The playing of the county anthem at Croke Park in June and July (it used to be later) is one of those remaining “you have to be there” experiences, something that can never be conveyed by radio or TV surround sound.
There is an anthem for each county, although not all of them get to play on the big days. These songs are eclectic and changeable, Dancing at the Crossroads replaced Boolavogue in the 1990s and Paddy Reilly replaced The Flower of Finea in the 1940s.
About half a dozen stand solid against the leaf-in-the-wind of popular taste.The Tipperary anthem, Slievenamon, is one.
The powerful opening and closing of the first verse (does any other verse count?) is instantly recognisable. The story of the song is also recognisable, written by Tipperary’s finest – Charles Kickham (pictured) – a man with impeccable patriotic credentials. He is also the author of Knocknagow, based in his home village of Mullinahone, which was regarded for long (and still by some) as the defining novel of rural Ireland.
That Slievenamon, originally Sith na mBán Finn and first recorded under present name in 1654, is a sacred mountain since ancient times is indicated by its collection of prehistoric remains.
Slievenamon was named as the abode of the fairy king Brian Connors in Darby O’Gill and the Little People, the book by Herminie McGibney, a first generation Longford woman. The name was sadly changed when Disney made the more famous 1959 film version.
A massacre of the local populace by the Yeomanry during the 1798 rebellion at Carrigmaclea, a foothill of the mountain, inspired other Sliabh na mBan ballads, sung widely in Kickham’s youth.
The most famous of these is by Michéal O Longáin of Carrignavar, a participant in the rebellion in Cork, and one of the seminal revolutionary poets who helped move the ballad tradition away from the celebration of King James II (as in Siúil a Rún) to more modern themes.
longing vs patriotic stirrings
Kickham is remembered today for three famous ballads, all written in around 1857: Patrick Sheehan, Rory of the Hill and Home Longings to give its first published title in the Kilkenny Journal.
Kickham made the emigrant’s longing for home and for his parted lover the theme of Slievenamon, leaving patriotic stirrings to the third verse (“And my land, will you never uprise?” and “To see our flag unrolled”).
While embracing these two genres, it was slow to make an impact on either, and was superseded in emigrant nostalgia by songs such as I’ll take You Home Kathleen (by a first generation German who never set foot in Ireland) and, in patriotic fervour, by more rousing verses. For the next century, Kickham’s Rory of the Hill was much better known than his Slievenamon.
In England, a World War I army marching song became associated with the Kickham’s home county – even among Irish immigrants. Long Way to Tipperary is purportedly not about the county at all, but the former Tipperary Bar on Fleet St in London, where the ‘Top of the Tipp’ was once the beloved repository of the latest journalism gossip.
Established county anthem
It took the triangular hurling struggles of the 1930s to the 1960s to establish Slievenamon as Tipperary’s anthem, alongside The Rose of Mooncoin and The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee. One of the finest recordings of the song is by Sean Ó Siocháin, the Corkman who headed the GAA in this period as secretary-general and set out the musical programme to be played on match day by the Artane Boys Band.
Sean Ó Sé’s and Nioclas Tóibín’s recordings are easily found online, as are interpretations by Áine Uí Cheallaigh, born in Belfast but based in Ring, and a woman who revolutionised sean-nós singing in her own way. The full version, at nearly ten minutes, is too long even for TG4. For balladiers who prefer brevity, Mary O’Hara recorded a haunting single verse in 1962.
Slievenamon the anthem was written at a crucial point in Kickham’s life. He was in his twenties, and a regular visitor to the home of Young Irelander Robert Cane in Kilkenny, 30km from his home.
Out of a meeting at Cane’s house came a lifelong friendship with James Stephens and the seeds of a new revolutionary movement that led to prison and hardship in his lifetime, but enshrined Kickham’s reputation today.
After Kickham died in 1882, churchmen refused to let his body repose in Thurles cathedral. When his cortege and thousands of mourners arrived in Mullinahone, the graveyard was locked and there was no priest to say funerary prayers.
In his graveside speech, John Daly declared: “The day will yet come when the sides of Slievenamon will ring out to the tune that Kickham composed.”
Alone all alone, no more.