Top Ten Songs about the Troubles
he title to Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney’s 1975 poem “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing” became a familiar adage throughout Northern Ireland during the most despondent days of the Troubles—a delusively titled three-decade period of intense violence between Northern Ireland’s Nationalist and Unionist communities. The poem’s title alludes to a “Northern reticence,” as Heaney described it, frequently ingrained in folks native to the Six Counties; it also served as an austere warning to those visitors (the scant few there were) interested in broaching the topics of God and government.
Over the years, however, Heaney’s instruction went widely unnoticed by the pop music world, as various artists penned songs about the Troubles. Many of these tunes exceptionally conveyed the sheer enmity and anxiety of that time period, as well as the unflinching determinedness, relative dynamism, and sense of humor genially exhibited by the Northern Irish, even during the bloodiest of days.
Others are cringe-worthy duds, nothing more than feigned solicitousness by artists yearning to add another notch to their belt of social causes: the Cranberries’ “Zombie,” which could be detailing a conflict from just about anywhere, save for its inane “1916” reference, James Taylor’s tepid “Belfast to Boston,” and Elton John’s melodramatic “Belfast.” You were certainly right, Reginald: The enemy is not at home. It’s in the recording studio.
What follows is a list focusing on the former: the best songs ever written about the Troubles.
10. Sham 69 – Ulster (1978)
Caustic, bleak, no bullshit—not that we’d expect anything less from the plebian punk act that married nihilism with hooliganism. In a gaunt, football-chant chorus, the band declares no future for anybody, be it civilian, paramilitary, or otherwise: “Ulster / There ain’t no winners.” The final lines of “Ulster” are even grimmer, as singer Jimmy Pursey predicts an outcome for those ensnared in the sectarian web of violence: “And now you’re lyin’ in your hospital bed / You can still hear the bullets rushing past your head / No more fun for you ain’t no more / You’ve ended like the rest and now you’re dead.”
09. Simple Minds – Belfast Child (1989)
Folk enthusiasts will likely recognize the tune from “Belfast Child,” as it was nicked from an old Irish tune, “She Moved Through the Fair.” According to tales, singer/songwriter Jim Kerr heard new bassist John Gilbin playing the ditty on the piano and was moved to pen new words for it, profoundly inspired by the ongoing strife in the Six Counties, particularly the Remembrance Day Bombing in Enniskillen, in which the IRA detonated a bomb during commemoration ceremonies for those killed during the First and Second World Wars.
Given a traditional feel thanks to instruments like the penny whistle and bodhran, “Belfast Child” starts as a haunting number, hinting at the way Northern Ireland often balanced tenuously on the precipice, with a full descent into civil war always a dire possibility: “But there’s sadness abound / Some day soon they’re gonna pull the old town down.”
Simple Minds are also connected with the most enduring urban legend involving pop artists and the Troubles. In 1986, the band played at Rangers F.C.’s Ibrox Stadium, that most hallowed Protestant sports ground. Catholic and avid supporters of Rangers’ hated rival, Celtic F.C., the group allegedly sprinkled holy water at the goalmouths and buried crucifixes under the pitch.
08. The Undertones – It’s Going to Happen (1981)
“It’s Going to Happen” deceives the listener, its blasts of robust horn and impish guitar, and overall lighthearted tone covering its somber subject matter—the 1981 hunger strikes—like an army-green balaclava. Angry with the British government’s cessation of Special Category Status, Irish republican prisoners at The Maze staged a hunger strike. Ten ultimately died from starvation, including Bobby Sands, who was elected as a Member of Parliament during his fast.
“It’s Going to Happen” was a top-20 hit and nabbed the Derry punk act an appearance on “Top of the Pops.” Fittingly, it came the night Sands died; guitarist Damien O’Neill honored his memory by wearing a black armband. Of course, ever vigilant of Northern Irish sectarianism, O’Neill wondered afterwards if doing so alienated the group’s many Protestant supporters.
07. Orbital – Belfast (1991)
Oribital’s “Belfast” is as stunning and lofty as Samson and Goliath, the two gigantic shipbuilding cranes that dominate the city’s skyline. But what earns “Belfast” a berth on this list is the shadowy skepticism and doubt that creeps throughout the track—sentiments often expressed by the Northern Irish themselves.
On my recent trip to the Bloody Sunday memorial, the Bogside rising up behind us, our black taxi driver fingered the monument’s inscription. “Colonel Derek Wilford was the commanding officer of the regiment that did the shooting. Less than a year later he was awarded the OBE. Can you believe that?” At the Crown Liquor Saloon, a lifelong resident was taken aback by our high praise for the city: “You’re enjoying your holiday here? Really?”
In Northern Ireland, there exists a persisting incredulousness regarding both the past and the present, which Orbital perfectly captures.
06. Nicky Wire – Bobby Untitled (2006)
What ideal timing: “Bobby Untitled,” another plaintive ode to the hunger striker Sands, was released following the 25th anniversary of his death and just as the razing commenced on the prison where Sands was once interned, The Maze.
“Bobby Untitled” eschews The Manics’ glossy glam hooks, taking a more fragile, poetic route. Penning lyrics that could have served as a prison letter to Sands, Wire touches upon religion’s prominent role in the Troubles (“And does God make a fool of us all”), reaches out to the hunger striker (“I wish I knew more about your fears”), and ponders an alternative finality (“If fate could play a different hand / And if all the broken hearts / Could be fixed not torn apart”).
05. Stiff Little Fingers – Alternative Ulster (1979)
Rather than demand governmental change, “Alternative Ulster” by Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers recognizes the critical need for metamorphosis on a personal level. The song also contemplates who the real enemy is: the British Army troops and the “RUC dog of repression,” or just general proletarian ennui (“Nothin’ for us in Belfast”)—whether you’re a lad from the Catholic Falls Road or the Protestant Sandy Row.
04. The Divine Comedy – Sunrise (1998)
In the majestic “Sunrise,” Neil Hannon wryly expounds upon the subtle and intricate code Protestants and Catholics have developed as a way of distinguishing one from the other. “I was born in Londonderry,” Hannon sings. “I was born in Derry City, too.” What sort of car you drive, where you venture for holiday, how you enunciate particular words, whether you call Northern Ireland’s second city “Derry” or “Londonderry”—give away one’s religion. It’s head-shakingly absurd and Hannon tells us so: “Who cares what name you call a town / Who’ll care when you’re six feet beneath the ground?”
03. U2 – Sunday Bloody Sunday (1983)
Ironically enough, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” the most recognizable pop song about the Troubles, isn’t solely about Bloody Sunday, the 1972 killing of 14 civil rights protestors by members of the 1st Battalion of the British Parachute Regiment. According to the band, the tune is also in reference to the Bloody Sunday of 1920, a day of rather prodigious carnage from the Irish War of Independence.
Despite its clipped, militaristic drumbeats and raw guitar work, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is not a protest song. In the wake of the 1972 tragedy, there was talk of the British handing the Provisional IRA its “greatest victory,” but in “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” Bono doesn’t boast about joining ranks with the Provos, singing: “But I won’t heed the battle call.”
02. Van Morrison – Cyprus Avenue (1968)
OK, so I cheated a bit here, as “Cyprus Avenue” does not focus specifically on the Troubles. Its inclusion came down to a pair of reasons: First, the need to include East Belfast icon Van Morrison on a list focusing on the Six Counties, despite Morrison’s penchant for being apolitical when it comes to the stark divisions within his homeland. (A movement is afoot in East Belfast to change some of the area’s Loyalist-inspired murals; Morrison turned down a request to feature his likeness on one.) And second, “Cyprus Avenue,” released just months before the Troubles began, does a brilliant, breathless job of detailing Belfast before the fall.
Morrison’s aching tale of adolescent longing and wonderment is all the more poignant when you consider where the pert, love-stricken narrator—“So young and bold, fourteen years old”—could be had his birth been, say, ten years later.
01. The Pogues – Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six (1987)
Banned by the BBC, “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” is as dichotomous, doleful, and volatile as the very region it describes.
Terry Woods’ “Streets of Sorrow” is a peaceful, ruminative dirge focusing on violence’s consequences; acerbic-tongued Shane MacGowan then scatters the doves with “Birmingham Six,” bellowing his thick distaste for the British government in the wake of the 1974 Birmingham bombings by the Provisional IRA. (London had introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allowed suspects to be held without charge for up to seven days.) “In Ireland they’ll put you away in the Maze,” sings MacGowan. “In England they’ll keep you for seven long days.”
The punches and jabs continue, before MacGowan delivers a haymaker of a couplet: “May the whores of the empire lie awake in their beds / And sweat as they count out the sins on their heads.”