A Four Nations Reception History of The Wolfe Tones
This week, PhD student Richard Parfitt (University of Oxford) uses a four nations approach to consider the reception of populist Irish nationalist music in the 1960s.
Formed in 1963, the Irish ballad group The Wolfe Tones, consisting of Derek and Brian Warfield, Noel Nagle and Tommy Byrne, were a product of the so-called ‘ballad revival’ or ‘ballad boom’ of the 1950s and 1960s, among the most famous groups of which is The Dubliners. The revival saw a wave of new political Irish ballads, partly inspired by the IRA Border Campaign of 1956-1962, mostly by the folk revival taking place in the United States, and given added impetus by the growth of radio and the mass media. The band’s name, taken from an eighteenth-century Irish rebel, was indicative of the band’s political inclinations, reinforced by album titles such as ‘Up the Rebels’ and ‘Rifles of the IRA’. Using a four nations reception history of the group, it is possible to demonstrate the way in which attitudes to the group were effected by local sensitivities and enthusiasm towards populist nationalist music.
Their reception in Ireland is indicative of polarisation regarding populist nationalism after the outbreak of the Troubles. In 1973 following the escape of three IRA inmates from Mountjoy Jail via helicopter, the Wolfe Tones released ‘Up and Away (The Helicopter Song)’, which exuberantly celebrated the breakout:
And it’s up like a bird and high over the city
“Three men are missing” I heard the warder cry
“Sure it must have been a bird that flew into the prison
Or one of those Ministers” said the warder in the ‘joy.
The use of just three chords maintains the simple, memorable structure that facilitated the communality and popularity of their songs, and also underlines the mockery of the hapless guards. ‘Up and Away’ reached number one, and spent eight weeks in the Irish charts; it was one of twenty-four songs by the band that reached the top twenty. The reception of the Wolfe Tones in the press suggests this was not necessarily interpreted as outright enthusiasm for violence. One concert review in the Sunday Independent, for instance, noted that among audiences ‘there is no sign of aggression or emotion. The faces are relaxed and calm’. Nevertheless, the content of their songs was not subtle (‘So it’s up to the rebels’), and there was sufficient concern about the effect of ‘Up and Away’ for the national broadcaster RTE to severely restrict the playing of the song, reflecting anxieties among elites about the propriety of explicitly nationalist culture.
Although their concerts in England were well attended by Irish emigrants, particularly in London, the vast popularity of the Wolfe Tones in Ireland was not replicated in England, and the band never charted. Furthermore, despite the English being the target of greatest scorn by the Tones, the level of concern among political elites (as manifested in the restrictions imposed by RTE) was also far less significant. In The Guardian, the band received a rather favourable review, comparing their ‘punk-like excitement’ to The Pogues. Even disparaging reviews focused on the band’s aesthetic inadequacies more than their political potency. Writing in The Times, one reviewer wrote that ‘their general amusement made itself felt in the audience’ but that the performance was ‘more a collection of tuneful anecdotes’ and that ‘more important work was elsewhere’. The political views expressed by the Tones did not touch on the same sensitivities in England as in Ireland, where debates on the propriety of nationalist music were well rehearsed, and so were seemingly interpreted more as a harmless novelty.
The popularity of the Tones was more pronounced in Scotland. In February 1988, upwards of 50 police were required to control crowds at a concert in Glasgow. As one review stated, ‘Glasgow hadn’t seen anything like it since the last time they played in town’, and the opening song, ‘The Boys of the Old Brigade’, was greeted with ‘a rapturous reception’. The band were closely associated with Celtic F.C., and songs celebrating the team were sung in the run up to the concert. Indeed, the band recorded the ‘Celtic Symphony’ in celebration of the football club’s centenary in 1987. The content of their songs indicates that their popularity in Scotland was linked to an identification with Ireland among Scottish nationalists. The band’s ‘Song of the Celts’ described the links between all the Celtic nations, Scotland and Ireland included, in contrast to Saxons and Danes.
Although the Welsh were also included in the community of Celts described in ‘Song of the Celts’, the reception of the Tones in Wales was at best muted, at worst openly hostile. Nothing like the excitement demonstrated in Ireland, London or Scotland is evidenced for concerts in Wales. Indeed, when they played in the Flintshire town of Queensferry in 1982, the local council proposed to ban their performance altogether. The concern stemmed from the recent release of ‘Admiral William Browne’, a song celebrating Irishman William Browne’s role in setting up the Argentine navy, somewhat provocative during the Falklands War. This was an isolated example, but it demonstrates that, unlike Scotland, the band’s perception of Wales and their actual reception there differed.
Using a ‘four nations’ approach, therefore, demonstrates that ‘The Wolfe Tones’ were often interpreted through the lens of local attitudes towards Irish nationalism. The least hostile reception was certainly in Scotland, where the attraction of the ideals expressed by the band were not counterbalanced, as they were in Ireland, by an elite who were increasingly concerned and embarrassed by populist nationalism in music. That was reflected in the absence of a similar response in the English media, with inclinations towards censorship outside of Ireland limited to a single Welsh local council.
 The Wolfe Tones, Up and Away (The Helicopter Song) (1973).
 Sunday Independent, 18th Apr. 1982.
 The Guardian, 9th Oct. 1985.
 The Times, 18th Oct. 1980.
 Irish independent, 22nd Feb. 1988.
 The Wolfe Tones, ‘Celtic Symphony’, 25th Anniversary (1989).
 The Wolfe Tones, ‘Song of the Celts’, The Spirit of the Nation (1981).
 Irish independent, 5th Jun. 1982.
Richard Parfitt is a second year Dhil student in History at Linacre College, Oxford. His doctorate is on ‘Musical Culture and the Spirit of Irish Nationalism, 1848-1998’. You can read his first published article, ‘“Oh, what matter, when for Erin dear we fall?”: music and Irish nationalism, 1848–1913’, in the November edition of the Irish Studies Review. You can find him on Twitter and academia.edu.