‘You say you want a revolution…’ – the Beatles and Irish nationalism

They were the standard-bearers of the British Invasion of the 1960s – a glad, confident time in which British recording artists practically monopolised the pop charts all over the world, and British culture was positively swinging at a swinging time. As the comedian Alan Davies put it in a 2002 TV documentary he presented on John Lennon, this band ‘made it cool to be British across the world. How cool is that!

So, as we mark what would have been John Lennon’s 75th birthday, had a certain unemployed Texan called Mark Chapman not had other ideas, it may seem curious (to say the least) that such a quintessentially British band (and, for that matter, brand) like the Beatles – well, at least half of them – were firm supporters of Irish nationalism. On the other hand, both Lennon and Paul McCartney had Irish roots, both of them having descended from Irish immigrants (as is the case with thousands of Liverpudlians). These were, moreover, roots in which they both took pride, so perhaps their sympathy with the nationalist cause is not that difficult to understand.

The Beatles, flanked by RUC officers, on their way to their second and final Belfast concert, at the Ritz cinema, 8 November 1964
The Beatles, flanked by RUC officers, on their way to their second and final Belfast concert, at the Ritz cinema, 8 November 1964

The Beatles broke up in 1970, allowing John, Paul, George and Ringo to plough their own artistic furrows, free from any further acrimonious rows. At the same time, violence was raging on the streets of Belfast and Derry as the battle lines between the British army, the IRA, the loyalist paramilitaries, and security forces solidified.

With hindsight, it is clear that John Lennon was never going to stay silent on Irish affairs for long. He had form in pontificating on contentious issues. Just a year before, he had married Yoko Ono, and they marked part of their honeymoon with their celebrated “Bed-in for Peace” at the Amsterdam Hilton, as a protest against the Vietnam War, with Lennon informing reporters:

Yoko and I are quite willing to be the world’s clowns; if by doing it we do some good.

Later on in 1969, the world’s most famous married couple went on to meet Canada’s then prime minister Pierre Trudeau, with Lennon later commenting ‘We spent about 50 minutes together, which was longer than he had spent with any head of state. If all politicians were like Mr Trudeau there would be world peace.‘ Just ten months later, Trudeau would suspend all his citizens’ civil liberties and mobilise the Canadian army in response to a terrorist threat by Quebec separatists.

Lennon had nailed his nationalist colours to mast even before the events of Bloody Sunday had hit the New York newsstands. At the time he was recording tracks for his third solo album Some Time in New York City, one of which was entitled The Luck of the Irish. It is, to say the least, a strongly republican-flavoured song:

A thousand years of torture and hunger
Drove the people away from their land
A land full of beauty and wonder
Was raped by the British brigands!

Lennon also makes reference to his own Irish roots in Liverpool:

In the ‘Pool they told us the story
How the English divided the land
Of the pain, the death and the glory
And the poets of old Ireland

On hearing the news of the massacre in the Bogside, Lennon penned the much more strongly nationalistic track Sunday Bloody Sunday. At a time when most British commentators unquestioningly accepted the army’s story that the Paras had come under attack from bullets and nail bombs when they opened fire, Lennon didn’t buy it for a minute:

Well, it was Sunday, Bloody Sunday when they shot the people there,
The cries of thirteen martyrs filled the Free Derry air.
Is there anyone among you dares to blame it on the kids?
Not a soldier boy was bleeding when they nailed the coffin lids!

Further along in the song, Lennon launches a tirade of abuse against Unionists:

You Anglo pigs and Scotties, sent to colonize the North,
You wave your bloody Union Jacks, and you know what it’s worth!
How dare you hold to ransom a people proud and free?
Keep Ireland for the Irish; put the English back to sea!

Ultimately, neither Sunday Bloody Sunday nor The Luck of the Irish were released as singles, so it is something of an irony that it was Paul McCartney, rather than John Lennon, who would create the biggest impact with a pro-nationalist pop song – considering that Lennon was easily the more politically opinionated of the two. McCartney’s contribution to the debate was his first single with Wings, 1972’s Give Ireland Back to the Irish. Written by Paul and his wife Linda, the single was recorded just a couple of days after Bloody Sunday, and released on 25 February 1972. Like Lennon’s musical contributions to the Irish debate, McCartney’s song similarly left listeners in no doubt as to where this ex-Beatle’s sympathies lay: Give Ireland Back to the Irish is an unambiguous call for Ireland to be united and ruled from Dublin, even if the tone is much less aggressive than in Lennon’s songs:

Great Britain, you are tremendous
And nobody knows like me,
But really, what are you doing
In the land across the Sea?

Tell me, how would you like it
If on your way to work
You were stopped by Irish soldiers?
Would you lie down, do nothing?
Would you give in or go berserk?

The song certainly raised hackles among the British Establishment. The then chairman of EMI, Sir Joseph Lockwood, initially refused to release the single, saying that it would only be banned, but McCartney insisted on its release. Sure enough, the single was banned by the BBC, independent television and commercial radio. Broadcasters were even forbidden to read out the single’s name: Alan Freeman of Pick of the Pops referred to Give Ireland Back to the Irish as “a record by the group Wings”. Despite these hurdles, the single nonetheless spent eight weeks on the UK charts, peaking at 16, and also topped the charts in the Republic of Ireland and Spain.

Meanwhile, back to John Lennon: how far did he go in support of Irish nationalism? Fifteen years ago whistleblower David Shayler reported seeing an MI5 file on Lennon, which stated that the ex-Beatle helped to fund the IRA in the early 1970s. Yoko Ono, however, strongly denied this, saying that her husband gave money only ‘when it was asked for by people who were in need.‘ More recently, in 2006, the writer Johnny Rogan revealed that Lennon had offered to perform benefit concerts for republicans in Dublin and Belfast. In his book “Lennon: The Albums”, Rogan said that shortly after Bloody Sunday Lennon met up with the IRA’s Belfast brigade press officer Gerry O’Hare in New York, to talk over the idea. Ultimately, of course, the planned concerts never took place, not least because Lennon was fighting ongoing US government efforts to deport him and Yoko: he feared that if he got on a plane out of America he would never be allowed back in. Moreover, O’Hare reported that Lennon himself may have been confused about the issue:

You have to think of the time. There was nobody bigger than the Beatles, and John Lennon was espousing his working-class values. We [the IRA] were thinking, “This is brilliant, how did he get away with it?”… Whether he [Lennon] was [just] caught up in the emotion, I don’t know.”

He gave me the impression he was genuine. I said, “that’s fine”.’… I got the impression that he was very anxious to do [a concert] for the Protestant community as well.

Lennon’s confusion was certainly apparent at the time. In the days after Bloody Sunday the writer and performer of the timeless anthem Give Peace a Chance said ‘If it’s a choice between the IRA and the British army, I am with the IRA.’ According to the writer Bill Harry in his 2000 book “The John Lennon Encyclopedia”, John stated in a September 1972 interview to “Sounds” music journal:

Our backing of the Irish people is done through the Irish Civil Rights, which is not the IRA. Although I condemn any violence, if two people are fighting, I’m probably gonna be on one side or the other even though I’m against violence.

The rich artistic, cultural, and musical legacy of the Beatles continues to play out and extend its influence, forty-five years after the band broke up and thirty-five years since John Lennon’s murder in New York. More contentious, however, is the political legacy of the band, two of whose members were not shy about debating the issues of the day. The writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie, in a 1999 Radio 2 documentary, commented about “a really dangerous precedent” that Lennon in particular set:

His legacy… is that we have started to think that pop stars have anything to say about politics. Lennon had nothing to say about politics: he was a berk, politically naive, any half-arsed, two-bit, ill-thought-out revolutionary group who were happening to pass through London could have got money off John Lennon.

As for the Beatles’ Unionist fans, they might have pointed to the words of the Fab Four’s 1968 song Revolution:

You say you’ve got a real solution?
Well, you know we’d all love to see the plan.
You’re asking for a contribution?
Well, you know we’re all doing what we can,
But if you want money for people with minds that hate,
All I can tell you is, brother, you’ll have to wait.