After the Irish women’s soccer team was taped singing “Celtic Symphony” a couple of months ago, and after the Leinster Rugby stadium played “Celtic Symphony” last week, the press has attacked those singing the song and derided the offensiveness of the song, in which the lyrics “up the ‘ra” connotate support for the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA), who waged guerrilla campaigns against British rule in Ireland in 1916, 1919-21, and 1969-98. The song was written by The Wolfe Tones to show support for the Celtic Football Club, whose supporters are traditionally Republican. The song has been a mainstay of Irish music for upwards of 40 years, yet now in an era of censorship, individuals have called for the “Rebel Song” to be banned – this policy is repugnant in a republican society, itself founded by people who used “offensive speech.”
A century ago in the United States, a similar scene existed.
During the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key was a prisoner while the Battle of Fort McHenry was waged, and after witnessing the fort’s bombardment but the American flag still flying, he was inspired to write the “Star Spangled Banner.” It was a patriotic tune known to many, but it was not immediately made the national anthem.
The “Star Spangled Banner” was one of several unofficial national anthems; among the others were “Hail Columbia”, “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)”, and “America the Beautiful”. While these anthems were patriotic to an extent, the historical focus of the “Star Spangled Banner” being interpreted as anti-British led to its being unpreferred by Anglophiles. This led to the song being left out partially or completely by certain books. In an effort to restore knowledge of the full four verses of the “Star Spangled Banner,” the early 20th century saw the emergence of the Star Spangled Banner Association. As the association grew, it began advocating for the “Star Spangled Banner” to become the national anthem.
The most prominent member of the Star Spangled Banner Association was Thomas P. Tuite. Born to Irish “Famine” immigrants in Ohio ca.1849, he was a decorated member of the Detroit Fire Dept., and later joined FDNY. He fought with the Union Army when he was just 14, and when he was 18 he sailed to Ireland to take part in the Fenian Rising – he had no sympathy for the British Empire.
At a hearing in 1922, where he was encouraging New York officials to teach the “Star Spangled Banner” in their curriculum, he was verbally attacked by some committee members:
Despite 60 years [he was actually 73], spectacles, gray hair, and small physique, Mr. Tuite of the Star-Spangled Banner Association agreed three times during the meeting to “take on” a robust young man who tried to foist a British ancestry on the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Mr. Tuite’s resentment reached its zenith when an attempt was made to question whether he was really the head of the Star-Spangled Banner Association after all.
“I’ll take you on right now,” he shouted across benches of spectators. Commissioner Hirshfield pounded his gavel and issued excited orders to a policeman in attendance.
“Or I’ll take you on,” exclaimed Mr. Tuite again, lifting his spectacles and addressing Telfair Minton, who had insinuated that the head of the Star-Spangled Banner Association was ignorant of the genesis of both the words and music of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’
“I’ll take both of you on,” was the final offer of the veteran, and there the matter rested until a few minutes later, when he and Kinnicutt clashed in the doorway, while half the crowd was outside. After some bitter words the veteran exclaimed:
“You wouldn’t read it as an American, anyway. You’re not an American. You’re a Britisher.”
“You’re a liar,” replied Kinnicutt.
The little gray-haired man landed a blow on Kinnicutt’s jaw with unexpected force, especially considering that he had to stand on tiptoe to deliver it, for his opponent is some three inches taller than six feet…
Tuite frequently led walkouts of events that refused to sing the entirety of the “Star Spangled Banner.” In 1926, at a gathering of a religious group called the Port Society, the event’s organizer said there would be no playing of the national anthem because “those words in the third verse are unfair to England. They were written when we were at war with England, and they were written in a spirit of hatred. They are not pretty at all.” Tuite called on all good Americans to leave the event, and many followed. He fully believed in the right of America to assert its nationhood in song and verse, even if the words were “not pretty.” His enthusiastic conviction in the right to free speech, the right to offend, and the right to protest led to Congress and the President adopting the “Star Spangled Banner” as our national anthem in 1931.
In a 1985 debate, American jurist Alan Dershowitz best described the right to the freedom of speech and by extension the right to offend: “One of the rights under the First Amendment is the right to inflict emotional damage on people! When I write an article critical of President Reagan, I want to inflict emotional damage on him! I want him to sit there and say ‘oh my God people are discovering what I’m really doing…’” His example was particularly representative of how important the right to offend is in political debate – if the right to offend people is lost, we have lost the right to freely debate. That right is justly enshrined in the First Amendment, derived from republican theorists like Voltaire who said “I might not agree with what you have to say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”
The right to offend someone with the singing of “Celtic Symphony” is therefore inherent, but even if one were to find that “Celtic Symphony” were offensive, what would be an appropriate recourse? Should the signing of songs that cause offense result in a fine or arrest?
The question then arises, what to do with the British national anthem? If we were to consider a body count of organizations that caused starvation, slavery, and slaughter, the British Empire is probably second to none, yet there is never a consideration of banning “God Save the Queen/King.”
Such a ban would not be desirable to republicans because it would encroach on a royalist’s right to free speech. Further, it would be nonsensical to suggest that the British government might reconsider their national anthem – it is their chosen song and does not represent their detractors.
During The Troubles, rebel songs and Irish Republican politicians were banned from the radio and TV, and in the 1916 era those who dared sing a rebel song could be jailed under the Defense of the Realm Act. In the days of the Fenians, too, the singing of a rebel song was grounds for arrest. One hopes such a situation would never arise again, but with the rising popularity of hate speech legislation in Europe, it is unfortunately a strong possibility.
Click here to listen to Charlie and the Bhoy’s response to 2011 Scottish legislation that banned rebel songs from soccer stadiums.
By James McGlashin
Click here to read the full lyrics of the “Star Spangled Banner.” The third verse caused offense because it derided the British use of foreign mercenaries and slaves to fight their cause against the American colonists.