The Green Fields Of France – The Fureys & Davey Arthur
But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s Land
The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
To a whole generation that were butchered and damned.
We’re sitting on a bus to Crossmaglen in South Armagh in the summer of 1981; me, Tony Roose and a delegation of the Troops Out Movement. We have a Sinn Fein escort, for these rolling green hills and sparkling rivers are in bandit country, and we’re heading for a village on the Irish border. An IRA village. There’s a huge bristling watchtower on the village green, and a mile to the south, towards the border, a British Army barracks.
We marched down the country lane with banners and made a speech through a megaphone to the troops inside. Then someone knocked on the door. I remember this moment quite clearly. A young lad with a red, black and green camoflage painted face stood there with his rifle, reminding me of Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, the paint glistening on his young features, he was younger than me, about 18. We made our point: “we don’t want British troops in Northern Ireland” and went to the pub. Drank Guinness and then this song came on the jukebox.
I think the moment I became curious about Ireland was after Bloody Sunday in 1972, shocking grainy images on the TV of soldiers, people running. Death. An IRA bomb sometime after that terrible day – the day the Daily Mirror headline IRA SCUM was published. We had the Mirror delivered every day to our council house in Hailsham. I was about 16 and on a political learning curve – I had a map of Vietnam on my bedroom wall where I mapped the Vietcong advance. For me, there was just something wrong with a newspaper using the word “scum”, about anyone. My antennae wobbled. I investigated. I understood fairly quickly that we were at war – not in some far-flung colonial outpost – but inside our own country. Nothing really happened except filtering The News through this knowledge, translating and decoding the stuff we were supposed to think but never really being active until after college in London when I joined the Troops Out Movement and went to some marches and meetings. Tony Roose was at LSE with me and felt the same way.
So one early morning in August, we boarded a coach with our fellow Delegates, and drove up the M6 to Stranraer where a ferry would take us to Larne. Before we boarded there was a checkpoint and we all had to hand over our passports. It took them about 20 minutes to photocopy the lot, and we were all on file and bang goes the knighthood and there we were on the Irish Sea. Once in Belfast, we were taken to our orientation meeting off the Falls Road, told not to wander around alone, we were guests of Sinn Fein, and there’ll be a trip to Crossmaglen tomorrow, then a rally the following day. We were billetted with republican familes on Ballymurphy Estate in West Belfast and that’s when it hit me. War. Roadblocks with soldiers. Watchtowers. Barbed wire. Armoured Cars with squaddies. Guns. And amongst all this war, people going shopping , going down the bookies, kids playing in the street. “They never told us about this” I said. ” Look at this !” This is what war looks like. Squaddies with rifles cocked crouching down in someone’s front garden as the net curtain twitches and an old lady looks out. The weird normality of occupation. The wall which separated the Protestant Shankhill from the Catholic Falls Road. It was shocking. The kids were fresh – asking for money, dancing Michael Jackson for us, flirting, laughing at our accents. When I ran out of cigarettes I wasn’t allowed by Eileen (whose husband was serving time in H-Block) to go to the shop on my own. “They’ll pop yer when they hear yer accent. They’ll think yer an undercover Brit”.
It was a passionate moment in Irish history. Ten hunger strikers had died in the H-Block prison demanding political status since May, among them Bobby Sands, who was elected MP for Fermanagh in April 1981 on an 87% turnout. Thatcher had overseen this grisly procession of martyrdom with a steely demeanour, and would go on to prove she had guts by sacrificing more young men in the South Atlantic the following year. The stakes were high. The anger in West Belfast, mixed with the anarchic joy of the kids, the incredible street murals championing the IRA as heroes, and Bobby Sands in particular as a latter-day saint, the British Army waiting “out there” as Joe Strummer had said : “and it weighs fifteen hundred tons”, everything just felt like resistance – fight back – take a stand.
The song is about the First World War and was written by Eric Bogle, a Scotsman. But I’ll always marry it to the Irish republican struggle because of this moment, and because this cover version by The Fureys and Davey Arthur is so universal – and yet so specific too. The year 1916 saw the Easter Rising in Dublin, 500 were killed, and the leaders were executed. Conscription for ‘The Great War’ was abandoned and Ireland turned decisively against the British. At war’s end, Sinn Fein won the 1919 election and formed a government in Ireland. The following war of independence saw the formation of the “black and tans” – the brainchild of Churchill -who became the sectarian RUC or Royal Ulster Constabulary – the N. Irish Protestant police force. The South formed the Irish Free State in 1922, and the partition of the country ensued. And that’s where we were sitting in our pub in the village of Crossmaglen – in the north of a divided nation. This was a particularly hot period in Irish history, and although I’d read about it somewhat I was not prepared at all for what I found there. It was thrilling and scary and righteous and we stood for what we believed.
I nearly got beaten up in London for wearing my favourite Troops Out badge – a map of the UK where Scotland was beating Northern Ireland with a baton formed of The Hebrides, and got searched on the tube platform at Victoria on my way to a gig by a secret Policeman who snarled “Don’t Wear Badges” when he couldn’t find anything incriminating. Mine was slightly more geographically accurate than this, and was a greener green, but nearly got me a broken nose outside The French House one afternoon by a dead squaddie’s brother. “Say sorry to my brother!” Me : brave, foolish : “I’m sorry your brother is dead but if he hadn’t been over there he would still be with us”.
The Troops Out Movement is still going and their website is here:
Somehow this song incorporates all my feelings about that time, even though it is a song about WW1, perhaps the soft southern irish accent of Davey Arthur singing, or perhaps the righteous fury at the establishment, or more likely a heady combination of the two, and where I first heard it. There were plenty of rebel songs too of course, The Men Behind The Wire and others but this song is pretty amazing.