Like many students, I made the pilgrimage to Stradbally, County Laois for the annual Electric Picnic festival, and flocked to the Electric Arena tent on Saturday to see the Wolfe Tones perform. The thing is, I couldn’t actually see the Wolfe Tones perform due to the tent being overcrowded with fellow youth — a surprising scene to me, given that the Wolfe Tones were formed in 1963.
Throughout their set, the band performed hits such as Come Out Ye Black and Tans and Celtic Symphony, songs that have been the subject of great controversy as a result of the Republican symbolism associated with them, however, still widely sung in pubs around the country. As the crowd around me chanted “Oo ah up the ra,” I found myself being in two minds about whether or not to join in.
The turnout sparked nationwide debate about the morality surrounding singing such songs, and the demographic of people singing these songs, primarily young adults, caused even more uproar. Former Taoiseach and architect of the Good Friday Agreement Bertie Ahern noted that young people “should educate themselves as to what happened on this island, about the ferocious trauma that we had from 68 on, the fact that 3,700 people were killed, that we had tens of thousands of bombs, shootings that damaged our image all over the world.” The current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, stated that what may appear as a “nice song” to some could be “deeply offensive” to others.
The political debate that has been sparked as a result of the Wolfe Tones performance at Electric Picnic has led me to believe that we are witnessing, as poet W.B. Yeats coined in his poem Easter, 1916: the birth of another terrible beauty in this country. Perhaps it’s the history student in me, but I cannot help but be reminded of previous outrages being birthed from the celebration of Irish nationalism, in particular the 50th and 100th anniversaries of the 1916 Rising.
The political debate that has been sparked as a result of the Wolfe Tones performance at Electric Picnic has led me to believe that we are witnessing, as poet W.B. Yeats coined in his poem Easter, 1916: the birth of another terrible beauty in this country.
Both of these anniversaries, like the Wolfe Tones’ set, occurred on an island at a political crossroads. Firstly, the 50th anniversary of the Rising took place in 1966, just two years before the official outbreak of the Troubles. Reflecting on the commemorations, the prime minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill, stated that the anniversary celebrations made the outbreak of the troubles “inevitable,” and put the “whole future of Northern Ireland in the melting pot.”
Fifty years on, Ireland was once again at a political crossroads, this time as a result of the Brexit vote. Talks of a hard border in Northern Ireland permeated discussions of how best to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The celebrations were planned to be a way of testing the credibility of the leaders North and South of the border, however, showing that fifty years on, the act of celebrating Irish nationalism still sparks debate and concern.
The reading of the Proclamation by Michael D. Higgins did not sit well with the Democratic Unionist Party in the North, as they did not appreciate the honouring of the rebels’ sacrifices at these commemorations. On the other hand, suggestions of inviting members of the British royal family to the celebrations caused outrage amongst members of Sinn Fein.
Fast forward to September 2023, and we see similar debate sparked by the large youth presence at the Wolfe Tones’ set at Electric Picnic. It could be said that the youth of Ireland have caught a case of the “Wolfe Tones syndrome” (as one Hot Press columnist puts it). Despite general hostility towards the activities of the IRA, popular condemnation of their actions can not be taken for granted, given the enthusiasm with which many sing the songs of the Wolfe Tones. Just as in 1966 and 2016, politicians and media outlets are debating and discussing the implications of this national celebration.
Despite general hostility towards the activities of the IRA, popular condemnation of their actions can not be taken for granted, given the enthusiasm with which many sing the songs of the Wolfe Tones.
The outrage that is constantly caused by the celebration of Irish nationalism poses an important dilemma that I believe is not being addressed by officials. Is there a fundamental issue with the way in which Irish people celebrate their history, or, is there unsolicited hostility from Unionists towards these commemorations? History has constantly repeated itself when it comes to national celebration in this country, it’s about time we start to address why.
Is there a fundamental issue with the way in which Irish people celebrate their history, or, is there unsolicited hostility from Unionists towards these commemorations?
On top of asking these questions, we should be viewing the Wolfe Tones set as an opportunity to reignite discussions on the national question. The youth of Ireland have spoken, quite literally, in their droves, and it’s evident that they are interested in the possibility of a referendum for a United Ireland.
It’s also a chance for us to explore the way in which history is taught in schools in Ireland. As the Wolfe Tones’ song goes: “From our school days they have told us we must yearn for liberty.” Should there be a push towards a more neutral, less nationalist-centred focus on the teaching of history in schools?
Historian Charlotte Lydia Riley notes that “the comforting myth spun from tales of past national glories often resist the historian’s red pen.” Are we pushing a romantic, idealistic agenda on the youth of Ireland, and ignoring the thousands of people who were killed as a result of the conflict in Northern Ireland? Perhaps it’s time, as a nation, to take out our red pen and re-evaluate the ways in which we speak about the past in order to prevent such outrage occurring in the future. I believe that once again, a terrible beauty has been born, and we need to grab it with both hands and use it to address the current political crossroads with which we find ourselves at.
Perhaps it’s time, as a nation, to take out our red pen and re-evaluate the ways in which we speak about the past in order to prevent such outrage occurring in the future.
Romantic Ireland is not dead and gone. It’s been dug from its grave by the Wolfe Tones.