Let Tommy Sing

David Granville argues that Channel 4's recent censorship of a rendition of 'The Fields of Athenry' highlights both the muddle-headed thinking behind some recent attempts to combat sectarianism in Scotland and demonstrates a worrying trend towards the censorship of songs with political content

TV BOSSES stood accused of censorship last week after they obstructed a rendition of a popular Irish rebel song live on Celebrity Big Brother.

Channel 4 opted to silence Tommy Sheridan's rendition of The Fields Of Athenry during the broadcast on the grounds that it might be seen as "promoting" sectarianism.

European football body UEFA found itself in a similar position last May and announced that it was investigating videos of Celtic supporters allegedly singing sectarian songs outside Barcelona's Nou Camp ground.

These episodes highlight the muddle-headed thinking surrounding otherwise genuine efforts to tackle this pernicious problem in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

UEFA later set out its definition of "sectarian" in a statement.

"We have received some footage showing Celtic supporters singing some alleged anti-Queen and pro-IRA songs - sectarian songs."

Let's be clear. Pete St John's classic '70s Irish folk ballad The Fields Of Athenry is no more racist or sectarian than Scotland's unofficial national anthem Flower Of Scotland, written by Roy Williamson, or The Bonny Bunch Of Roses, a traditional folk song about the defeat of Napoleon which was recorded by Fairport Convention.

Set during the Great Hunger of 1845-50, St John's song contains the lines: "Against the Famine and the crown/I rebelled, they ran me down."

It's a ballad which speaks of the plight of ordinary Irish people afflicted by the ravages of the Famine, landlordism and British imperialism. No more, no less. In no way could it be described as sectarian, though your opinion of the song may vary substantially depending on your politics and national origin.

In terms of the UEFA investigation and other initiatives to combat sectarianism, while chants of "ooh, aah, up the Ra" (IRA) might well be upsetting or cause offence to any number of people from loyalists and monarchists through to nationalists, liberals and all manner of labour people, it doesn't follow that to cause offence is automatically to be acting in a sectarian or racist manner. This largely depends on your politics or national origin and allegiance.

Pro-IRA chants and songs would be inappropriate in all sorts of situations - including being broadcast as part of Big Brother - but we should all be very concerned about where this debate about "sectarian songs" is heading. It appears to have more to do with political censorship than beating racism and sectarianism.

It seems utterly bizarre that a rendition of The Fields Of Athenry should be put in the same bracket as some of the songs regularly heard on the terraces and pubs around Ibrox, the home of Celtic's great rivals Glasgow Rangers, and at football grounds in Scotland and the six counties where teams have a strong loyalist following.

Songs such as The Billy Boys, which glorifies the killing and subjugation of the Irish and relishes the thought of "being up to our necks in Fenian blood," are both commonplace and evidently sectarian in both language and intent. Songs about the struggle for Irish unity and independence invariably are not.

Many songs written from a loyalist perspective aren't sectarian, either - songs about the Siege of Derry or the Battle of the Boyne are part of the folk culture of Ireland, as is the most commonly heard Orange anthem The Sash. All are a legitimate part of Ireland's popular cultural heritage, whatever we think of them politically.

Essentially, if a song includes racist and derogatory lyrics then it's racist and sectarian and should not be sung. If it tells a story from a particular perspective but avoids racist terminology, it should not be censored or deemed sectarian or racist.

If those who regard such songs as The Fields Of Athenry as sectarian were consistent, they'd argue for the barring of Rule Britannia and God Save The Queen on similar grounds. Just think about the offence that these cause to republicans and Irish people in Britain whose forebears have suffered at the hands of British colonial rule.

As an English socialist and a republican, I find both Rule Britannia and God Save The Queen, which glorify the British monarchy and British imperialism, at least as off-putting and offensive as any chant in praise of the Provisional IRA.

However, I've no intention of campaigning to get them banned. Political change to make them redundant would be my favoured option.

The fact is, if you were confused and muddle-headed enough to start trying to ban songs like The Fields Of Athenry or The Sash, the logical conclusion would involve having to do away with huge swathes of the folk-music canon of Scotland, Wales and Ireland on similar grounds.

That's before anyone started to think about getting even-handed about such a ban by including all the English songs that celebrate victories and dominance over our Celtic neighbours or others nationalities with communities residing in modern-day Britain - ie just about every nation on the planet.

This would not represent anti-sectarianism or anti-racism. It wouldn't even be "political correctness gone mad," to appropriate an inappropriate turn of phrase so beloved of the Daily Mail, but political and historical censorship from the right with which we should have no truck.

So Channel 4, let Sheridan's singing voice be heard. It can't be any worse than the programme itself.

The above article original published in the Morning Star (http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/index.php/news/features/let_the_man_sing) on 12.01.01.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2009-01-23 13:09:22.
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