Aspirational Ireland and the Legacy of the IRA
The Wolfe Tones at Electric Picnic and "getting past it"
A couple of weeks ago, the Wolfe Tones headlined Electric Picnic to a rapturous reception. Electric Picnic is a music festival, the local Irish equivalent of a Coachella or a Glastonbury, with the equivalent type of attendee. (These things are all relative.)
The Tones have been going since the 60s and are, per Wikipedia, “an Irish rebel music band that incorporate Irish traditional music in their songs”. They had hit the headlines a couple of months ago when the Irish women’s football team had been filmed singing their song Celtic Symphony in the dressing room after a significant victory. The song includes the refrain “ooh ah up the ra”.
That incident, and the Tones appearance at the festival, have triggered some mild hysteria on the part of the Irish Media and legacy parties as to whether the Irish public are becoming more pro-IRA than previously.
The background here is the rise of Sinn Féin as a presumptive party of government south of the border. Tánaiste Micheál Martin connected the dots at a party meeting where he accused SF of “infecting a new generation of young people” and “trying to triumphalise the horrible deeds” of the Provisional IRA during the Troubles.
Has something changed in the Irish public perception of the IRA? And is there some significant social trend underlying these events that is worth noting?
At a general level, the answer to the first question is no. I posted some commentary on social media re Electric Picnic and the overall reaction was “what’s the big deal”; people pointed out that they spent their youth attending rebel song singalongs or listening to their parents play tapes of that stuff in the car, and that the Wolfe Tones are, if anything, on the tame end of the spectrum. Others pointed out that the origin of Micheál Martin’s own party (“Fianna Fáil– The Republican Party”) is of course intimately mixed with violence so there is a core of disingenuousness to his comments. All of this is true.
So there has always been an audience for the “Wolfe Tones”-type vibe (although there’s also always been a sizeable audience of people who dislike it). In a way it is simply being given more the salience because of the conversation about Irish Unity post-Brexit and the prospect of Sinn Féin in government in the South, and more visibility because of the era of voluntary mass surveillance introduced by the smartphone and social media.
But there *is* something different and worth noting about the Electric Picnic angle to this story.
No festival the size of Electric Picnic (about 70,000 people) contains a single type of person. The Wolfe Tones headlining was announced in advance, so any die-hard fans of the types mentioned above will have had time to get their tickets.
But a camping ticket for the festival runs to €300, and tickets sold out in under an hour when they went on sale, meaning many will have paid a lot more on the secondary market. A quick browse of the relevant hashtags on Instagram and TikTok reveals that an attendee was more likely to be a young creative living on their parents’ credit card or a well-off office worker with his kids than a working class Communist in a Celtic jersey.
That means that a very large slice of that crowd was status-conscious, upwardly mobile middle-class people from Dublin. This has traditionally been the constituency least receptive to republican imagery and ideas, the least likely to sympathise with the IRA and the least likely to vote for Sinn Féin. People of that type participating in a mass singalong to the Wolfe Tones back catalogue does represent some small change to their perception of republicanism.
I remember what it was like before. On the Southside of Dublin in the late 1990s, where I grew up, being a republican was probably the least fashionable thing a human being could be. Voting for Sinn Féin would have been half-way between voting for the National Front and the Flat Earth Party, i.e. the act of thug but also a crank.
I’m also exaggerating the average views of the time here for comic effect but not that much. Flash-forward to 2023 and the descendants of those southsiders, their counterparts (in the case of some of the older ones, the people themselves) are jumping around in a field to Celtic Symphony.
Middle-class people are more paranoid of their status than any other group – unlike the people at the very bottom they have something to lose, but unlike the people at the top they lack the money to insulate themselves from a bad social decision. That’s why they (particularly the younger ones) are the most conformist social class. They don’t pick up a suspect device unless they’re absolutely convinced it has been defused.
To the extent Micheál Martin is suggesting SF are radicalising people, he gets the causation back to front. People aren’t being lured into radicalism by Sinn Féin; they believe in their heart of hearts that the party are fundamentally no longer radical - in the sense of committed to violence – or that the radicalism is irreversibly disappearing and is nearly gone.
The Troubles are close enough in time that a respectable, status-conscious Irish person can feel a charge of frisson at the proximity to radical politics and violence, but far enough away they risk nothing socially by playing with that memory. If anything was ever asked of them – because of a formal resumption of the IRA campaign – that frisson would curdle instantly into horror and their interest would disappear. To be clear, again, I’m talking about upwardly mobile middle-class people here. If a bomb went off in canary wharf the night before the Wolfe Tones took the stage and the IRA released a statement saying the war’s back on, the field at Electric Picnic would be emptied of them. That’s the reality.
Even as it stands SF brand has not been fully detoxified amongst respectable middle class people. At a promotional event in 2021 Fintan O’Toole said that he:
“… can’t vote for Sinn Féin, because I remember too much stuff, that was so cruel, so inhuman. Planting bombs in cafes and pubs just to kill as many young people randomly as you possibly could. Doing that over and over and over again. I just can’t deal with it, until they’ve dealt with it. I want them to say, this is why it happened, how it happened. We’ve confronted it, we’re not doing that again. But you still have Gerry Adams telling us they haven’t gone away, you know. You still have Sinn Féin TDs doing ‘Up the Ra’ stuff. I find that personally very difficult. I completely understand why somebody in their 20s or 30s doesn’t. I feel very old in relation to this, because I have all these memories I can’t get rid of.”
It’s indicative how he frames his objection - the implication is that he is *should* “deal with it”, and should “get rid of” those memories. Part of that is down to the youth-centric nature of left-wing politics; young people like it and they can’t be wrong. Of course, even if he (and people like him) did get past this stuff, there would still be questions about SF in government, like their relationship to be Gardai, to be considered. But the question for the still quite large number of middle-class Irish people who do remember the heat of the troubles, and never liked or supported Sinn Féin is - what if the price of the IRA finally, truly going away is that you have to live with them being remembered fondly by your children?