IRELAND: Let The People Sing - The Wolfe Tones
Updated: Apr 10
Perhaps the very definition of a problematic favourite, Let The People Sing poses the difficult question of whether an album can be loved despite its complicated and often reprehensible politics
Ahead of writing this review I have been tossing and turning in my bed each night pondering how to get across the nuanced point of view that I have on this album, without causing too much offence or disrespect to both the integrity behind the pain that many Irish people feel about their history in persecution, and the legacy of those innocent people who were killed by the IRA during The Troubles. I cannot help but love the album for its joyous music; yet I, of course, must recognised that it is in some regards a deeply flawed and in some ways could fairly be perceived as an overtly dangerous collection of songs that may have been responsible for further stirring up pro-IRA sentiment and thus actual murder. Released in the bloodiest year of the conflict, 1972, amidst a backdrop of 22 car bombings in Belfast alone, The Wolfe Tones' fifth studio album is arguably the pick of the bunch amongst their mighty back catalogue.
“After such a history, I do not believe it is a crime to be suspicious of the British, who quite frankly had made the lives of them and their ancestors hell for nearly a millennia, and with the expected no-deal Brexit that is due to arise in the coming days, they do not seem like stopping this track record any time soon.”
Some might try to suggest that The Wolfe Tones are victims, as they are perhaps wrongly characterised as supporters of the IRA. Whilst I don’t agree with this point of view, I think it is fair to suggest that the resonance of their songs has changed with time and that they are in some respects absolutely justified for following a proud tradition of Irish folk song that exists on both sides of the religious divide. Whilst there is a respected tradition of Ulster Presbyterians folk songs, due to the actions of the IRA in the 20th century, a perception has arisen that seems to suggest that Catholic republican anthems like those of the Wolfe Tones are not viewed in the same way, as they are deemed inherently nationalist and xenophobic rather than simply patriotic. Although I can put forward numerous arguments in line with this, I think it is fair that we take a look at Irish history to put some of the tracks on Let The People Sing into the context in which they were written.
Since the Norman conquest of Ireland in 1169, the Irish have suffered many centuries of difficulties that peaked during the Protestant reformation of England. This led to a proud tradition of rebellion that perhaps roots from the most notable fight back against the British, during their efforts to colonise Ireland in the 16th century. British subjugation of the Irish has been at the core of Irish history, and although it is perhaps an overly simplistic view to have, many would agree that the brutal decimation of the Irish population that occurred during the potato famine of the 1840s was pretty much down to horrific mismanagement of the situation by the British government. It seems hardly a surprise that, in the context of the late 1960s, the British army’s intervention at the Battle of the Bogside would worry many proud Irishmen of history repeating itself.
After such a history, I do not believe it is a crime to be suspicious of the British, who quite frankly had made the lives of them and their ancestors hell for nearly a millennia, and with the expected no-deal Brexit that is due to arise in the coming days, they do not seem like stopping this track record any time soon. Furthermore, I do not feel that this section of Irish society should be prohibited from exploring their history in the form of music, like many other traditions from all over the world proudly do in order to remind the future generations of their ancestors’ stories. Tracks like James Connolly, which is about the socialist revolutionary’s execution by firing squad after the Easter Rising of 1916, typify this phenomena of songs that tell an important narrative in a relatively harmless way.
Yet, context is everything with music. One cannot deny that. Their patriotic songs do on numerous occasions cross into nationalist territory, and when one considers the time in which this album was released, it is not difficult to imagine that their music would have surely played a part in evolving a nationalist sentiment amongst audiences, who would happily chow down on their joyous guitar twanging and fairly simplistic lyrical narratives that ostracise unionists, which at its worst could have even radicalised youngsters to join the IRA and commit acts of terrorism. As an Englishman (I say without a great deal of pride, I must add) I can’t envision that I would be welcome in the audience of a Wolfe Tones gig, and would almost certainly face violence that they themselves incite in some of their songs were I to be in the wrong section of the crowd. Christ, even when I listen to Come Out Ye Black and Tans I feel somewhat motivated to throw a few jabs at the next Brit I see, whether that is in the street or simply looking in the mirror at myself.
The problem is that if even I, who is very distant to the reality of The Troubles both in terms of geography and generation, experience their music as a rallying call to rebel and either support or act on the nationalist cause, then what hope would that leave disenfranchised youngsters in the streets of Ireland who are far deeper engaged and entrenched with that reality. Whilst I can be somewhat empathetic to an anti-unionist ideology, given their history, ultimately the acts of terrorism that occurred time and time again for over three decades are utterly reprehensible and are the result of that being seen as fulfilling a sense of duty as a proud Irishman. This is where The Wolfe Tones music utterly falls apart. Amazing songs such as Sean South of Garryowen, which honour the legacy of fascist and anti-Semitic conspiracist Seán South, or Long Kesh, a song protesting the imprisonment of IRA members with the rather haunting line “by civil disobedience or any other way, we'll make a stand until the day each one of them are free”, deeply concern me as they could well have generated a toxic and violent atmosphere in a nation that was already fraught with it.
So, here begs the inevitable question… “why is it Album of the Week?” Well, despite the fact that it is an immensely problematic album (I think I was just sick in my mouth, catching myself using the term 'problematic' unironically), it succeeds on numerous levels. Musically, the album is astoundingly good. The cohesion amongst the band members is phenomenal and evokes a sense of unity, if you will pardon the pun, that makes it easy for those listening to feel like they can sing along. There is of course musical talent on display in the form of both instrumentation and vocals. There is perhaps not a better example of this than on Don't Stop Me Now where there seems to be whistles, pipes, banjos, harps, mandolins and more, playing altogether and perfectly in unison with rousing singing alongside them. Whilst away from this record the band are perhaps best known for defiant numbers such as Celtic Symphony, this album shows the band off as great balladeers too. The variety between fun little ditties such as Twice Daily which sound like it features a bouzouki (even though it is unlikely) and ballads such as For Ireland I’d Not Tell Her Name and the Beatles-esque The First of May demonstrate a competency across the musical spectrum. Furthermore, my praise for this album is mostly because it feels authentic.
For all of my criticism about the lack of responsibility the band seem to take for their music, who am I to question them? If I really felt as strongly as some people in independent movements in places like the Basque Country do, I think that music would be an excellent way to protest and gain support for a cause I believed deeply in without committing acts of violence - I might likely have done the same in their shoes. In this sense, Let The People Sing is the perfect response to years of perceived injustice and as such should be heralded. Although a complicated album to review, it is utterly enjoyable and if nothing else will serve as an incredible historical artefact for centuries to come as it rather perfectly sums feelings behind a movement at a significant a moment in Irish history.