Peadar Kearney, an IRB member and the author of many popular political songs and verses, produced the text of ‘The Soldier’s Song’, working in collaboration with Patrick Heeney, who was mainly responsible for the melody. The original text was in English and consisted of three stanzas and a chorus. The words and music may well have been written as early as 1907. The text was first published in Bulmer Hobson’s Irish Freedom in September 1912, with, however, no attribution of author.
It became increasingly popular as a marching and rallying song among the Volunteers between 1912 and 1916; it confirmed that they were ‘soldiers’ rather than ‘rebels’. On the belts of their uniforms, the Volunteers wore the words ‘Óglaigh na hÉireann’, ‘Soldiers of Ireland’. By general account it was in the internment camps after the Easter Rising that ‘The Soldier’s Song’ came to be widely used. Before independence the song and music were published on a number of occasions, in Ireland and in the United States, with the consent of Peadar Kearney (Patrick Heeney died in 1911).
After the establishment of the Irish Free State, ‘The Soldier’s Song’ continued to be strongly associated with the army. It was played routinely as a ceremonial closing at army meetings and festivities, much as ‘God Save the King’ was used by the British. In the first years of the Free State, there was, however, no officially adopted national anthem. Thomas Moore’s ‘Let Erin Remember’ was often played on formal occasions abroad. ‘God Save Ireland’ and ‘A Nation Once Again’ were also used.
Both the government and other bodies recognised the need to designate an anthem formally, not least to discourage renditions of ‘God Save the King’ from unionists in the Free State. The approach of the Olympic Games in Paris in 1924 prompted the Department of External Affairs to ask the office of the President of the Executive Council to take steps to establish an anthem. Various suggestions were made, including a public competition or, alternatively, asking ‘a number of Irish poets and writers’ to submit verses which might be used together with the music of ‘Let Erin Remember’. It was assumed that the text would be in Irish. Despite further prompting, the government took no decisive action, and ‘Let Erin Remember’ was played at the Olympic Games.
In this situation, on 12 June 1924, the Dublin Evening Mail announced a competition for a set of verses for ‘A National Hymn to the Glory of Ireland’, occasioned by the lack of any ‘national hymn or anthem for use on ceremonial or convivial occasions’. A prize of £50 was offered for a text, the assumption being that music could be written later. W.B. Yeats, Lennox Robinson and James Stephens were appointed to evaluate the results.
On 22 October, the Dublin Evening Mail was forced to publish its committee’s conclusion that having ‘read the poems…we are all agreed that there is not one amongst them worth fifty guineas or any portion of it…Most of the verses submitted to us were imitations of “God Save the King”‘. The competition was opened once again, but now the editors themselves selected six anonymous entries and asked readers to vote for their favourite. On 10 March 1925, Mrs Mary Farren Thomas of Clontarf was awarded the £50 prize for ‘God of Our Ireland’. And here the matter was dropped; what started as a publicity ploy for the newspaper became a burden and an embarrassment.
It did however direct public attention to the absence of an accepted anthem and occasioned considerable editorial comment and correspondence in newspapers. The Evening Mail’s distinguished committee of writers expressed the view that ‘national anthems have always in the past been one man’s thought, written out for that man’s pleasure, and taken up by a nation afterwards’.
The army’s own publication, An tÓglach (The Soldier), commented on the debacle:
‘The Soldiers’ Song’ is good enough for the present…The note of defeat or sorrow is absent from it. In the songs of the past, sadness, disappointment and failure had too much prominence. The new spirit was caught by the writer of ‘The Soldiers’ Song’.
In the event, a simple decision was made by the Executive Council to adopt ‘The Soldier’s Song’ as the national anthem for all purposes. The reasons for choosing this rather than another air are not recorded, but it seems likely that by this point ‘The Soldier’s Song’ had become so firmly established by custom that replacing it would prove difficult, and William Cosgrave is on record as wanting to retain it. The decision was not accompanied by any publicity, and was announced only by means of a brief answer to a backbencher’s question in the Dáil on 20 July 1926.