Subversive disco? Subversive disco!
Coming out of a commercial break midway through the third quarter of the Titans-Bills game, Monday Night Football producers ran a segment showing several ESPN pundits predicting Buffalo would make it to the next Super Bowl. The clip was accompanied by a funky, retro-sounding instrumental musical track.
Turns out ESPN was playing a tarted-up and lyricless version of “The Foggy Dew.” There’s a story behind the music. That’s a century-old Irish folk tune, and one of the most revered and solemn of the rebel songs to spring up from Ireland’s fight for independence from England. And here it was, being played on a national network mere hours after the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.
It’s enough to make you think somebody at the network wanted to make a statement.
The traditional song, whose lyrics are generally attributed to a priest from County Antrim named Charles O’Neill, was written as a eulogy to the underarmed and overmatched Irishmen who flocked to Dublin in April 1916 to take on, as the lyrics say, “Britannia’s huns with their long-range guns.” The violent rebellion, headquartered at the city’s main Post Office, was quashed within days by forces loyal to King George V, the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II, and many prominent Irish rebel leaders were subsequently killed by British firing squads.
Sample couplet of song written by O’Neill, who knew several of the martyred Irish rebels: “The world did gaze with deep amaze at those fearless men but few/Who bore the fight that freedom’s light might shine through the foggy dew.”
The Easter Rising and its bloody aftermath brought global attention to the atrocities the British had long been committing on the island, and likely hastened the formation of the free Irish republic that the rebels had fought and died for. Yet in exchange for the founding of the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom and King George V claimed six Irish counties to form a new country, Northern Ireland, to add to their empire. To this day, as anybody who’s followed the Brexit debacle knows well, Northern Ireland remains under UK rule. Among the oodles of evil lines in the king’s 1921 speech in Belfast celebrating the addition of Northern Ireland to his empire: “I appeal to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget.”
How ’bout: Nah.
“The Foggy Dew” has gotten mainstream exposure via sports through the years. Former MMA supernova Conor McGregor, for example, used Sinead O’Connor’s version of the war waltz as his ring entrance music at the peak of his career. The Dublin man even imported the peerless Irish diva to sing it in person at the 2015 UFC event in Las Vegas. The Seán Heuston 1916 Society, an Irish nationalist group based in Dublin, blasted McGregor in 2015 as hypocritical for appearing in public wearing a poppy, a flower that to the English has long been a symbol of remembrance of dead British soldiers, while also using a righteous rebel song so important to his countrymen as entrance music: “Comes out to 1916 song ‘The Foggy Dew’ then wears a Poppy remembering the men who fought to kill and suppress them and the ideals they fought for.”
McGregor’s response to his critics: “Fuck you and the queen.”
Last year at the Tokyo Olympics, Irish boxer Kellie Harrington also used “The Foggy Dew” as entrance music on the way to winning a gold medal in the lightweight division.
And, yes, the song even has a past with NFL media. The instrumental version of “The Foggy Dew” used by MNF was recorded in the 1970s by Sam Spence, a composer and arranger hired by NFL Films in 1966. Spence’s rendition appears on a compilation of other tunes from the NFL music library used to soundtrack highlight reels called “NFL Decades: The Groovy ’70s.” (Here’s a clip from a vintage NFL Films documentary on Bill Walsh.) And “The Foggy Dew” showed up in a Bud Light TV ad commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl in 2016—which was also the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising that inspired the song.
To anybody familiar with the song and its ability to fire up the Irish, and taking into account all the media coverage the death of King George V’s granddaughter has gotten the last couple weeks, it’d be hard to pass off the choice of “The Foggy Dew” as a fluke. Yet, flukey is indeed how ESPN is describing the Irish rebel song/queen’s funeral nexus in the MNF telecast.
Kevin Wilson, ESPN’s music director, did not return a request for comment on the use of “Foggy Dew” on the day the queen was laid low. But an ESPN source told me that the segment of Super Bowl predictions that “The Foggy Dew” ran over was produced well before game day. The package was originally conceived by network producers during the season-opening Buffalo Bills–Los Angeles Rams game. The MNF production team rightly predicted that the dominant performance would lead to the Bills being part of any Super Bowl conversation when ESPN got the Bills for Week 2 of MNF, and decided to pre-produce a package around that. The tune used to soundtrack the segment, the source said, was just plucked out from the songs in the network’s music library whose licensing has been cleared for such use. And at the time the piece came together, nobody at the network even knew what date the queen’s funeral would be held, the source said.
“It was a pure coincidence,” an ESPN spokesman said.
OK. So the idea for the MNF segment that included “The Foggy Dew” came the day the Bills vanquished the Rams. That was Sept. 8, 2022. Let’s see… did anything else happen that day? Oh right. The queen died.
Subversive disco? Yeah, subversive disco.
Disclosure: The author grew up listening to and singing “The Foggy Dew” a whole lot and the tune still fires him up.
H/t to Jeff