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Music

10 incredible songs written about The Troubles in Northern Ireland

The Troubles was the name given to the period of conflict that waged across Northern Ireland from the end of the 1960s, all the way to the mid-1990s. The battle crossed the Irish sea, claiming thousands of lives in a battle that came to an end with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It was signed and ratified by all parties, giving texture to modern-day Northern Ireland.

The conflict inspired many Irish, and English, composers to come up with their ripostes to the conflict. Many championed the Republican cause, many sympathised with the Republican movement, and others called for an end to bloodshed after decades of war. Some of the songs were startling in their ambition.

Some of the tunes came directly after the conflict, and Paul McCartney found himself in the curious position of being banned by the BBC for speaking out about the possibility of co-joining the two Ireland’s as one seamless whole.

What the song brought wasn’t legacy, but for posterity, and he led many other songwriters to speak for a United Ireland, and to speak against British rule in Northern Ireland. This is a list of the best.

The 10 best songs about the Northern Irish conflict:

10. ‘Give Ireland Back to The Irish’

Yes, it’s the slightest tune on the list, but Paul McCartney deserves brownie points for releasing the song within days of the 1972 shootings in Derry. His mother had spent large chunks of her childhood in Monaghan, which was only a couple of hours from the areas that were being surrounded by bombs and gunfire. McCartney’s song applauded the British sense of pride, while also exploring the vision of an Ireland free from British rule or influence.

Dexys frontman Kevin Rowland applauded the number: “I remember hearing ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ in a club,” he said. “I must have been seventeen. It was too fucking right of McCartney to release the song. Lennon was good for that too: ‘…Bloody Sunday’, ‘Luck of the Irish’. In this club, they normally played soul music, which you had to learn how to dance to if you wanted to dance with a girl. And suddenly ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ comes on at the end of the night. I told my parents about it because the room erupted. I realised everyone there was like me: second-generation Irish.”

9. ‘The Men Behind The Wire’ – Paddy McGuigan

Purportedly written on the back of a napkin in a pub, the song details the rise of armed vehicles in Northern Ireland. Vocalist Paddy McGuigan introduced the tune with a piece championing the prisoners thrown into prison cells, without trial nor jury to their name. The band were concerned with the machine guns that were piling on the streets, disturbing the peace felt throughout the six occupied counties.

The song was an immediate hit in Ireland, where it hit the number one spot in 1972 on the Irish charts, and it received new nuances when it was used on an episode of Alan Partridge. Faced with a look-a-like, Partridge watches with horror as his doppelganger enters into a medley he feels advertise the philosophies of the Irish Republican Army.

8. ‘Joe McDonnell’ – The Wolfe Tones

Deeply lyrical, and soaked with incredible feeling, this particular tune recalls the hunger strikers who risked their lives for the integrity of their cause. This particular prisoner was eulogised by The Wolfe Tones, who were stunned by the hypocrisy of the British government labelling the hunger strikers “terrorists”, despite the varying atrocities Britain committed across the world over several centuries.

The tune carries a striking passage, especially as it asks the listeners to question “the deeds” they had delivered in the past, asking them to carry some of the blame for the “reign of terror” they had brought to the land. The real-life Joe McDonnell died in 1981, at the tender age of 29. He lasted 61 days, protesting as a hunger-striker.

7. ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ – U2

This drum-heavy number opens up U2‘s third album War, determined to draw the world to the futility of the conflict at hand. Although it is credited to all four members of the group, the tune was primarily written by The Edge, the band’s Essex born guitar player. Like bassist Adam Clayton, he spent some of his formative years in Britain, and like Bono, he was a proud practising Protestant, so he had a personal investment in the conflict. If he could overcome the trappings of national identity and religion in Catholic Dublin, why couldn’t Belfast?

As it happens, the song became one of the tentpole rock numbers in their canon, but the band made it clear that they didn’t support either the Republicans or Unionists in their conflict, but rather advocated for the cessation of war. The band returned to the theme on ‘Please’, released during the 1990s, but this was a slighter effort.

6. ‘The Town I Loved So Well’ – The Dubliners

Yes, it’s been covered to death. but Phil Coulter’s ballad still paints a striking portrait of Derry, changing before his very eyes. In the tune, he wears the guise of a traveller returning to his hometown, carrying the bones of a street torn down by hatred and war. Struck by the bigotry and the despair, the narrator is moved slowly to tears, and can only express himself through song.

The tune has been covered by several artists, but there’s something singular about The Dubliners version, which was arranged and produced by Coulter himself. As if recognising the importance and power of the words, The Dubliners rise to the occasion, giving it a nuance that both Republicans and Unionists could appreciate.

5. ‘The Island’ – Paul Brady

Written and performed by County Tyrone native Paul Brady, ‘The Island’ is a lament to violence on an island that should celebrate green pathways and water. Thrown into the work, Brady delivers a haunting vocal, likening the conflict to the Lebanese Civil War. By widening the narrative Brady felt the work had more pertinence and prominence in the world at large. Ireland is a tiny country, but it could understand the intricacies of war better than most of its European neighbours.

Brady plays the tune almost entirely alone, backed by Kenny Craddock on piano. But the power of the song doesn’t come from the instrumentation, but by virtue of the lyrics and sincerity of the vocals behind them. Where it lacked in thunder, it more than compensated in fiery verse.

4. ‘Song for Ireland’ – Mary Black

‘Song for Ireland’ was actually written by an Englishman. Phil Colclough was inspired to put pen to paper when he visited the Dingle Peninsula with his wife June. There, caught in the scenery and the history, the pair were inspired to write a ballad of yearning, teaching and understanding, culminating in a work that recognised the vitality of the land.

Mary Black’s cover had added pertinence. She recorded her version of the track in 1998, the year of the Good Friday Agreement. In her words, she recognised the many ways a person can choose to be Irish, saluting the end of the conflict as it washed away the sins, bloodshed and despondency that had plagued the Emerald Isle for much too long.

3. ‘Alternative Ulster’ – Stiff Little Fingers

Performed with urgency and performed with rigorous emotion, ‘Alternative Ulster’ was the workings of a band determined to witness a country join together in the name of music, not war. Stiff Little Fingers had little to no time for national identities, especially when it came at such a high cost for Northern Ireland. But their thunderous, ricocheting work was instantly popular, particularly because it boasted an infectious chorus line.

The band rarely discriminated against audience or members based on their religious or national identity, and The Jam‘s Bruce Foxton appeared with the group for some of their more impressive shows. “I was with them for fifteen years,” Foxton recalled. “They’re still very popular, Jake Burns is a great songwriter, so I get what you’re saying. We had some great times together. Great guys.”

2. ‘Zombie’ – The Cranberries

The band mean business from the get-go, and vocalist Dolores O’Riordan exhibits a fiery vocal performance that could only have come from a place of great anger. The singer was furious at the IRA’s bomb campaigns, particularly when a three-year-old was killed in Warrington, England. The tune offered a riposte to the Irish diaspora in Britain a white flag, as the band disassociated themselves from the conflict. It stemmed from No Need to Argue, an altogether brasher album to the band’s jauntier debut.

The tune was released in 1994 but has gone on to become the band’s signature number. It has been streamed over 670 million times on Spotify and sold a whopping 778,942 copies in the United Kingdom, the country where the attacks happened.

1. ‘The Theme to ‘Harry’s Game’ – Clannad

There could only be one winner. This haunting number featured on the soundtrack to Harry’s Game, sung in beautiful Irish (gaeilge). Clannad’s number was always destined to be a live favourite, but the success of the track surprised them, especially since it was sung in a language most listeners didn’t speak. Inspired by 10cc’s ‘I’m Not In Love’, the band soak the track in a collection of vocal flourishes, bringing added dimensions to the track, lifting it up into newer terrains.

The tune deservedly won an Ivor Novello award, and Clannad’s 1983 album Magical Ring was changed to incorporate more numbers that were arranged in a similar style to the ominous track. But judging by the vocal performances, it didn’t matter what language was being sung. What mattered was the way it was sung.