The response to the Black 47 recording of Big Fellah on Sons of Anarchy has been amazing and has come from all quarters. And yet it sets off the old controversy about the song and its view of Michael Collins.
As stated in The Story Behind Big Fellah (available on Black 47 Facebook page) I adored Collins as a boy and always wanted to write a song about him. I could never capture him through my own eyes, however, and it wasn't until I read those letters in the museum in Clonakilty from young men about to be executed because of Collins' killing that I found the way to do so - through their eyes. It’s an old literary device – show a hero from the perspective of someone not enthralled by him and you can often get a clearer picture of the person. It might have been best to explain that at the time, but hindsight is wonderful – in hindsight - and who was thinking back then.
I suppose it was only natural - because I've written so many semi-autobiographical songs - that people would assume words like "betray the republic like Arthur Griffith and you..." would be definitively my view of the man. In fact, my own feelings are much more ambivalent, and not particularly relevant in the grand scheme of things. However, such hard line sentiments were common to people like my grandfather – although he too loved Collins – and, if one studies the situation around the Treaty, then one can at least understand the Republican stance, if not always embrace it.
Oddly enough, the Civil War was not fought over the Six Counties but over the Oath of Allegiance taken by Collins and Griffith, et al - a fact long obscured in the glare of ensuing events. The Civil War and its aftermath was a bitterly tragic period in Irish history and I grew up with its echoes and repercussions all around. That war wiped out a so many idealistic young people on both sides and in many ways left the country leaderless and lacking in direction. I still hold the view that Ireland would have been a far different place if people like Mick Collins, Liam Mellows, Arthur Griffith, Liam Lynch and Rory O’Connor had survived. They didn’t, however, and the Free State of Ireland became a deflated social and economic backwater under the leadership of W.T. Cosgrove and later, Eamonn DeValera.
I suppose one should always take into account the words one uses, but in truth, I was so excited to have finally captured Collins in song that I let the matter slip, back in those heady days of 1993-94. Such is the way with songs - you use whatever inspiration that comes to mind. Collins, nowadays, has become an unassailable knight in shining armor to so many – probably more so because of Neil Jordan's film than wonderful biographies by Tim Pat Coogan and others. It makes little difference, Mick Collins was a giant, no matter his flaws, and will always be so to me.
All water under the bridge now, I suppose. Still, I'm immensely proud of the song and Black 47's treatment of it; and I believe we've captured the essence of the man. What an odd world though to think that a television show about a renegade band of bikers could summon up the spirit of the Big Fellah so well. My hat is off to Kurt Sutter and all on Sons of Anarchy. They've helped re-introduce a great and very complicated man to a new generation – not necessarily of Irish descent either.
History is never black and white and if I’ve offended some lovers of Collins by use of certain phrases, then so be it, but it was unintentional. Perhaps it’s more important that his legacy – or lack thereof – is being re-examined. Unfortunately, Collins great promise ended up in tragedy, as did the lives of three other great people whom I admire, Charles Stewart Parnell, Countess Markievicz and James Connolly. But what inspiration we can all draw from them.
One other small note – the opening “sean-nós” piece, before the guitars on Big Fellah, is not traditional as some have ascribed it. The piece contains some lines from the poem Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire or Lament for Art O'Leary written by his wife Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (Black haired Eileen O’Connell) after O’Leary’s shooting in the late 18th Century. I wrote the music and the amazing Mary Martello sang it. If you like drama, tragedy, humanity and a woman’s struggle with desolation, then this powerful, evocative lament is for you.
Now if we could only get EMI Records to make Big Fellah – and the rest of the Home of the Brave CD – accessible to the public, what a small triumph that would be. And then people wonder why the music industry has collapsed!
The unavailability of the EMI recording of Big Fellah is a miniscule tragedy next to that of Collins, no doubt, but one that greatly hinders a progressive working band that continues to plough its own furrow.