The Patriot Game
“Come all ye young rebels, and list while I sing,
For the love of one’s country is a terrible thing.
It banishes fear with the speed of a flame,
And it makes us all part of the patriot game… “
— The Patriot Game, Dominic Behan
I have always felt a strong connection to my Irish heritage. My mother’s mother’s maiden name was Banks, my father’s mother’s was Gilligan. My own name is mainly Welsh — Gaelic all the same.
I was a history nut, interested in all histories and cultures, but as a child I initially focused on the history of the countries where my ancestors resided before their respective flights to the land of gold-paved streets. Ireland always stuck out to me, I felt a stronger kinship to it than the other nations that cobbled together the European mutt that is myself — I am no thoroughbred. Perhaps it was solely because I am mostly Irish, both sides of my family have connections to the Emerald Isle. To this day, it is the only one of the many nations that make up my background that I have had the pleasure of visiting.
I went to Ireland with the mindset of an exiled son, returning home.
“My name is O’Hanlon, and I’ve just turned sixteen.
My home is in Monaghan, and where I was weaned
I learned all my life cruel England’s to blame,
So now I am part of the patriot game…”
Before my return, I took a class at my first college in 2015, freshman year. The class was “The History of Ireland.” I already had a decent grasp on the subject but I was not prepared for the sense of impotent anger that my professor’s strictly academic, yet subtly passionate, lectures highlighting the cruelties that defined Ireland’s storied past would bring out of me.
To properly summarize it here is impossible, there’s simply too much to cover. In short: Ireland served as the first colony of what would become the British Empire — her unwilling guinea pig. This may seem odd for many today, they might say “aren’t the Irish and British not very similar in culture, neighbors with a common language?” In reality, the Irish were once a wholly independent culture and people.
During a period of infighting between the countless patchwork-kingdoms that ruled over Ireland in the Middle Ages, one king made a decision that would define the history of the island for the next millennium. He asked the recently empowered rulers of merry old England, the Normans, to assist him in his efforts to establish a more centralized grip on the Irish people. They did so, but decided to stay afterwards.
They liked the real estate.
“This Ireland of ours has too long been half free.
Six counties lie under John Bull’s tyranny.
But still De Valera is greatly to blame
For shirking his part in the Patriot game.”
“John Bull” is Britain, the crown. Ireland would remain under the control of England for over 800 years. In that time, England, to varying degrees of success, would attempt to erase all that existed of an independent Irish culture. This included their language, their customs, their political autonomy, their financial standing, and, after England’s turn to Anglicanism, their adherence to Catholicism. The latter issue would serve to define much of the tension that existed between the people of the Island and their colonial rulers, even after the majority of Ireland would achieve independence from the crown.
I was raised as a Catholic, I am no longer one. Yet, even as a non-believer, I felt incensed when reading about the persecution they faced at the hands of the British. In truth, religion was, and always is, a simple excuse to justify any sort of animosity and ensuing conflict between people.
To illustrate: Mary, the mother of the Christian’s messiah, is mentioned more times in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, than she is in the entire Christian Bible.
All conflicts between human beings, regardless of reasoning, are nothing more than deluded familial squabbles — Thanksgiving dinners that end in beheadings or lynchings.
“It’s nearly two years since I wandered away
With the local battalion of the bold I.R.A.,
For I read of our heroes, and wanted the same
To play out my part in the patriot game…”
This song, “The Patriot Game,” is sung from the perspective of Fergal O’Hanlon, a 20-year-old volunteer of the I.R.A., the Irish Republican Army. He died in a raid against the barracks of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force that represented the Protestant-led government of Northern Ireland, in 1957. After a violent rebellion in 1919, the leaders of the Irish independence movement negotiated a treaty with Britain that would shortly thereafter lead to an even more violent civil war. The treaty allowed Ireland to exist as the Irish Free State, similar in structure to Canada’s status in the Empire at the time. This alone was enough to upset a massive portion of the movement who fought for a strictly independent republic, yet even more consequential was Britain’s retention of the 6 northern counties that make up modern day Northern Ireland.
Ulster, the northern portion of the island, was heavily populated by Protestants who felt stronger allegiance to England than Ireland. As a result, the dream of a free Ireland was only partially realized, and the Catholic population of the North would soon face scrutiny, disenfranchisement, and persecution, all of which eventually culminated in the period referred to as “The Troubles.”
The I.R.A., believing themselves to be the true torchbearers of the centuries-long fight for a free Ireland, conducted guerrilla warfare against the British army and engaged in what their opponents would define as terrorism, and what they would refer to as fighting for freedom. The Catholic population of Northern Ireland took inspiration from the Civil Rights movement in America and the non-violent tactics of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., even adopting the famed anthem of that movement, “We Shall Overcome.” The peaceful efforts failed to bring about change, so the gun was brought back into Irish politics.
“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…”
When I landed in Dublin I was exhausted, the flight left New York in the afternoon and arrived across the Atlantic to greet the morn. I shuffled through the airport, rubbing my eyes and struggling to make out the Irish writing that was placed alongside the English on the signs showing the way through the facility. I spend the majority of my time in Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland. I knew that the trip would be wasted if I didn’t travel north, even if I was worried about how it would make me feel.
A friend from Austria accompanied me, she was all too familiar with my feelings on the situation. We left Dublin by bus in the early morning, I woke up to the sight of endless and defiantly waving Union Jacks — something of a personal nightmare for me.
Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. According to the borders drawn up and current international law, I was no longer in Ireland. I was in the United Kingdom, the Queen’s face graced the currency in place of the cláirseach.
We toured the sites of the most violent flareups during the time of The Troubles: the Protestant Shankill Road, the Catholic Falls Road. We walked alongside the “peace walls,” barriers meant to separate the warring communities, prevent Molotovs and rocks from reaching their targets. Lingering Republican groups’ graffiti warning the populace that “drug dealers will be executed,” signs informing members of the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary that they were not welcome in the area. Protestant murals of slain comrades, Catholic ones of the same.
The city was at relative peace, but the tension, historical and present, filled the air. I was angry and somewhat frightened walking in the Protestant areas, comfortable and inspired walking through the Catholic neighborhoods. I had to remind myself that I couldn’t count myself among the latter. My allegiance wasn’t to the Holy See, it was to my heritage and the culture I felt desperate to reconnect with.
It is a common joke that American-Irish care more about the partition in modern times than even the Irish themselves. This may very well be true, I suppose I’m a perfect example of that fact. I didn’t realize at the time that the anger I felt in response to the oppression of the Irish was not solely because I was Irish myself.
There was a wall in Belfast that stretched along a major street. It belonged to the Republicans, the Irish. While it mainly featured murals depicting Irish struggles and history, it also mentioned and sympathized with the struggles of the Palestinians against Israel, Catalonians against Spain, Black Americans against Jim Crow. The murals not only sympathized with these causes, it equated them.
The murals aim was to say this: “The struggle of our people is the struggle of all the oppressed peoples of the world throughout history.”
I saw children walk past the murals, paying the art and their messages no mind. They were walking home from school, a Protestant boy’s school. One of them smiled at me, I smiled back.
I’ve spoken previously of my inability to rationalize killing for the sake of a nation, a belief, or as revenge. Only self-defense warrants violence. The murder of the master by the slave is always justified, as is the murder of the oppressor by the oppressed. The issue arises in how far we are willing to extend these titles. Are the citizens of Russia guilty of the crimes their state commits to some degree? Are American citizens responsible to a degree for the orphans that roam the nations of the Middle East?
Are we responsible when they pick up arms to fight us?
Were the 26 murdered Catholic civilians of Derry responsible for the actions of the I.R.A.?
Were the 29 civilians killed in Omagh by a bomb planted by the Real Irish Republican Army responsible for the actions of the crown?
I’m not pretending to have any answers, though I wish I did. I’ll refer once more to British Nurse Edith Cavell’s words before her execution at the hands of the German Army in World War 1: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
“They told me how Connolly was shot in his chair,
His wounds from the fighting all bleeding and bare.
His fine body twisted, all battered and lame
They soon made me part of the patriot game…”
James Connolly was a member of my union, the Industrial Workers of the World. He helped found the Irish Socialist Party. In America, he fought tirelessly for the labor rights of my people’s workers and faced the billy club of our police. Following the defeat of the Easter Uprising in 1916, considered the true beginning of Ireland’s successful fight for independence, Connolly was arrested as one of the ring leaders. He was grievously wounded in the battle with the crown’s troops, a doctor gave him only 2 days to live. Regardless, he was sentenced to execution. He was unable to stand unassisted, so they propped him up in a chair.
James Connolly fought for the freedom of all peoples. His corpse was placed in a mass grave without a coffin.
When his wife and child visited him in the hospital after he was captured, he said this: “The Socialists will not understand why I am here; they forget I am an Irishman.”
“And now as I lie here, my body all holes
I think of those traitors who bargained in souls
And I wish that my rifle had given the same
To those Quislings who sold out the patriot game.”
What am I trying to say with this piece? Too much, I suppose. If I can sum it up in a sentence: I wish we lived in a time where allegiance to invented borders, pledges, and flags was a thing of the past — a curious, archaic, embarrassing memory.
Children, women, and men lie buried under rubble in Ukraine. Faces across the world are painted blue and yellow, others fly the Russian tricolor. Americans are more angered by the burning of “Old Glory” than they are at the charred corpses of families along the banks of the Euphrates.
The love of one’s country is a terrible thing.
I am Irish, I am American. These are genuine identities, distinct cultures. I am proud to be both, as I am proud of being a socialist, a humanist, an anarchist, a history nut, a friend, a son. What I am not is a believer in the concept of nation-states and the divisions they cause. My support for a united Ireland does not rely on a belief in superiority or strict, exclusionary definitions for what it means to be “Irish.” I support the cause as much as I support any efforts against imperialism and domination of one group over another in any form.
I do not support the state of Ukraine, I support the people. I do not condemn the people of Russia, I condemn the state. The same applies to Israel and Palestine, Catalonia and Spain, Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Patriotism is a fool’s game, a game we all must refuse to play.
After all, the bombs that fall over Ukraine, or that destroyed Omagh, were dropped and placed by “patriots.”
What were their victims?
This next verse was not part of the original lyrics of “The Patriot Game,” they were added in a cover by The Bluebells:
“Where is the young man, this Earth ever taught
Whose life is less sacred than all the old frauds
Whose boyhood less lovely, whose vision less vain
Than the old men who paid for the patriot game…”
Soldiers don’t die in war for their country, they die for the greed of the old and wealthy who started them.
Instead of Seamus O’Farrell’s demand to “let Englishmen fight English wars” from his anti-war song “The Recruiting Sergeant,” let us demand that “the rich fight rich-people’s wars” and leave the rest of us alone to live and peace and plenty, undisturbed by the machinations of tyrants.
As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, and I take joy in listening to the songs of the I.R.A. and the Fenians, I feel inclined to remind myself that I am a human being first and foremost — my loyalties belong to no nation or state, only to my fellow man. I feel more pride seeing the joy of people from all kinds of backgrounds celebrating Irish culture than I do in any flag or supposed allegiance to a nation.
I hope to see a united Ireland in my lifetime. But, even more, I hope to see a united people across every inch of this troubled, angry planet of ours. Perhaps our children will laugh when they learn of our previous ways, our funny lines that we drew in the sand.
That day will come, Tiocfaidh ár lá.
“Give us the future..we’ve had enough of your past..give us back our country to live in — to grow in..to love.”
— Michael Collins