It’s probably the only song in existence whose lyrics are known by the majority of the Irish people in the first national language. Ask yourself, when was the last time you were at an international soccer match or a significant Gaelic Games event and heard anyone signing the lyric ‘Soldiers are we, whose lives are pledged to Ireland’ as opposed to ‘Sine Fianna Fail atá faoi gheall ag Eirinn’.
Which diminishes somewhat the acceptance of Peadar Kearney as the writer of the Irish National anthem. Kearney is the author of the lyrics of The Soldier’s Song which was adopted by the Irish Free State in July 1926 as our national anthem. It is said in some circles to have replaced God Save Ireland by Timothy Daniel Sullivan as the national anthem of the fledgling Irish state. However, this is a myth as, despite God Save Ireland’s iconic status, it was never formally adopted as anything other than a rousing, defiant, and frequently-sung Republican hymn. A Nation Once Again probably has equal claims to being the precursor of The Soldier’s Song but the fact is that the Irish Free State did not move to adopt a national anthem of any kind until 1926.
Neither is it entirely clear if the lyrics and music of the song, or just the melody itself, constitute the Irish national anthem. Or whether anything other than the chorus has official status. Kearney was not really responsible for the melody, this was largely written by frequent collaborator Patrick Heeney to Kearney’s lyrics. The other problem is that the English language version has been almost entirely superseded by the Irish translation, Amhrán na bFhiann, written by Liam O’Rinn in 1923. When the song was played at the Ryder Cup in the USA in 2004 in its English language form it caused something of a storm in a tin cup. Confusion also reigned in 1994 when an American band played the utterly unfamiliar verses of the song as well as the chorus at Irish World Cup games.
The Soldier’s Song appears to have been written in 1907, though Kearney himself suggested it was actually penned in 1909 or later. It became popular with members of the Irish Volunteers as a marching song. Kearney was a house painter by profession. His sister Kathleen would later marry another painter, Stephen Behan, making Kearney the uncle of Brendan and Dominic Behan.
He joined the Gaelic League in 1901 – Sean O’Casey was one of his pupils in Irish language classes – and he took the Irish Republican Brotherhood oath in 1903. He was actively involved in the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, becoming a personal friend of Michael Collins. Later he would take the Free State side in the Civil War, a move that certainly did no harm in the choice of his song as national anthem by the Cumann na nGael government of W.T.Cosgrave. He was a witness to the death of Michael Collins in Beal na Blath in August 1922 while travelling in the lead vehicle in the ill-fated convoy.
There is some dispute as to whether Kearney earned royalties for the writing of The Soldier’s Song. He did receive some money from publishers for the original composition but not from the state when the song became the national anthem. Heeney, the composer of the music, had died in straitened circumstances in 1911. When Kearney applied for royalties he was informed by the state that it was the melody and not the lyrics that constituted the anthem. Later, under threat of a royalty suit from Kearney and Heeney’s brother the state agreed to buy out the copyright in 1933 for £1000. They had to do it all over again, this time for £2500, in 1965, after changes in copyright law.
But that was of no benefit to Kearney. He had, like his collaborator, Patrick Heeney, died in relative poverty in 1944. He is buried in Glasnevin cemetery with Thomas Ashe, who died on hunger strike in 1917, and Pearse Beasley.
Peadar Kearney, author of the, now rather unfamiliar, English language version of the Irish national anthem, The Soldier’s Song, was born 131 years ago, on this day.