Choosing the anthem

Nov 28th, 2009 | By | Category: International

Being an Englishman who has attended Ireland’s three autumn rugby internationals in the past fourteen days; there were observable traits in the singing of the National Anthems.  Some people sang Amhran na bhFiann but not Ireland’s Call; some people sang the latter and not the former; some people sang both; and some people sang neither.

Was there political motivation?  Or was it simply a practical issue? An Ulsterman beside me said he had no objection to singing Amhran na bhFiann , but that he had never been taught it and had no idea how to pronounce the words on the page.  Someone else once told me they thought Ireland’s Call to be appalling doggerel and had no intention of singing a bad anthem; it was not politics, it was taste.

Both anthems got a good airing before this afternoon’s match against the Springboks, but, from high in the Davin Stand, Phil Coulter’s 1995 song seemed to have the edge over the warriors of destiny.

The singing of the South African anthem was interesting.  Instead of having two separate anthems; they try to sing both in one song.  It sounds odd, because a completely different tune begins halfway through.

Nkosi, sikelel’ iAfrika is a hymn written by a Methodist minister, ‘God bless Africa’.  The combined Army and Garda band struck up and the crowd stood in respectful silence.  The big screens carrying the television pictures showed the team singing with great gusto, but the Springboks fans standing nearby were quiet.  Then the tune changed and the old anthem Die Stem began and people seemed suddenly to find their voices, the Afrikaans anthem became audible.

Perhaps they had their own reasons for not singing the new anthem, perhaps the irregular tune and unfamiliar tune make Nkosi, sikelel’ iAfrika something not easily rendered when you are standing in a foreign country amongst seventy-odd thousand opposing fans, but perhaps there is a deeper unease.

Harry Thompson’s quirky book  “Penguins Stopped Play”, his account of a world tour by a village cricket team, written months before before his sad death in 2005, has a melancholic comment on the South Africa he encountered four years ago:

I couldn’t help feeling, though, that there was a slight difference between the Cape Town party spirit on display here and the party spirit we’d encountered at the waterfront on New Year’s Eve 1995-6. Then the sense of optimism had been palpable, a sense of rebirth, a sense of excitement at the possibilities ahead; now there was more of an eve-of- Waterloo, deck-of-the- Titanic feeling in the air. Let’s have as much fun as possible while we still can.

Perhaps the Afrikaaner rugby fans simply didn’t like the new anthem, but perhaps it represented for them  Jacob Zuma, a president whose personal song is “Bring me my machine gun” and the regime for which he stands.

The apartheid regime was a foul and obnoxious system, but so is one which has allowed life expectancy to fall to the point where South Africa ranks 158th out of 176 countries and where it is ranked between Congo and Djibouti in the United Nations’ Human Poverty Index.

People have many reasons for singing or not.

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