Let him who is without sin cast the first tune stone

Patricia Feehily


Patricia Feehily

Let him who is without sin cast the first tune stone

The Irish men’s hockey team in Rio

SOME people haven’t a lot to worry about. I’m referring in particular to those sensitive souls who were deeply offended by the flat rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann from the Irish men’s hockey team in Rio last week.

By all accounts, the more musical among us were reduced to sticking their fingers in their ears to block off the cacophony, while the more nationalistically minded had to get therapy afterwards. As luck would have it, I’m tone deaf myself and didn’t have to seek any remedy.

I’ve seen re-runs of the performance since and it is my humble opinion that the men were so focussed on the task ahead that they didn’t even notice that the Karaoke wasn’t working. Maybe they were all tone deaf like myself and wouldn’t have noticed anyway.

I promptly dismissed the whole incident as a silly season column inch filler, until the following day when the campaign began to have the teaching of the National Anthem added to the curriculum in primary schools. Now that hit a sore point with me. Back in my distant youth, when I desperately wanted to be a primary school teacher, I was turned away from Mary Immaculate because I couldn’t sing. I wasn’t the only one, but thankfully that ridiculous requirement has long been removed and generations of unmelodious teachers have since been released into primary schools without sabotaging the education system.

But how can you teach the National Anthem, if you can’t sing yourself? Suddenly, I find myself having a recurring nightmare.

Even as I write, the campaign is gathering force. A Fine Gael Senator, who should have more on his mind right now, has asked Education Minister, Richard Bruton - who definitely has a lot more on his mind right now - to include Amhrán na bhFiann in the primary school curriculum. The performance in Rio, he said, indicated that many Irish people don’t know the words of the song and don’t even know the tune. Now I, for one, would much prefer if they introduced more Maths and English to the classrooms and hung on to Religion classes, which I believe, do a lot more for the soul than a rousing tribal song, which isn’t that impressive in the first place.

However, a poll, for what it’s worth, has shown that the majority of parents want their children taught the anthem in school. A somewhat similar majority earlier in the summer wanted religion classes removed from the curriculum. So the soul doesn’t come into it then, or does it? Is tribalism to be the new god?

The whole controversy takes me back many years to the primary school which I attended as a child.

It was a brutal place, to be honest, and quite painful to recall. Not only was corporal punishment liberally applied, but we also had to sweep the floors and wash the inkwells ourselves. Imagine asking a pupil to clean the classroom now? Anyway, we did learn the National Anthem as Gaeilge, which I now realise in retrospect, did nothing at all for my patriotism.

Every evening at 3pm, when we should have been rushing out the door on empty stomachs to freedom and a temporary respite from the beatings, we had to control our hunger pangs and stand and sing Amhrán Na bhFiann. We didn’t exactly place our right hands on our hearts, as American kids apparently do – unless the hand happened to be swelling after four or five hard slaps of a sally stick - but we had to give a correct and spirited rendition. If we weren’t enthusiastic enough or if someone sang out of tune, we’d have to stop and start all over again. I had to mime my way through the ordeal, or we’d have been there all night.

In the years that followed I heard the Anthem played and sung in the strangest and most inappropriate places. Strangely, I never heard it sung in English. But respect, not to talk of soul, didn’t even come into it. It was used in singing pubs as the signal for closing time for years and in the old ballrooms of romance, it was usually the last tune played while people with other things on their minds made for the door before the first chord could be struck.

I refused to stand for the National Anthem at closing time in a pub once, partly because I wasn’t sure if I could stand at all, and partly because of a sudden fit of anarchy fuelled by three glasses of ‘Babycham’. Let me tell you that Diarmuid Mac Murragh wasn’t treated with as much disdain when he invited Strongbow over to sort us out once and for all.

Finally, there are still a few people like myself who would prefer if the anthem was not taught in primary schools. One on-line comment in particular, caught my eye. “It would be much better if the kids were taught not to eat too much and to respect each other,” the writer suggested. My sentiments entirely, or is the Babycham still talking?

Others want to see a new anthem altogether - one more suited to ‘an all-Ireland Republic’ and one that is less militaristic. I don’t agree at all. Apart from the irksome wishful thinking, there is history in the one we have, and with the baggage we’re carrying, I don’t know where we’re going without some kind of a battle song.

Meanwhile, if it’s any consolation to those who were outraged by the discordant strains from Rio, a survey across the water has found that most young people in Britain today don’t know the words of ‘God Save the Queen’ either, though it’s much easier to learn than ours.