Ireland’s Call: how a derided rugby dirge became a song for Irish unity

Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent
Photograph: Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images

It was the anthem everyone loved to hate, a musical concoction derided as an affront to patriotism and taste.

The lyrics of Ireland’s Call urged the Irish to stand tall “shoulder to shoulder” before every rugby match, but many preferred to stay seated and mock the injunction.

The Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) commissioned the song in 1995 as an alternative to the republic’s anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann (The Soldier’s Song), to accommodate players and supporters from Northern Ireland who tended to come from a unionist background.

Phil Coulter, the Derry-born writer of Puppet on a String and other UK chart-toppers, responded with Ireland’s Call. Critics were harsh. “Passive-aggressive audio waterboarding,” said the Irish Times.

But the tide has turned. Athletes and sports fans are showing increasing affection for the song, which is now sung with gusto in stadiums. And growing speculation about a united Ireland – and how it should accommodate unionists – imbues Ireland’s Call with prescience.

Last week the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said a united Ireland would necessitate a “different state” to make unionists feel welcome. And the Irish Times U-turned on the song, calling it “a noble example of the compromises a united Ireland would involve”.

Coulter is claiming vindication. “The rugby fraternity did not fall in love with the song. It was a long process with a serious amount of begrudgery,” he told the Observer. “As a race, we don’t like being told what to do or what to sing. It was a slow burn.”

Crowds at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium – which on Saturday hosted a World Cup warm-up game against Italy – now heed Ireland’s Call, he said. “The proof of the pudding is when the band starts up and people sing their heads off. People vote with their larynx.”

Players have also become more enthusiastic. Brian O’Driscoll, a former captain, told a documentary he used to stay shtum during Ireland’s Call, which at home games is played after the national anthem. “I was like ‘pffft, Amhrán na bhFiann is really my anthem.” His mother convinced him of a responsibility to sing both. “She was right … it was my duty to try and be part of something that incorporates everyone.”

Songwriter Phil Coulter, the composer of Ireland’s Call, in 1987. Photograph: Independent News and Media/Getty Images

Cricket and hockey, which like rugby operate on an all-Ireland basis, have also adopted Coulter’s song.

With Brexit and demographic shifts in Northern Ireland putting a united Ireland – and the need to woo unionists – on the political agenda, even Sinn Féin has signalled openness to changing the flag and anthem.

Unionists have long recoiled at Amhrán na bhFiann, an expression of Irish nationalism sung by republican rebels during the 1916 Rising. Rugby players from Northern Ireland tended to not sing it – a reluctance deepened in 1987 when an IRA bomb aimed at a judge injured three players travelling from Belfast to Dublin.

An improvised alternative at that year’s World Cup – a scratchy recording of The Rose of Tralee – was deemed a disaster. So the IRFU commissioned Coulter, who has also written hits for Cliff Richard and the Bay City Rollers, to come up with something rousing and inclusive.

He avoided the word “united” and instead invoked four proud provinces “together standing tall, shoulder to shoulder”. He anticipated resistance, especially from southerners who feared a northern plot. “It didn’t surprise me. I didn’t take to my bed or sulk in a corner. I knew it would take time.”

A breakthrough came in 2007 when Ireland hosted England at Croke Park, a stadium steeped in republican lore, for a rugby match that came to symbolise reconciliation between both countries. There was respectful silence for God Save the Queen, thunderous singing for Amhrán na bhFiann – and thunder again for Ireland’s Call. “The song finally earned its place,” said the composer.

A decade later some people “still think it’s a piece of shit”, but history seems to be on its side, said Coulter. “It was never meant to earn a Grammy or a Pulitzer. It was calculated to be inclusive. It was a compromise.”