God's Call: Three Hundred Men and Three Men
Updated: Feb 18, 2020
Voted the world’s most popular song in BBC World Service poll, the Wolfe Tone’s 1972 recorded version of “A Nation Once Again” remains a popular patriotic tune in Irish culture.
Recently, in the quiet of our shop, I heard a version this song by Ron Kavana and The Alias Acoustic Band, which was sung so slowly and clearly that I felt I was hearing its first lines for the first time…and didn’t quite understand the reasoning behind them.
When boyhood's fire was in my blood, I read of ancient freemen, For Greece and Rome who bravely stood, Three hundred men and three men.
What have Greece and Rome to do with Ireland, I thought? And what did he mean by ‘three hundred men and three men’? With just a little digging, I quickly learned this was a reference to two specific historical events in which people were heavily outnumbered, but prevailed, nevertheless.
‘Three hundred men’ refers to the three hundred Spartan soldiers of Ancient Greece who defended against the Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC. Three hundred men against as many as 100,000, they managed to hold out for more than seven days. ‘Three men’ refers to the Roman legend of Horatio who, in the late 6th century BC defended the Pons Sublicius Bridge against the army of an Etruscan king after Rome had kicked out all kings and declared itself a Republic. Horatio and two of his men held off the Etruscan army just long enough for the rest of the Romans to destroy the bridge and prevent an invasion. This action effectively saved the Roman republic and preserved its culture for future generations.
Thomas Davis, leader of the mid-19th century’s Young Ireland movement, who wrote "A Nation Once Again" in 1844, clearly sought to use these two ‘David and Goliath’ moments to inspire the Irish people to push for their freedom despite what must have seemed impossible odds. Ireland was at its lowest point in history; they had already been subjected to English oppression for almost seven hundred years, with their language, religion, education, and marriage suppressed and deemed illegal, and were about to be plunged into an Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger.
Listening further, I was inspired by lyrics I had not heard in the more familiar, rousingly patriotic versions. Lyrics that seem prophetic, as if Davis, who wrote these words a year before the Great Hunger began and died a year after it commenced, had been called upon by God to give hope to his country during her most trying days. I wondered how the Irish people of Davis’s time would have received these lines:
And from that time, through wildest woe, that hope has shown a far light Nor could love’s brightest summer glow, outshine that solemn starlight It seemed to watch above my head in forum, field, and fane Its angel voice sang round my bed, ‘a nation once again.’
It whispered, too, that freedom’s ark and service high and holy Would be profaned by feelings dark and passions vein or lowly For freedom comes from God’s right hand and needs a Godly train And righteous men must make our land a nation once again.
Would poetry this symbolic resonate at all with people in such circumstances? Yes…and loudly. Ireland survived her forced starvation devastated but not defeated, and incredibly, within a generation, became a nation at last. To ‘three hundred men and three men’ we should add the thousands of Irish men and women who in every generation since have risen up against seemingly impossible odds. History will show that in these David and Goliath situations, when faith is held in what is right and just, illuminated by the ‘far light’ of hope, David wins.