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Ian Malcolm: The day I sang Orange ballad in Dublin's GPO

As part of the Republic's Easter Rising celebrations, Ian Malcolm, a unionist, was asked to take part. And as he sang an old folk song, he noticed one man in the audience was particularly rapt... the grandson of republican icon Eamon de Valera. Here, he recounts his unforgettable day.

Published 14/04/2015

Ian Malcolm (right) with Eamon O Cuiv during the RTE radio show
Ian Malcolm (right) with Eamon O Cuiv during the RTE radio show
The bomb-damaged GPO in aftermath of the Rising

The penultimate line of that great old Orange ballad Lurgan Town is 'We turned, shook hands, all we could do...'

And as I sang it in Dublin on Easter Monday I could never have imagined that the man to shake my hand would be the grandson of Eamon de Valera, a central figure in the 1916 Rising and the architect of an Ireland that shook off the ties with Britain.

Yet here I was, shaking hands at the climactic moment of a 19th century song about a banned Orange parade with Eamon O Cuiv, TD for Galway West and a man proud of his republican roots and Fianna Fail, the party founded by his illustrious grandfather.

Politically, myself and Eamon probably have little common ground - but we do share a passion for the Irish language, both of us there to give our respective perspectives on the Eiri Amach (Rising) for a special broadcast by Raidio na Gaeltachta.

For me, as a Protestant and unionist from Co Armagh, it was a little bit of history and a day I'll never forget... made even more special in that my rendition of a song I love was on the balcony in the GPO on O'Connell Street.

This was where Patrick Pearse and James Connolly made their stand. The GPO is central to republicanism and the concept of 'blood sacrifice'. This was where Pearse read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic to an audience of bemused Dubliners.

It was Sackville Street back then and the interior of the building was gutted after shelling from the Crown forces. Yet the exterior survived and the GPO is again one of the finest jewels in Dublin's stunning architectural crown.

With a year until the centenary, preparations are under way and a series of Road to the Rising events set the countdown clock ticking on Easter Monday: people dressed in period costume recreated the atmosphere and flavour of Easter 1915, when the Suffragettes and not the rebels, whose day was yet to come, were at the top of the political agenda.

As indeed was the Great War, in which young men from north and south - Protestants and Catholics, unionists and nationalists - were giving their lives in the 36th and 16th divisions on the bloody battlefields of Europe.

Set against that backdrop, my song was a mere trifle but as the strains of Lurgan Town echoed around the GPO I could imagine the ghosts of Easter 1916 listening to this little moment of history - a unionist singing an Orange ballad in the cradle of the Rising that changed Ireland forever.

Might a smile have played upon the lips of Ireland's liberators? We'll never know.

At the very least, I hope it proved that there can be space for all culture - Orange and Green - on every part of this little island we share.

And should I, pray God, get invited back next year, it'll have to be The Aghalee Heroes.

  • Dr Ian Malcolm is author of the book Towards Inclusion: Protestants and the Irish Language, published by Blackstaff.


Dr Ian Malcolm is an author and fluent Irish speaker from Co Armagh. He works in Irish language journalism as a writer, broadcaster and commentator providing the unionist perspective on politics and Northern Ireland issues. He also works as a interpreter and freelance Irish language teacher and lecturer.

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