[Pubslished - Ronan McGreevy - http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/music/green-fields-of-france-written-to-tackle-anti-irish-prejudice-1.2108217 - Wednesday, February 18, 2015]
Singer-songwriter Eric Bogle said he wrote The Green Fields of France as a response to the anti-Irish sentiment in Britain during the IRA bombing campaign of the 1970s.
Bogle revealed he chose the name “Willie McBride” for the 19-year-old who features in the song because of its “Irish connotations”.
The song is part of a trilogy of enduring classic first World War songs written by Bogle - the other two being The Band Played Waltzing Matilda and All the Fine Young Men. All three songs have been covered dozens of time.
In a programme to be broadcast on Lyric FM this Friday evening, Bogle said he wrote The Green Fields of France in 1975, a year after the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four bombings unleashed a wave of anti-Irish sentiment in Britain.
Bogle told presenter Myles Dungan the song was a “subtle reminder” to British people that thousands of Irishmen had died in the first World War in the service of the British Empire. However, he conceded that the reference was so subtle that “most people missed it”.
He added: “The Irish were not flavour of the month in the UK. A lot of Irishmen died preserving the British Empire during World War I. The reasons they fought and died was rarely to preserve the British Empire. It was a bit of fun, adventure and a way to making a living. Nonetheless, a lot of them died. It was a wee reminder that they weren’t all Tommy Atkins (the generic name for English soldiers at the time).”
The best-known version of (No Man’s Land) The Green Fields of France was recorded by The Furey Brothers and Davey Arthur in 1979. It remained in the Irish charts for 28 weeks.
The most recent incarnation of the song by Joss Stone and guitarist Jeff Beck was chosen as last year’s official Poppy Appeal single.
Bogle did not approve of the version as it left out three verses. Neither did he approve of the arrangements but conceded in an interview with The Guardian that if it “makes some people reflect, perhaps for the first time, on the true price of war, then her version will have a measure of validity and value”.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) lists five William McBride’s who died in France in the war.
Three of them have no grave and are listed on memorials to the missing. The Willie McBride who most fits the description is Private William McBride from Lislea, Armagh, who was killed on April 22nd, 1916. His grave is in Authuile Military Cemetery in northern France.
He was with the 9th battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. However, the CWGC lists his age as 21 not 19 as in the song.
Bogle’s And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda has been covered by The Pogues, The Clancy Brothers and June Tabor among many others.
Though the song is about Australian involvement in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, it references Suvla Bay where the 10th (Irish) Division were slaughtered in August 1915.
Bogle told Myles Dungan he was inspired to write And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda following a veterans march in Canberra in 1971. At the time Australia was involved in the Vietnam War.
“I wanted to appeal to as many emotional triggers as I could. It doesn’t matter which war you are writing about. The end result is much the same. It is about a lot of dead young boys.”
All the Fine Young Men has been covered by Mary Black and Dolores Keane among others. Bogle now lives in Australia.
From Tipperary to Salonika: Ireland & the music of the Great War Part II will be broadcast on Lyric FM at 7pm this Friday evening.