Words and meaning

Some aimless wandering on the web, via the BBC World Service theme tune “Lillibullero”, leads me to the Ulster protestant folk song, The Protestant Boys (which is sung to the same tune).

Reading the lyrics, I’m struck by how we forget the meaning of old lyrics very easily. I doubt that most people would feel comfortable singing the Protestant Boys, with verses like:

When treason was rampant and traitors were strong
And law was defied by a vile rebel throng
When thousands were banded the throne to cast down
The Protestants rallied and stood by the Crown
And oft in fight, by day and night
They countered the rebels in many a fray
Where red pikes were bristling
And bullets were whistling
The Protestant Boys still carried the day.

But so much of that discomfort is due to Protestant-Catholic violence being still fresh in our minds. Tony Blair happily sings:

The people’s flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts blood dyed its every fold.

And Jacques Chirac will at least mouth along to:

Aux armes, citoyens !
Formez vos bataillons !
Marchons ! marchons !
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons !

Even though the ancient enmities are preserved, like Jurassic DNA, in the amber of the lyrics.