"Clonard Street" - Song for The Sack of Balbriggan

The Sack of Balbriggan took place on the night of 20th September 1920. In the words of Uachtarán na hÉireann, Michael D. Higgins, that day was a:

“defining and exemplary episode in the Irish War of Independence… its ferocity and reports of it resulted in the galvanising of support for the military struggle that would ultimately lead to the establishment of our independent State.”

We must try to remember these events “ethically and responsibly”. We must see historical events in their context, as connected and interlinked.

On the evening of 20 September, Royal Irish Constabulary Chief Constable Peter Burke and his brother, Sergeant Michael Burke, stopped off in Balbriggan on their way to visit Gormanston camp. As they were drinking in a local pub in the presence of several Black and Tan officers, an IRA unit shot and killed Peter Burke and wounded Michael Burke.

In light of this attack, a reprisal was coordinated by the Black and Tans within hours. The burning of homes and businesses was a violent act but, through the horrible poetry of war, this fiery vengeance also carried a symbolic meaning. It is this symbolism that we have employed in our newly-commissioned song, “Clonard Street”, written by Dónal Kearney and Michael T. Dawson.

That fatal night took place a hundred years ago in the harvest month of September, when families prepare for the coming winter and summer closes for another year. September welcomes autumn with its falling leaves and buds. The sunlight turns cold but the brightness lingers for a while.

Flowers fall upon the leaves / as songbirds float on summer’s breeze / Deep into the sky of blue / across the eye of noon. / Shine warm, shine warm, a little longer

The factories and mills were very important to the social and economic life of Balbriggan. In 1920, Deeds and Templar Hosiers factory employed hundreds of workers, with an additional 180 indirectly employed. The destruction of the factory that night made a deep impact on the livelihoods of a significant proportion of the local population in Balbriggan.

Whereas once the local people may have farmed the land, they were now mainly industrial workers embroidering underwear for the elite of the British Empire; Queen Victoria famously wore “Balbriggans”.

This evolution from agriculture to industrialism is just one historical example of how identities can shift over time. Balbriggan became renowned for its mills. Its view of itself changed. Just as the days grow shorter and darker towards the winter, and the harvest pyres signal renewal and rebirth after a fruitful summer, the changing seasons bring life and death.

Reap the softened harvest fruit / Clean and tough, up from the root, / Sleep and dusk creep o'er the mill / This moonless night is still / Shine warm, shine warm, a little longer

Balbriggan brims with heritage - from the Martello towers to the period buildings and factory folklore. The lighthouse along the gorgeous strand, dating from 1769, tells many tales of its own. It is a beacon for lost souls, both those who make it back from their voyages and those you do not. Its manufactured beam shines through the liminal passage between two worlds. Balbriggan harbour is a vantage point where it stands on the Fingal coast, and for centuries has been so. It invites the spirits of the sea ashore and it guides adventurers home.

The lighthouse watches, standing bold / Burns up its lamps while beaming cold / And beckons home the long lost souls / Remembered, young and old / Shine warm, shine warm, a little longer

The song uses powerful symbols of natural (and supernatural) energy joining the seasons of death and life. The rays of the sun, the sheen of the moon. The torch of the lighthouse and the dust of the stars reflecting on the sea. The harvest fires and the flames burning down Clonard Street.

Solas na gréine / Solas an oíche / Solas na farraige / Ochón, ochón / Solas na gréine / Soilse na ndaoine / Solas na farraige / Ochón, ochón, Ó

This song remembers the cyclical nature of conflict. Fingal’s raven is still hungry and sings the same call as ever, one hundred years on. This event is not necessarily in our past. It is happening forever, in our memories and in our songs and stories. It is not finished, it is not gone. In our minds, the marching feet can still be felt and the flames still burn.

A flash of heat through Clonard Street / Marching feet without a beat / The raven cries and waits to eat / The rhythm of his songs repeat / Shine warm, shine warm a little longer

Where the fires and pyres renew our land, our towns and our sense of who we are, we must be able to look into the future. The people’s light, the brightness of us, is the most important light of all. No matter what happens in the heat of war or the mists of anger, our shared humanity is at stake.

In the words of Michael D. Higgins in his official statement commemorating the Sack of Balbriggan, our process of:

“remembering must be open to all perspectives… [It] requires us all, each of us, to summon up our shared humanity, a humanity which was tested, often brutalised, but also magnified during the War of Independence and indeed over the longer revolutionary period… Reaching an accommodation with sometimes conflicting versions of the past is merely a stepping stone in the journey via understanding to the destination of forgiveness for past hurt, neglect or omission.”

To quote the late John Hume: “an eye for an eye leaves us all blind”. Let us listen for the songbirds, for the same old tunes. They will return and they will remind us again.

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