Opinion: changing a national anthem is a complicated affair that affects all of us who identify with a nation

National anthems are expressions of national identity. Whether performed at formal State ceremonies, sports events or local gatherings, they are one of the few internationally acceptable and safe means of demonstrating national pride. One source of its power lies in the lyrical content, bearing imprints of the past and motivations for the future. But what happens when national anthems lose their meaning or become outdated? Is it time for Ireland to change its national anthem and if so, how can we go about it?

Most national anthems contain lyrics that store collective memory of the past, creating knowledge of the past. The choice of music and lyrics for a national anthem is often more political than musical, reflecting domestic politics and social foundations. The origin of Ireland's national anthem is no different. "Amhrán na bhFiann", was composed as an Irish rebel song "The Soldier’s Song" between 1907 and 1910, with English lyrics by Peadar Kearney. The song was accompanied by a score written by Patrick Heeney and was translated into Irish by civil servant and linguist Liam Ó Rinn.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime's On This Day, Myles Dungan on the life and work of Peadar Kearney, the man who wrote the Irish national anthem

"Amhrán na bhFiann", as we know it today, was first published in 1923 and it was formally adopted as the national anthem of the Irish Free State in 1926. The significance of the anthem is closely connected with the 1916 Rising, as it was sung inside the GPO by the members of Cumann na mBan, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army before they evacuated the building.

The song was not widely known outside the ranks of the military activists until after the Rising and it was adopted as the unofficial national anthem in 1926, replacing "God Save Ireland". Copyright of the music and English lyrics of the anthem were purchased for £1,000 by the Department of Finance in 1933. When the copyright expired at the end of 2012, a Seanad Committee considered requests for the expired copyright to be renewed, but were advised that such a move would be at odds with Irish and European law.

So with this copyright expiry in mind, is there now an opportunity to replace the Irish national anthem as other countries have done? And how would this be done? Is a public opinion poll, for example, an appropriate means to decide such a significant national symbol? In 1977, a countrywide public opinion poll chose a new national tune for Australia. "Advance Australia Fair" was voted to replace "God Save the Queen" and won out over three other contenders, including "Waltzing Matilda".

From RTÉ Archives, Andrew Sheppard reports for RTÉ News on a state visit by the Prime Minister of Australia, Bob Hawke, to Ireland in 1987. The Army Band play "Advance Australia Fair " and Hawke jokes that "God Save the Queen" was played when he visited the US

But public opinion polls have tended to backfire in recent years and are often viewed as an opportunity to overthrow conventions. In 2016, the British public voted overwhelmingly for the Royal Research Ship to replace RRS Ernest Shackleton and James Clark Ross to be officially named Boaty McBoatFace. Given that the Irish public voted in 2008 to send Dustin the Turkey to represent Ireland at Eurovision, can we be trusted with the responsibility of choosing a formal song indication of our national spirit? 

Changing a national anthem is more about shifting perceptions of national identity than merely seizing an opportunity to change the national AUX chord. Few countries have changed their national anthems as many times as Russia.

When Vladimir Putin signed a bill into law establishing a new Russian national anthem in 2000, it was met with both outrage and downright refusal. The new anthem was not strictly new as it had the same music as the old Soviet anthem that was approved by Joseph Stalin and in place from 1944 to 1991. Moreover, the lyrics were by the same author as the 1944 anthem and, as a result, the whole song is reminiscent of the Soviet period. From 1991 until 2000, the unofficial anthem of Russia was "Patrioticheskaya Pesnya" ("The Patriotic Song"), a composition without any words to sing along to. The Russian government organized a competition for the best lyrics, but could not find or approve a winner.

In 1978, the Chinese government introduced new lyrics for their national anthem, with unsuccessful consequences. Despite official approval of new lyrics to "March of the Volunteers" (义勇军进行曲), the original lyrics remained in people's memory and confusion often ensued at gatherings where the national anthem was sung.  The revised national anthem lyrics proved to be short-lived and the original lyrics were restored in 1982. 

Revision of the national anthem is a complicated affair that affects all of us that collectively recognise ourselves as identifying with a nation. Think about arguments at parties over what music is being played and the difference that changing the playlist can make to the overall atmosphere. Now, imagine trying to switch the playlist so that it would satisfy an entire nation.

"Amhrán na bhFiann" was not only created at a particular moment of historical significance for Ireland, but also within a certain social condition. Although its militaristic origins may be debated, it delivers a strong and clear statement of Irish national identity. Like anything that is in the national interest, consensus is almost impossible and wider debates are necessary if we are to consider changing a song that, by design, should unite us as a nation. So in the meantime, would you please be upstanding for "Amhrán na bhFiann"….


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ