Community Experiences of Sectarianism

This study explored community experiences and perceptions of sectarianism, based on in-depth qualitative research within five case study communities across Scotland. The insights obtained provide depth and context to other research about sectarianism, including quantitative survey and national criminal offending data.

10. Song

10.1 The sectarian or other meanings of song, like almost all cultural performances, depends to a great extent upon the context. The performance of the tune to Rule Britannia is likely to be understood quite differently by the audience at a Veterans' Association meeting than by a large crowd of Celtic football supporters on match day. Songs were often mentioned by our participants as having a particular power to construct sectarian meaning in a number of ways. Some songs were reported to have sectarian meaning through a literal reading of the lyrics but, just as often, a number of participants across the case studies reported that the context for performance itself was crucial to whether or not songs were perceived of as sectarian.

10.2 One participant in a Dundee focus group described how during a social trip to Northern Ireland, one of their group was verbally abused and threatened when they sang an Irish song. In Dundee this man had regularly sung Irish songs his mother had taught him as a young boy, whereas in Northern Ireland, these same songs were heard as a political statement of Republicanism and aggressively discouraged. This also supported our participant's view of sectarianism as a problem elsewhere:

... the Catholics and the Protestants in Ireland and the West Coast, they've got meanings to the songs. They're just songs here. We just sing [emphasis added]
(Woman, Focus Group 1, Dundee)

10.3 In another example from the interviews, a participant identified the Tina Turner song 'Simply the Best' as a sectarian song, because of its widespread popularity with Rangers supporters and their occasional performances of it with actively offensive lyrics (or a meaningful pause that implies the words). Another participant reported that they perceived 'Rule Britannia' as a sectarian song because of its association with 'Protestants, Rangers, Unionists'.

10.4 This highlights the importance of the performance context to the construction of sectarian meaning. Songs that were acceptable to sing in Dundee at the social club were identified as sectarian and divisive in the Northern Irish context. Sectarianism in this context was activated not by the subject matter or style of the song but simply by the context in which it was sung. But often, songs can be used directly to express sectarian language, where both the context and the content of the songs are heard as sectarian.

Dundee was the only place in Scotland where a large migrant Irish community arrived in the 19th century that was mostly women and mostly Catholic. Their arrival led to relatively little conflict (see Appendix 2). It may be that this throws some light on the social context today.

10.5 In another story from the Dundee focus group, the song Kevin Barry was identified as sectarian. It was banned at one social club, which upset some members of the club, but in this case the lyrics of the song, our participant said, carried the sectarian meaning because of its overt Irish republicanism:

It was a bad ... my granny just wouldn't allow it in the house ... And yet she sung the Irish songs, because she was of Irish parents. But not that.
(Woman, Focus Group 1, Dundee)

10.6 In an example from Glasgow, the singer did not realise that her performance could even have been heard as sectarian because she was not aware of the sectarian meanings carried by the tune. In this case, a young woman was invited to a party in Glasgow from her home in Edinburgh, and as a result of her reputation as a fine singer was invited to contribute a song to the company. The song's lyrics carried no sectarian meanings but she was unaware that the tune that she was singing was also used for the song 'The Sash'. She was immediately stopped from singing within the first two lines of the performance and ushered quickly from the room. In her own words:

That tune carries with it ... all the hatred and the ugliness and the, it's on purpose they try to upset other folk. I didn't [know], I thought it was a really good, it is a fabulous tune.
(Woman, Interview 2, Edinburgh).

10.7 The tune of 'The Sash' has publicly acquired the sectarian and divisive meanings of the lyrics, so that the tune carries the whole sectarian meaning of the song (even just the opening bars).[15] Thus, the tune can have powerful sectarian meaning without ever explicitly referring to religious identity and without any text at all.[16] In the example quoted above, a tune without words was heard as highly offensive to certain listeners, despite being used for an entirely unrelated and non-sectarian song. In these sorts of cases, this is not just an interpretation imposed by individuals, but a meaning shared and understood across different social groups.

10.8 There was, across the case study sites, widespread acknowledgement that songs have a powerful ability to divide people. Certain songs such as 'The Sash', 'The Fields of Athenry', 'Simply the Best', 'The Famine Song', 'The Billy Boys', 'No Pope of Rome' and others, were all identified as sectarian. In one instance, a participant who worked in a pub reported that they had removed a CD of 'Irish songs' from the pub's jukebox in an attempt to minimise the potential for sectarian problems.

10.9 What is important in the analysis of sectarian songs, or other cultural performances such as stories, jokes, films and so on, is to identify which element(s) of the performance carry sectarian meaning and why. Clearly lyrics can carry significant sectarian meaning, but as our examples from this study show, there are particularly Scottish understandings of non-textual, musical elements that can construct sectarianism. In addition, certain songs can display sectarian meaning when performed in particular contexts or directed towards particular audiences.


Email: Linzie Liddell

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