Famine Song

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The Famine Song is a song sung by some Ulster loyalists in Northern Ireland and Scotland and is normally directed at Catholics and, in Scotland, Irish people, those of Irish descent or those with perceived affiliations to Ireland.[1] It is also sung by fans of Scottish football club Rangers due to rival Celtic's Irish roots. Set to the tune of "The John B. Sails" popularised by Carl Sandburg, the lyrics of the song make reference to the 1840s' Great Famine of Ireland. The song is often heard at loyalist marches in Northern Ireland despite many loyalists being descended from refugees fleeing famine in Scotland, and the Great Famine being an event that impacted the whole of Ireland. The Famine Song has received criticism due to the racist and sectarian nature of its lyrics and, in some cases, those singing it have received criminal convictions.


The Irish famine of the 1840s led the country's population to fall from approximately 8 million to 5 million as a result of starvation and emigration.[2] Although the bulk of emigrants moved to North America, large numbers moved to Scotland and England, settling in London, Liverpool and Glasgow.[3] Since then, sectarianism in Glasgow in particular has been a problem, with its two main football teams being focal points of identity: Celtic drawing large support from the descendants of Irish Catholics and Rangers from Protestants in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Lex Gold, the Scottish Premier League (SPL) chief executive, said that football clubs could be deducted points if fans continue to sing such songs:

Clubs know they need to be alert and make sure their fans are doing all they can to avoid sectarian or other offensive abuse. The verse of the song that has featured hugely is racist, it's not sectarian as such, it's racist. The rules were structured to help to try to tackle this. You don't start with points deduction. We have a range of sanctions which can be applied.[4]

John Reid, Celtic's chairman, has tried to highlight the non-Catholic specific aspects of the famine: "Few of those who sing this song will have stopped to think that famine is nonsectarian and the millions of people who died or were forced into mass emigration – some to Scotland – were from all faiths and traditions within Ireland.[5] Ireland's consul general has approached the Scottish Government regarding the song. A Scottish Government spokesman said: "The Scottish Government is totally committed to combating sectarianism and bigotry, which is why we have expanded on the work of the previous administration and are doing more. We are working with the clubs themselves, as they are part of the solution to the problem.[6]

Kenny Scott, Rangers' Head of Security and Operations, said in October 2008 that conversations with the Strathclyde Police made it clear to the club that there was the potential for supporters singing the song to be arrested.[7] In November 2008, a Rangers fan was found guilty of a breach of the peace (aggravated by religious and racial prejudice) for singing the song during a game in Kilmarnock.[8] At his appeal in June 2009, three Scottish judges ruled that the song is racist because it targets people of Irish origin.[9][10] A Rangers fans' organisation, the Rangers Supporters' Trust, denied that the song is racist.[11] It instead described the song as a "wind-up" that is designed to mock not the famine itself, but Celtic fans' perceived affiliations with the Republic of Ireland.[11]

Legal issues[edit]

In the case of William Walls v. the Procurator Fiscal, Kilmarnock,[12] the High Court of Justiciary held on appeal, in an opinion delivered by Lord Carloway, that:

"the song calls upon persons of Irish descent, who are living in Scotland, to go back to the land of their ancestors, namely Ireland [...] they are racist in calling upon people native to Scotland to leave the country because of their racial origins. This is a sentiment which, once more, many persons will find offensive."

The appellant, who was convicted for breach of the peace racially aggravated and aggravated by religious prejudice having sung the Famine Song and made a number of other remarks during a football match, had his appeal denied and his conviction upheld.


  1. ^ "Loyalist band's actions 'totally inappropriate'". BBC News. 15 July 2012. 
  2. ^ Edward Laxton, The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America 1846–51, Bloomsbury, 1997, ISBN 0-7475-3500-0
  3. ^ Christine Kinealy, This Great Calamity, Gill & Macmillan (1994), ISBN 0-7171-4011-3, 357.
  4. ^ "Gold: I'll dock points if clubs fail in fan duty". www.eveningtimes.co.uk. Evening Times Online. November 2008. Retrieved 6 November 2008. 
  5. ^ "Rangers' Famine Song is racist, says John Reid". Daily Record Online. www.dailyrecord.co.uk. September 2008. Retrieved 6 November 2008. 
  6. ^ "Concerns raised over famine song". BBC News. news.bbc.co.uk. 15 September 2008. Retrieved 6 November 2008. 
  7. ^ "Famine Song Statement". Rangers Official Club Site – News. www.rangers.premiumtv.co.uk. Retrieved 6 November 2008. [permanent dead link]
  8. ^ "Rangers fan guilty over singing Famine Song at Rugby Park". Kilmarnock Standard. 26 November 2008. Retrieved 15 March 2012. 
  9. ^ "Judges brand Famine Song 'racist'". BBC. 19 June 2009. Retrieved 7 August 2009. 
  10. ^ a b "POSITION STATEMENT ON 'THE FAMINE SONG'". 3 October 2008. Archived from the original on 9 January 2009. Retrieved 23 October 2015. 
  11. ^ "WILLIAM WALLS v. PROCURATOR FISCAL, KILMARNOCK, 19 June 2009, Lord Carloway+Sheriff Principal Brian A Lockhart+Sheriff Principal R.A. Dunlop, Q.C". Scotcourts.gov.uk. 19 June 2009. Archived from the original on 25 September 2009. Retrieved 2 November 2015.