Border Ballads – Frank McNally on the National Anthems of Poland, Ukraine and Monaghan
Like a rugby international near Lansdowne Road, the Polish Embassy’s National Day reception on Tuesday was preceded by three hymns. Alongside those of Poland and Ireland, they also played those of Ukraine, in honor of the historically close ties with that country and the three million Ukrainian refugees that the Poles now host.
The shared and unhappy experience of these Eastern European neighbors is reflected in their national songs. Polish is known by its first line, usually translated as: “Poland is not yet lost”.
It seems a little defensive when it comes to the openings of the anthem. But you would also be on the defensive if you were the Poles. The lyrics date from 1797, shortly after the “third partition of Poland”, a partition by powerful neighbors to the east and west that ended the country’s independence for 120 years.
Although the Ukrainian anthem is more recent, it has an almost identical title, also a version of the opening line: “Ukraine has not perished yet”. As recent events have reminded us, the defensive is even more justified there.
To add to the confusion of Irish guests at Tuesday’s reception, Poland has two national days. The other is November 11, marking the renewal of independence at the end of the First World War.
May 3 celebrates the short-lived independent constitution of 1791, an enlightened document that was the first of its kind in Europe.
Dubliner Edmund Burke is famous for his denunciation of the French Revolution which influenced him, but he was delighted by the Polish document, calling it “probably the purest. . . public good ever conferred on humanity”.
His admiration extended to his peaceful creation. “To add to this unheard of conjunction of wisdom and fortune, to this happy prodigy, not a drop of blood was shed, no betrayal, no outrage,” he wrote. “Happy people if they know how to proceed as they started.”
Alas for happiness, there was a cloud on the eastern horizon, where an independent and constitutional neighbor was considered intolerable. Russia quickly invaded, making Poland the first battleground of the Revolutionary Wars, and the poem that became the anthem was born.
I had some anthems in mind this weekend, having entered a contest 48 hours earlier to find one. It was also in a part of the world that has been hotly contested, though thankfully peaceful these days: the border territory called “Monaghan”.
As noted here recently (Irishman’s Diary, January 28), Monaghan was until now one of the few Irish counties without a recognized anthem.
Worse still, it has often been (mis)represented in geographic songbooks by The Town of Ballybay, a playful number popularized by Tommy Makem and purporting to extol the virtues of a remarkable local woman.
I agree with the ballad’s opening sentiment that the woman’s story is “worth telling.” But given that the following verses reveal excessive drinking, extreme promiscuity, child neglect, and culpable homicide, I think his story would be best told on the pages of the courts, not as a county song.
Speaking of courts, let it be on record that Tommy Makem was from neighboring Keady. A plot by Armagh to blacken Monaghan’s name is still suspected.
The good news is that the reputational damage is well on its way to being fixed. Dublin’s current Lord Mayor Alison Gilliland, who delivered a fine speech at the Polish reception, is also from Ballybay, a major turning point in the city’s fortunes.
The other good news is that Monaghan now has a real anthem. There were an impressive 47 nominations for the award, but as Chief Judge Phil Coulter pointed out, some sounded more like songs than anthems. Sitting at the piano, he gave us a little lesson in difference.
“It’s a song,” he said, before performing his ballad about a couple starting over: “Steal Away.” “This is an anthem”, he then declared while embarking on another of his compositions, “Ireland’s Call”. What, for all its detractors, proved it. Even here in GAA country, everyone knew the music and enough lyrics to join in.
The winning song for Monaghan was “Let This Be the Day”, by Corkman Tim O’Riordan, who, although an outsider to these parts, demonstrated an understanding of local nuances by including the county’s nicknames, “the Farney and the ‘Oriel”. , in his choir.
Although popular, “Farney” is politically incorrect, deriving from only one of the county’s five baronies.
“Oriel”, on the other hand, includes the entire territory. In fact, at its greatest extent, the ancient kingdom of Oriel also included parts of Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan, Armagh and Louth. But Monaghan’s neighbors can relax. Even with an upbeat new anthem, the county has no expansionist ambitions (yet).