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Electric Picnic is Ireland’s biggest annual music festival. It has come to occupy a place in the national calendar similar to that of the Glastonbury Festival in the United Kingdom. Like Glastonbury, it can be relied upon to provide stories for news outlets hungry for summer incident. Quite often, the stories about the festival revolve around drugs and sex. No surprises there. However, this year’s biggest Electric Picnic controversy concerns a folk band called the Wolfe Tones, whose members have been writing and singing Irish rebel songs for decades. 

To widespread amazement, this band's performance drew 10,000 to one of the festival tents. The whiskery men in their seventies and eighties up on the stage were roared on by cool twenty-somethings in the mosh pits. Thousands more gathered outside to listen and sing along. 

Now, one of the songs the Wolfe Tones performed, and with which the audience joined in, contains a chant that goes “Ooh, ah, up the Ra!” “The Ra” is a slang term for the IRA. Certain sections of Irish society were horrified by this spectacle at Electric Picnic—much as they were last year, when footage emerged of the Irish women’s soccer team celebrating qualification for the World Cup by chanting along to the Wolfe Tones. Bear in mind that the members of the women's soccer team and most of those attending Electric Picnic would not even have been born when the Provos were maiming and killing. “What were these young people thinking?” the questions ran. “Were they thinking at all?” 

However, the uproar about “Up the Ra!” has obscured a separate moment of even more ecstatic band-audience bonding in the Electric Picnic tent. This occurred during the Wolfe Tones' performance of “Grace,” a very different kind of song, set in a different time in Irish history, and written in the voice of Joseph Mary Plunkett, one of the seven leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916. Hours before he was executed for his part in the revolt against British rule, Plunkett married his sweetheart, Grace Gifford. The song, with its slow, lilting melody, imagines the revolutionary’s last words to his new wife: “Oh, Grace, just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger . . .”

Almost everyone in the tent appeared to know every word, singing at the top of their voices this deeply old-fashioned tale of long ago. The incongruity is obvious. Ireland is changing and changing fast; and change, as far as most Electric Picnickers are concerned, is (I imagine) exciting and good and devoutly to be wished. Human nature being what it is, though, songs like “Grace” allow the young of Ireland to reach backward for atavistic comfort blankets at the same time as they hurtle forward toward the future.

But the crowd’s palpable reverence for “Grace” throws up some deeper puzzles. The last line of the final verse goes: “I loved so much that I could see his blood upon the rose.” These are words that Joseph Plunkett tells Grace he will write upon the walls of his cell, in an enigmatic-seeming departure from an otherwise readily intelligible story of a famous rebellion and a doomed love.  

Where do these words come from? From here:

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words. All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.

This poem was written by Joseph Plunkett himself, five years before his death at the age of twenty-seven. Like so many of the leaders of 1916, Plunkett was a devout Catholic and a most interesting man. He was the possessor of “an eclectic and cosmopolitan mind” (Ruth Dudley Edwards), housed in an always ailing body. He helped set up the Irish Esperanto Association, corresponded with the Lumière brothers, loved scholastic philosophy and the Spanish mystics, revered Chesterton and Francis Thompson, was secretary of the Industrial Peace Committee in Dublin, and passed the Matriculation examination for the Royal College of Surgeons (though he was physically unfit to take up his place). He also lived for a time in Algiers, where he learnt Arabic and indulged his passion for roller skating. (At one stage, he was offered the manager’s job at the local rink.) Yet, as his poem illustrates, Joseph Plunkett’s eye and mind were never far from Christ.  

The line extracted from Plunkett’s poem, and the position it occupies in the song, shifts “Grace” into a position adjacent to a Catholic hymn. While Grace Gifford, for her part, was an earnest Catholic convert, those who packed out the Electric Picnic tent are mainly of a new Irish generation with little or no experience of being in a crowded church, singing “Faith of our Fathers” or “Hail, Queen of Heaven” or even the more recently composed “Lady of Knock” (which, tonally, is probably closest to “Grace”). It is not possible to say how many of them know the origins and meaning of the “blood upon the rose” line, but the fervor with which “Grace” is sung is extraordinary—evidence, perhaps, that the native religious impulse (which in Ireland is a Catholic impulse) may be suppressed but not entirely quenched, and will erupt in surprising places.  

Or to look at it another way: The line about Christ’s blood upon the rose is like a flag plucked from the ancient faith and now surreptitiously planted in the alien territory of modern culture. (Rod Stewart has incorporated “Grace” into his repertoire as well.) There the flag waits for people to inspect it more closely and perhaps wonder more deeply about what it is they have been passionately saluting.

John Duggan writes from Surrey, ­England.

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Image by Totesgowlers licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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