Charles J. Haughey could be all things to all people. When he emerged on stage during The Late Late Show special celebrating The Dubliners, he told Gay Byrne that what appealed to him most about the band was that they came from his part of the world, the northside of Dublin. Yet Charlie had been born in Castlebar, the son of two veterans of the revolutionary period from Derry, one of whom later joined the Free State army. Beyond any connection to the northside of Dublin though, another thing arguably linked Charlie and the band he was celebrating on Gay Byrne’s platform that night – they could both sell a record or two.
Charlie’s Song, released in 1981, is today better known as ‘Arise and Follow Charlie’. It’s a record not many people would boast of owning in a collection today perhaps, but there are certainly thousands of copies of it in houses up and down the country, and it’s an interesting relic of twentieth century Irish cultural history. Recorded by The Morrisseys, it was the soundtrack to the 1981 General Election campaign. Writing in the Kilkenny People in June 1981, a reporter stated that:
Touring with Charlie is not only exhausting – it can be hazardous, with all those high-powered cars burning up country roads as entourage and security men dash at breakneck speed from one town or village to the next. It is not for one with a musical ear either. After a couple of dozen pays, Charlie’s Song loses whatever appeal it may have had initially – except perhaps for the tone deaf.
The excellent rockroots blog, which aims to build an archive of often overlooked Irish singles, notes that Charlie’s Song was the brainchild of Donie Cassidy, founder of CMR records, who had a strong background in the showband scene. Cassidy wrote the song with Dublin folk singer Pete St. John, and as rockroots note the lyrics of the song “apparently did nothing to embarrass Haughey, who appointed Cassidy a campaign manager for this and four successive general elections.” Interviewed about the song at the time, Donie Cassidy said “it’s got all the ingredients of a hit. Strong lyrics, a catchy air, the best group around and, of course, it’s based on the most popular man in the country.” The “strong lyrics” Donie spoke of included:
Young and old we all approve
He’s kept the Country on the move
He’ll help the Nation to improve
So Rise and Follow Charlie
With Charlie’s song we’ll sing as one
With Charlie’s song we’ll sing along
With Charlie’s song we’ll march along
We’ll Rise and Follow Charlie
In his biography of Haughey, Ryle Dwyer notes that during the election campaign “Haughey ran a high-profile, presidential-style campaign”, and that the song was an important dimension of this. Haughey traveled by helicopter, and Gene Kerrigan in Magill wrote that it was the unpredictable nature of the man that made him exciting for journalists to follow on the campaign trail – “You don’t know when he might lash out and clock someone or suddenly take a flying leap and start biting the furniture.”
The 1981 election was bitter, and not only between the two leading parties. Haughey encountered protest from supporters of H-Block prisoners, some of whom were standing for election to the Dáil. Bobby Sands, the first hungerstriker to die during the 1981 hungerstrikes, had succeeded in obtaining a Westminster seat, and campaigners hoped to do the same in the Irish parliament. As Dwyer notes, in Leterkenny the Taoiseach “suffered the indignity of being hit on the head with an egg, and when he tried to leave the town his car was blocked by protestors who kicked and pounded on it while the Gardaí strove to clear the way for him.” In Dun Laoghaire, there was an attempt to dump a can of paint on him. Gene Kerrigan wrote at the time of the frequent protests Haughey encountered from such activists, but also the routine developed while seeking votes:
The formula was always the same -shake hands, how are you, shake hands,kiss a woman, how are you. A tall dark-haired young man carrying a Polaroid camera followed Charlie everywhere. Again and again he took pictures of Charlie shaking hands with or kissing a punter – There’s a nice picture of you with the Taoiseach.And on election day you can go out and vote for the man whose picture is on your mantlepiece.
In The Irish Times, Olivia O’Leary reported of an old woman watching Haughey work a crowd and asking “my God, are they all gone mad? What is he but God’s creature like the rest of us, except he has a salary.” The refusal of RTE to play Charlie’s Song, for fear of bias, was attacked publicly by a number of figures in the Fianna Fáil party, including a young Bertie Ahern. A performance of the song on The Late Late Show was cancelled, leading to further complaints in the national press.
Recorded by Tipperary folk group The Morrisseys, it was not alone a commercial success, but one that opened many doors, as Donie Cassidy of CMR Records was destined to become a Senator in Leinster House in 1982. Ultimately however, the song couldn’t see Charie over the line – the election resulted in a Fine Gael-Labour minority government, and the loss of six FF seats. The Anti H-Block candidates succeeded in winning two seats, and over 29,500 first preference votes.
Haughey, of course, would return to power in 1982, though not for long. He would regain the position in March 1987, holdng it until 1992. His political career has been tarnished by corruption, which is a story for another day, though perhaps best summed up by one letter writer to The Irish Times in 2006 who wrote that “It is customary not to speak ill of the dead. In the case of Charles Haughey there is no need. The unvarnished truth is sufficient to tarnish his reputation forever.”