Ireland. Music. Books. Culture.

The good old rebel songs, sung the good old way

Songs of the IRA by Dominic Behan

“Those in power write the history while those who suffer write the songs.”

— Frank Harte

These days, anybody can act like a tough guy.

It’s easy: film yourself threatening people and getting really angry on your cell phone and put it up on your youtube site. Send threatening texts. Rage on Facebook or twitter about what a victim you are. Tell people you’re going to kill them in a rap song.

And so on.

The reissue of the 1958 LP Songs of the IRA by author/singer/songwriter/freedom fighter Dominic Behan gives us a chance to hear what a real, honest-to-God tough guy sounded like. Behan, brother of the more famous author/freedom fighter/legendarily heavy drinker Brendan, was fighting for the IRA as a teenager, wrote novels and plays, and recorded numerous LPs in the ‘50s and ‘60s, along the way penning The Patriot Game, one of the defining Irish rebel songs.

He didn’t talk about it. He didn’t threaten to do it. He went out and did it. He felt he had a duty to go out and fight the British, and at the age when so many modern teens are making idle, empty boasts and threats on social media, he went out and took his chances and engaged the enemy.

The recent rerelease of Songs presents a great opportunity for fans of performers and bands such as the Wolfe Tones, the Dubliners, the Clancy Brothers, Derek Warfield, Christy Moore, The Men of No Property, Black 47, Austin Gaffney, the Irish Brigade, the Legion of the Rearguard, Charlie and the Bhoys and Celtic folk/punk heroes the Dropkick Murphys to hear classic songs such as Kevin Barry, Soldiers of the Rearguard, The Merry Ploughboy and The 18th of November – as well as, naturally, Game – brilliantly and emphatically sung by a man who lived the music and was, for decades, an important part of Irish cultural life. And for anyone who cares about these songs and their place in Ireland’s heritage, it’s an unexpected (if very strange, which I’ll get to in a minute) and vital chance to rediscover one of the classic Irish rebel music recordings.

Songs arrived in 2016 as a mystery: there is no label listed, no songwriting credits, no mention of John Hasted, who backed Behan on accordion, guitar and, most often, banjo. There is also no information about why this reissue – the fourth, at least, since the LP debuted – has six more songs than the original LP and the 1960 rerelease on Topic Records. Behan’s excellent liner notes – which can be found at theballadeers.com – are notable by their absence, as is any explanation of if the music here was remastered, and if so, when and by who.

As I say, it’s a profoundly weird release. But the music remains wonderful. Behan assembled the original 16-song LP as the story of 20th century Irish rebellion in three sections, the War of Independence, the Black and Tan War, and the Civil War. The current running order does not reflect this, because six songs have been added and the running order of the original 16 songs has been changed, but what remains is the sense of Behan’s total commitment to this music and these songs.

He was an excellent singer who knew that singing a rebel song never means that you have to oversell it. On the rousing numbers, he doesn’t press too hard, and on the ballads, he isn’t too maudlin and melodramatic. He sings these songs with purpose, but he never over-emotes; he gets in the pocket and he stays there, and he is extremely adept at building the sense of drama of a given song. His versions of many of them –and certainly The Merry Ploughboy and Game – sound unbeatable, definitive, the work of a man whose hard-earned knowledge of the history and ongoing struggles of his people is evident in every verse and every chorus.