April 21, 2011

The Most Controversial Content in Celtic Music: "The Patriot Game"

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While many Celtic songs describe the horrors and heartaches associated with The Troubles,  perhaps none so eloquently captures the emotional gravitas of the turbulent period as "The Patriot Game." The song tells the tale of an actual IRA volunteer, Co. Monaghan's Fergal O'Hanlon, who was killed on January 1, 1957 at the age of 20 during a New Year's Eve attack on the Brookeborough R.U.C. (Royal Ulster Constabulary) barracks. Apart from its controversial subject matter, "The Patriot Game" stirs up controversy for several other reasons.


Dominic Behan, the younger brother of Irish playwright Brendan Behan, wrote "The Patriot Game" in 1957 following the Brookeborough R.U.C. attack. As a youth, Behan had been a member of the IRA's youth organization, the Fianna √Čireann, even publishing his first works in the organization's magazine, Fianna: The Voice of Young Ireland. In 1952, the notably cantankerous Irishman was arrested for protesting the British Crown's treatment of Ireland's working class.

The Verse

Many lyrics in Behan's "The Patriot Game" are capable of raising one's eyebrows, including the very first lines of the song: "Come all ye young rebels, and list while I sing / For the love of one's country is a terrible thing." But even this bold statement concerning the value of patriotism pales in comparison to the following:

I don't mind a bit if I shoot down police
They are lackeys for war never guardians of peace
And yet at deserters I'm never let aim
The rebels who sold out the patriot game

In 1957, decades before the rap group N.W.A. would infamously proclaim, "F*** tha Police," singing about police in a negative light was incredibly controversial. Singing about killing police was, as you can imagine, even more taboo. In fact, nearly all of the Celtic/folk artists who went on to cover "The Patriot Game," including The Clancy Brothers and The Dubliners, purposefully omitted the "shoot down police" verse (much to Behan's dismay).

The Bob Dylan Factor

If Dominic Behan were alive today, he would, in all likelihood, still hate Bob Dylan. The reason? Bob Dylan plagiarized Behan's folk masterpiece, "The Patriot Game," and used it as the underlying lyrical and melodic structure of his 1963-64 song, "With God on Our Side." Or at least that was Behan's point-of-view. The Irishman publicly stated that Dylan made "a complete parody" of his original work, "The Patriot Game."

Digging Deeper

A closer examination of the evidence shows that the originality of Behan's "The Patriot Game" is debatable. "The Patriot Game" is unquestionably an adaptation and reworking of an older folk song -- or perhaps more accurately, a folk song template --, which dates back to the 17th century. Over the years, this template has manifested itself as "The Grenadier And The Lady," "The Nightingale," and "Paddington Green." So while Behan may have considered Dylan a plagiarist, many Dylan fans -- and other folk music aficionados -- think of "With God on Our Side" not as a rip-off, but as the next incarnation of the original 17th century folk song template; just as "The Patriot Game," is an earlier incarnation of that template.

Henry's Songbook: The Patriot Game
Chords & Lyrics

P.S. Hey there! If you liked this post, I have a hunch you'll love NEON DRUID: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy. It's a collection of 17 short stories all rooted in Celtic mythology.

P.P.S. You can also check out my new blog, Irish Myths, where I unveil the secrets of Celtic mythology, Irish mythology, and Irish folklore.

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