By Richard Parfitt |

For humanities students like myself, scientists seem to have it so easy when it comes to the relevance of their research. They can cure a disease, save a species, convert discarded lion bar wrappers into a clean energy source; the sky is quite literally not the limit. As a historian, such immediate contemporary applications for my knowledge and research are often out of reach.

Sat in the archive of Queen’s University Belfast last week, I came across a1968 quote from Ian Paisley, a notoriously hard line unionist in Northern Ireland.


Since this State came into existence the Roman Catholic Church has always looked, and her people, upon the heritage of Ireland as a United Ireland with a United Church… Hence, in this country we find the position that even in Roman Catholic schools, my Lord, where schools are built partly by money from the government; yet in these schools the Union Jack never flies and the National Anthem is never sung… I have been at meetings, my Lord, in this country when we sang “God Save the Queen” and the Roman Catholics lay on the floor at those meetings. In England it is entirely different; Roman Catholics would stand and join in the singing of “God Save the Queen”, and I have simply stated that I believe that the Roman Catholic Church does not and has not accepted the Constitution of Northern Ireland, and this is my firm belief.

Not half an hour after reading this quote, news broke that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had neglected to participate in the singing of ‘God Save the Queen’ at a Battle of Britain commemorative service. Imagine my joy.

My research investigates the role of musical culture in Irish politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Paisley’s viewpoint is far from unique. Four times in the years 1935-47 alone, the Northern Irish Ministry of Home Affairs considered banning the national anthem of the independent southern Irish state. In 1946, the Ulster Unionist Council implored the Northern Irish government to make the singing of ‘God Save the Queen’ mandatory at the end of any concert or public function.

Northern Irish Catholics, on the other hand, generally favoured Northern Ireland leaving the UK and becoming part of a united Ireland. As such, they routinely defied the anthem. During the General Election of 1918, when the whole of Ireland was still under British rule, three Irish nationalists were heard singing ‘God Strafe the King’ at a rally in Westmeath. In 1945, all the Catholic members of the Newry committee of CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) resigned after unionist members decided that the anthem would be played at every performance.

These are just a handful of examples. To state the obvious, national anthems inspire some of the most passionate responses to music. In many ways, Catholics refusing to sing a particular song should not really matter, and perhaps being obliged to listen to that song at the end of a concert should not be a huge deal. Of course, if people didn’t react so passionately all the time, historical study wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Nationalism of all shades comes with a dogmatic attachment to national symbols.

Why Jeremy Corbyn stayed silent when the anthem was played is still a little unclear. The (questionable) official line is that he was so overcome by emotion that he couldn’t bring himself to utter the words. The more widely held belief is that he doesn’t like the Queen (he’s a republican, after all), and so singing a song in her honour is something he would prefer to avoid.

In any case, if there is a lesson to be taken for Corbyn from the various arguments in Ireland, it is that national anthems rile people up. As the various resignations, parodies and complaints make clear, anthems are markers of national and political allegiance. If you choose not to sing, the likes of Paisley are going to be upset about it. For someone with as much political experience as Corbyn, it was a pretty obvious own goal to avoid.

Richard Parfitt a second year DPhil historian at Linacre College, Oxford. His thesis looks at the relationship between musical culture and Irish Nationalist Politics between 1848 and 1998, and he spends his weekends pretending to work while watching football, cricket, rugby and F1. He also wastes a lot of time on twitter @RichieParf. You can read more about his academic work on

(Cover image (c); Image 1 (c)