate’ [129]. Like these forebears, Sands’ approach to rebel song and story was designed to reinforce the ‘symbiotic relationship’ between ‘cultural and physical-force resistance’, as well as the alleged essential similarity or connection between 1798, the Fenian Rising of 1867, the Easter Rising of 1916 and the modern republican movement of the late twentieth century.

The book addresses some of the real tensions in the contemporary rebel song movement, however. In part, these stem from the increasing disconnection between the cultural manifestation of Irish republican resistance, and (in the case of the ‘mainstream’ movement, at least) the much more prosaic reality of SF’s role in sharing executive power within Northern Ireland, alongside the diehard unionists of the Democratic Unionist Party. For ‘dissidents’, SF has forfeited the right to claim ownership of this mnemonic resource, because it abandoned the ‘armed struggle’ without achieving its core objectives, and SF has been reduced to administering British rule in the devolved government of a region within the United Kingdom. In this critique, the heart and soul of the ‘resistance community’ has been sundered, as so often in republican collective memory of the movement, by the ‘treachery’ of ‘turncoats’ and those who ‘bargained and sold’ (to cite one of the most enigmatic of the mid-century rebel songs, ‘The Patriot Game’ by Dominic Behan). Millar [89] cites Patrick Galvin’s rhetorical question in 1962, asking why ‘the last thirty years [have] been almost barren of outstanding [rebel] songs?’ One of the reasons Galvin put forward was that the ‘partial and hamstrung victory’ for Irish republican ideals represented by the independence of the 26 Counties had, nonetheless, reduced the potency of the rebel song movement. This had produced ‘a half-hearted reiteration of the most threadbare and ineffectual of the old themes (and increasingly depressed renderings of the old songs), or else snatches of confusion and disunity as regards the present and the future’.

Arguably, we can identify a similar dynamic at work in the post-Good Friday Agreement period, although a countervailing position would point to the continuing appetite for rebel songs amongst some within the post-agreement generation of young republicans. Millar posits that, for many, they are enjoying a self-confident and revitalised rebel song scene as ‘a relatively safe and benign means to offer tribute to the past rather than support for continued paramilitary activity’ [185]. This is a cultural politics motivated by what might be termed exo-nostalgia; a younger generation is keen to express its fidelity to older traditions, in which the rituals of commemoration of ‘armed resistance’ are embraced, as one political generation seeks to ‘maintain contact with the felt, dynamic, lived structures of its forebears’.(6) The difficulty with this benign interpretation is that for some, admittedly a minority, of younger republicans rebel songs may be a cultural gateway to recruitment into ‘dissident’ organisations, in which they will be inculcated in the physical force tradition. The film-maker Sinéad O’Shea interviewed some of these young militants in Derry and concluded that for some, ‘it is not that there may be a return to the Troubles, but that the Troubles have never ended’.(7) As the poet Michael Longley argued in 1995, ‘We Irish are good at resurrecting and distorting the past in order to evade the present. In Ireland we must break the mythic cycles and resist unexamined, ritualistic forms of commemoration’.(8) Twenty-five years later, Millar’s rich and evocative study will enlighten readers interested in Irish history, memory politics and ethnomusicology. It illustrates that the Irish republican movement has by no means run out of cultural resources to exploit (particularly, but not exclusively, in the rebel song tradition), or that the power of those ‘mythic cycles’ has been entirely exhausted.


(1) See Richard English (1993), ‘“Paying no heed to public clamor”: Irish republican solipsism in the 1930s’ Irish Historical Studies, 28 (112). 

(2) See Alistair Bonnett, Left in the Past : Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia (New York: Continuum, 2010) : 22-26. 

(3) Peter Glazer, Radical Nostalgia : Spanish Civil War Commemoration in America (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005) : 7. 

(4) Emily Keightley & Michael Pickering, The Mnemonic Imagination : Remembering as Creative Practice (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) : 115-116. 

(5) Ibid. 

(6) Glazer, op.cit. : 241. 

(7) Guardian, 21 April 2019 : 46. 

(8) Michael Longley, ‘Memory and Acknowledgement’, Irish Review 17/18 (1995) : 153-159.



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