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The song that showed Paul McCartney's support for Northern Ireland

Music itself is a tool of protest, a voice outside the boundaries of the restricted social and political domains. But the rise of protest songs helped to shift the focus from music’s recreational and entertainment purposes to the more radical grounds, one that is critiquing the evils endorsed by society and establishments. Protest songs are, in fact, one of the earliest forms of music and have shaped public consciousness throughout history. From Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bob Marley, to Sex Pistols, Green Day, Pink Floyd, artists have used this format time and again to make their voice of dissent loud and clear. Thus, Paul McCartney and Wings’ song ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’ is a part of the narratorial subplot that explores the trajectory of protest songs.

Ireland’s struggle for freedom has always been the centre of attention for authors and lyricists. The situation became more complicated post the Anglo-Irish treaty that was signed in 1921. With one half enjoying autonomy, resentment brewed among the citizens of Northern Ireland who now wanted to escape the clasp of the British. As with all protests, the rallies, demonstrations and suppressions were tinged with chaos, lawlessness and violence. The seriousness of the situation escalated when the British soldiers shot 26 civilians on 30th January 1972 during a peaceful demonstration. Moreover, the unruly behaviour of the soldiers on Bloody Sunday, as the massacre is popularly known, was typically whitewashed by the British government. Naturally, this atrocious act increased hostility between the two parties and saw increasing support for the militant IRA in the hope of taking proper revenge.

This took a toll on McCartney, who shared a harmonious connection with Ireland on his mother’s side. McCartney was in New York, mending his relationship with former bandmate John Lennon when the incident took place. He wrote the song instantly as a raging reply to the British authorities. Although protest songs were not McCartney’s speciality, he was inspired to write one being in contact with Lennon and being amidst the politically charged environment of Greenwich Village: “I wasn’t really into protest songs – John had done that – but this time I felt that I had to write something, to use my art to protest,” he once said.

Talking about the controversial stance that the Wings took, McCartney explained: “From our point of view, it was the first time people questioned what we were doing in Ireland. It was so shocking. I wrote ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’, we recorded it and I was promptly phoned by the Chairman of EMI, Sir Joseph Lockwood, explaining that they wouldn’t release it. He thought it was too inflammatory. I told him that I felt strongly about it and they had to release it. He said, ‘Well it’ll be banned’, and of course it was. I knew ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ wasn’t an easy route, but it just seemed to me to be the time [to say something].”

McCartney decided to release the song as a single in order to make its impact felt. A successor of the newly formed band’s debut album Wild Life, it was recorded in a rush before McCartney left for London. The B-side of the single contained an instrumental version of the same track instead of a separate song as McCartney anticipating a ban on the lyrical version, thought that radio jockeys would be compelled to announce the song title even if they preferred the instrumental version.

As predicted, the song was banned by the BBC followed by Radio Luxembourg and the Independent Television Authority (ITA). Even the majority of radio stations in the US consciously overlooked the song’s existence. The only place where the song was received without any reservations and peaked the charts was Ireland. However, there were a few voices that spoke in McCartney’s support, and DJ John Peel of BBC Radio 1 was one of them: “The act of banning it is a much stronger political act than the contents of the record itself,” he said. “It’s just one man’s opinion.” 

Wings didn’t back off after being rejected and wrongly accused of having pro-IRA sentiments. They worked out a way to promote the song on their own by organising a series of surprise shows at universities during their first concert tour. When they were instigated by the question if they were fundraising for the IRA through the concerts, McCartney coldly replied: “We’re simply playing for the people.” The involvement of Henry McCullough, the band’s guitarist and an Irishman, further triggered rumours and culminated in a violent act where his brother Samuel was beaten up in an Irish pub in north-west London.

Although castrated in its own time, the song gradually gripped the public imagination. It is not brilliant per se as a composition but definitely well-intentioned. More importantly, it doesn’t hide behind symbolism and metaphors. It directly addresses the issue by boldly stating: “Give Ireland back to the Irish/Don’t make them have to take it away/ Give Ireland back to the Irish/ Make Ireland Irish today.”