A chant with five syllables, dating from the 1980s, has roared back to divide Ireland, anger British politicians and subvert history: ooh, ah, up the ’Ra.
The chorus of Celtic Symphonies, a song by the folk group the Wolfe Tones, celebrates the IRA with a catchy, upbeat rhythm. For years it has been belted out in pubs and sporting clubs across Ireland, but usually in semi-private, away from the limelight.
That changed on 11 October when members of the Ireland women’s football team were filmed singing it in their changing room as they exulted qualifying for the 2023 World Cup.
The footage went viral and triggered a row about glorifying the IRA’s campaign during the Troubles that has left Ireland grappling with fraught questions about national identity, pride and history.
The controversy swelled when Celtic Symphonies topped Ireland’s iTunes charts and people were filmed chanting the chorus at a Dublin airport pub.
Northern Ireland’s unionist leaders asked the taoiseach, Micheál Martin, to use his influence to curb the practice, calling it an affront to those injured and bereaved by the IRA. John Baron, a Conservative MP, told the House of Commons it marked a “low point” in relations between the UK and Ireland.
The Football Association of Ireland and the women’s team have expressed shame and apologised, but that has only fuelled debate in Ireland, where many defend the chant as a legitimate expression of national pride by a generation that has reclaimed and refashioned traditional republican tropes.
“They get used so regularly as to be rendered cliche, they are performative tropes with the original malevolent meaning stripped out,” said Paddy Hoey, a lecturer in media, culture and communications at Liverpool John Moores University. He compared the “Ra” chant to England fans singing Ten German Bombers or Two World Wars and One World Cup.
Irish people in their 20s carry no baggage from the Troubles, said Hoey. “In the post-peace process era there is a level of playfulness, the naughty schoolchild, attached to singing these songs. There’s a certain degree of depthlessness or ironic banter.”
Criticism tends to backfire, added Hoey. “It’s the Streisand effect. The more you draw attention to this kind of stuff and try to police what people have to say, the greater chance of it rebounding.”
The phenomenon coincides with the ascendance of Sinn Féin. Once an IRA mouthpiece with fringe support, it is now Ireland’s most popular party and appears poised to lead the next government.
A recent poll put combined support for Sinn Féin and smaller leftwing parties among people aged 18-34 at 73%. The party’s promise to fix a housing crisis and redistribute wealth has driven the surge, but many supporters also adopt the party’s defence of the IRA campaign. “As Sinn Féin grows, past violence is retrospectively endorsed,” one commentator, Newton Emerson, wrote in the Irish Times.
Opinion in Northern Ireland, where Sinn Féin has become the largest party, has shifted: in a recent poll, 69% of nationalist voters agreed with the party that there was “no alternative” to violent resistance during the Troubles – a reversal from 1998 when 70% of Catholics rejected republican justifications for violence.
Eunan O’Halpin, a Trinity College Dublin history professor, said ostensibly pro-IRA chants reflected partly a desire to “wind up older generations” and partly Sinn Féin’s success at framing the Troubles through the lens of the 1981 hunger strikes, security force killings and state collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. “The recital moves seamlessly from one pile of bodies killed by British forces to another pile killed by British forces.”
The Sky News presenter Rob Wotton prompted widespread indignation when he asked an Ireland player if the row over the team’s chant highlighted a need for education. Commentators called the question patronising and hypocritical given British ignorance about Ireland.
O’Halpin, however, said some secondary school history texts hopscotched through the Troubles, which claimed 3,700 lives between 1969 and 1998, and underplayed the fact that the IRA and other republican groups were responsible for 60% of killings, with loyalist paramilitaries being responsible for 30% and British security forces 10%.
Making History, a standard text, illustrates those statistics in a pie chart and notes that the IRA killed “many civilians”, but its 21-page chapter on the Troubles gives scant detail about bombings and shootings, focusing instead on internment, Bloody Sunday, hunger strikes and political developments.
The Guardian interviewed 12 randomly selected Trinity undergraduates about the Troubles. Asked to estimate the total death toll, most declined, saying they had no idea. Those who did guess gave answers ranging from 50 to 20,000. One correctly said the figure was between 3,000 and 4,000.
Estimates of the IRA’s proportion of killings ranged from 10% to 60%, with several correctly guessing it was around half. However, they assumed security forces, rather than loyalist paramilitaries, accounted for most of the rest.
Most defended the “Ra” chant. “I think it’s harmless. It has come to mean an Irish victory against the odds, an underdog mentality,” said Allanah Ryan, 19, a law and history student. “It’s like a joke, a school chant insulting the other team.”
Lucy Murray, 21, said the chant expressed pride, not malice. “It’s not derogatory. It’s not anything anyone takes seriously.”
Three of the 12 said the chant was inappropriate even if used to celebrate Irish nationalism, not the IRA. Ciara McNamee, 21, said the Sky reporter’s question was infuriating, coming from an English person, but justified. “Many Irish people don’t really know about the Troubles, they don’t know how terrible it was.”