The Patriot Game
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The song concerns an incident during the Border Campaign launched by the Irish Republican Army during the 1950s. It was written by Dominic Behan, younger brother of playwright Brendan Behan, to the tune of an earlier folksong, "The Merry Month of May" (recorded by Jo Stafford and Burl Ives as "The Nightingale"). It tells the story of Fergal O'Hanlon, an IRA Volunteer from Ballybay, County Monaghan who was killed at the age of 20 in an attack on Brookeborough Royal Ulster Constabulary barracks in County Fermanagh on 1 January 1957. The operation was devised and led by Sean Garland, an IRA man from Dublin. Another volunteer, Seán South from Limerick, was also killed during the raid.
Behan later became close friends with Sean Garland, officiating as the best man at Garland's wedding. Garland gave the eulogy at Behan's funeral in 1989.
The song is one of the best known to emerge from the Irish nationalist struggle and has been popular amongst the IRA, as well as other groups. "The Patriot Game" has been recorded by numerous artists, including the Kingston Trio, The Bluebells, The Dubliners, The Wolfe Tones, Schooner Fare, and The Clancy Brothers. It also appears on the Judy Collins LP record Whales and Nightingales.
The last line of the song was originally "For the cowards who sold out the patriot game", but most recent versions say "... Quislings who sold out the patriot game". This change featured on Harvey Andrews's 1975 version of the song. The cover by the Bluebells altered many of the lyrics to make their song clearly anti-war.
Like Behan, Bob Dylan used the melody of "The Merry Month of May" for his own song "With God on Our Side". Behan chided Dylan publicly by claiming the melody as an original composition. He was annoyed because the first two verses of Dylan's song were a parody of his own song. Dylan's refusal to credit Behan's lyrical structure was the main issue at hand, and in response, Behan took the view that the provenance of Dylan's entire body of work must be questioned; this is a view that has gained currency over the years as other works written by Dylan were claimed by other writers (for example Blowing in the Wind, the authorship of which was questioned by high school student Lorre Wyatt, damaging Dylan's reputation despite the eventual dismissal of the allegations). Whilst it is true Behan exercised a folk tradition of using and adapting the melody, Behan's lyrics were entirely original and of the time. Behan also took issue with the Clancy Brothers, who chose not to sing the verses which sanctioned the murders of Irish police officers or which criticized Éamon de Valera:
This Ireland of mine has for long been half free,
Six counties are under John Bull's tyranny.
And still de Valera is greatly to blame
For shirking his part in the patriot game.
American filmmaker Arthur MacCaig named his 1979 documentary after the song, a portrayal of Irish history from a Republican perspective.
British Band Dire Straits' chart hit Brothers in Arms refers strongly to Behan's song both musically (phrasing and ballad structure) and topically.
The song "Colony" by Damien Dempsey references the title of the song:
Katie she came from down Townsend street,
Ten in a bed and no shoes on their feet,
They played the patriot's game,
- Dominic Behan's performance for the radio
- From Dominic Behan's album Easter Week and After
- The Dubliners' Rendition
- Informational site including audio clips and parody
- Distributor's website entry on the 1979 documentary by Arthur McCaig
- lyrics chords tab and video