More than music: singing the Troubles in Northern Ireland

By Jess Readett

Music and politics went hand in hand throughout the ‘Troubles’. From the unionist Lambeg drum beating on Orange Day, to Bobby Sands’ lyrics scrawled on the cigarette packets smuggled out of Long Kesh – the ‘Troubles’ had a soundtrack that served as more than mere background music to its players.

In the current literature this is yet to be fully acknowledged and rarely is the idea that music existed as anything other than a creative outlet explored.[1] When it is, there is often a narrow focus on specific aspects of music such as rebel songs and parades.[2] These only provide detailed pockets of information, limited to one time period, group, or event.

Yet historians can learn a lot from studying all the music of the ‘Troubles’. Music had the potential to unite and divide, it controlled and critiqued narratives, was subject to censorship and yet survives to this date. Music allows us to explore wider themes such as commemoration and identity, as well as actors’ perceptions of events, themselves, and each other.  

For both nationalists and unionists, music can be a means to project a strong identity and promote cohesion. Rebel songs and Orange music have their own distinctive features, unique to either group. Lyrics celebrate past victories and commemorate martyrs, allowing those singing to form bonds over a sense of shared struggle spanning generations.

It can be easy to take the often-provocative lyrics of nationalist and unionist music at face value as attempts to antagonise one another – and of course this did take place. Yet singing was often confined to the company of one’s group and, no matter how loud, hardly the most antagonistic weapon of choice. Provocative songs should therefore be viewed as further attempts to promote cohesion within a group by increasing division with an out group. Thus, rather than those who the song mocked and taunted, the intended audience of this music was predominantly the singers’ comrades, who benefitted from a greater sense of togetherness against a shared enemy.

Using music to strengthen identity and engender solidarity was particularly apparent for republican prisoners inside Long Kesh. Following the end of Special Category status in March 1976, republican prisoners began a series of protests, which eventually led to the hunger strikes of 1981, in which ten prisoners starved themselves to death.

During these years, those on the protest were stripped of all privileges. Isolated in their cells, many turned to music as a form of entertainment and means of connecting with comrades through the stone walls. Bobby Sands, the first hunger striker to die in 1981, was renowned for the songs and poetry he created while on protest. Most notably ‘Back Home in Derry’, which was smuggled out of Long Kesh. Later set to music by Christy Moore, it has become  a widely popular Irish folk classic. Writing music was not only a form of escapism for Sands, but also a means to connect his struggle to republican activity outside the prison and a longer history of Irish suffering and martyrdom.

In a diary entry for what would be his final birthday, Sands recalled one of the many H-Block ‘sing songs’, where rebel songs would be performed – this concert though was especially for him.[3] Using music to celebrate a birthday was critical in creating some semblance of normalcy inside Long Kesh. Yet with Sands on his ninth day of hunger strike and Thatcher standing firm, this ‘sing song’ was also an emotional show of solidarity and respect for his sacrifice. Indeed, it was often in the face of hardships such as this, or ‘setbacks’ such as forced washing or the capture of a notable republican, that the singing would be loudest.[4]

When Francis Hughes, the second hunger striker to die, was first imprisoned, he was greeted with renditions of ‘Kevin Barry’ and ‘Tom Williams’. Singing about martyrs and struggles of the past in this way was essential to strengthening the republicans’ connection to the cause at a time when it would be tested most. It also reasserted the political motivations that they argued set them aside from the common criminal, justifying their actions and the need for protest. In that sense, music was more than a hobby or a means to pass the time – it was a political tool, a tactic to engender solidarity, increase endurance and stay on protest.

Throughout the conflict, music was also a means to establish a narrative over events. During the late sixties, the song ‘We Shall Overcome’ was used by civil rights protestors to draw similarities to the discrimination taking place in America. By emphasising a want for equality, activists hoped to dismiss the loyalist narrative that they were in fact the IRA, seeking to unite Ireland through violence. Instead, they hoped to gain trust and legitimacy by drawing parallels to an international campaign. Eamon McCann, one of the original organisers of the Derry Housing Action Committee said, “There was something romantic about that (the song) because it suggested we were involved in a much wider and more noble struggle, rather than fighting about things in Northern Ireland.”[5]

Yet, Bernadette Devlin recalls how sometimes the singing of this civil rights anthem would transcend into the nationalist song, ‘A Nation Once Again’, after many protestors did not know the words to the former. [6] The singing of nationalist songs made unionists uncertain of how to view protestors and respond to their demands. Indeed, many hard-line loyalists took the singing of these songs as evidence that the IRA were involved in the civil rights campaign and reason to resist it. Thus, music played a role in portraying identity – and confusing it.

The British government’s narrative that the army was ‘a neutral peace keeping force’ in the province was also (though very rarely) contested through popular music. Following the events of Bloody Sunday on 30 January 1972 where the British army shot and killed thirteen unarmed civilians, John Lennon provided one of the very few songs to explicitly condemn state violence in Northern Ireland.[7]

In ‘The Luck of the Irish’ he sang:

Why the hell are the English there anyway?

As they kill with God on their side

Blame it all on the kids the IRA

As the bastards commit genocide! Aye! Genocide!

The song and its censorship by the British government demonstrates the battle over narrative in Northern Ireland. The government saw it as essential for the British army to be seen as a neutral peacekeeping force, restoring order to a domestic situation. Yet, in the face of increasingly clear state sanctioned violence, others came to see a colonial aggressor, repressing attempts at self-determination. Music was therefore a battleground in itself between actors seeking to justify their actions and establish their own narrative over events.

Far from being limited to an art form or existing purely for listener’s pleasure, music was very much a political tool in the ‘Troubles’, and one that deserves historians’ time and attention. It was essential in projecting strong identities and uniting people behind them, establishing a narrative over events and critiquing others’ actions. It goes without saying that the songs of the ‘Troubles’ were not just playing softly in the background – they had purpose and intent, a role in the conflict and our memory of it – they deserve to be listened to and learned from.


[1] See Stuart Bailie, Trouble Songs: Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland (Belfast: Bloomfield Press, 2018)

[2] See Dominic Bryan, Orange Parades: The Politics of Ritual, Tradition and Control (London: Pluto Press, 2000), Thomas Fraser, The Irish Parading Tradition: Following the Drum (London: Macmillan Press, 2000) for the role of music in parades. See Stephen R Millar, Sounding Dissent: Rebel Songs, Resistance and Irish Republicanism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020) for rebel songs.

[3] Bobby Sands, One Day In My Life (Cork: Mercier Press, 2001)

[4] David Beresford, Ten Men Dead: The Story of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike (New York: Grove Atlantic Press, 1997). Beresford told the account of the hunger strikers through IRA documents and letters smuggled out of the prison.

[5] Stuart Bailie, Trouble Songs: Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland (Belfast: Bloomfield Press, 2018)

[6] Bernadette Devlin, The price of my soul (London: Pan Books Ltd, 1969)

[7] Others include Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six by the Pogues and Lets Do the Things We Normally Do by Dido.

Jess Readett is a first class History and Politics graduate from the University of Leeds. 

(Image: © Bobby Sands Trust)

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