Up The Provos

He grew up on a farm in a troubled Irish land
Under foreign rule and the British Crown’s command
His father fought for Ireland fifty years before
But the Free State cut their losses and the English won the war
And when internment without trial was the order of the day
When his brother was arrested and his friends were blown away
When he was beaten near to death he decided come what may
He’d throw his lot in with the Provos and he joined the IRA

In the Occupied Six Counties perhaps it never will be known
All the foreign soldiers in Armagh and Tyrone
Who decided to head back across the Irish Sea
So they wouldn’t have to meet the man from south of Derry
He never wavered in his battle for Irish liberty
And the Crown would soon regret the day they made him their enemy
The Brits called it “bandit country” and it filled them all with fright
In the border lands, he who walked the hills at night

“Up the Provos,” that’s what he said
Three little words that filled the British Crown with dread
With a rifle on his shoulder, a timer and a fuse
Long may we remember Commandante Francis Hughes

Once he was surrounded by the SAS
How he might escape was anybody’s guess
In his boots and camouflage he didn’t miss a beat
He walked right past the soldiers and out into the street
Once he came upon a checkpoint, the soldier didn’t want to die
He recognized our Francis and the soldier waved him by
He didn’t want to find out if he could take what he could give
He knew there’d be a shootout and the soldier chose to live

“Up the Provos,” that’s what he said
And from this farmer’s son better men had fled
With a rifle on his shoulder, a timer and a fuse
Long may we remember Commandante Francis Hughes

He was the North’s most wanted man with his photo everywhere
But he eluded capture with his wit and dyed blond hair
For six years he was active, three times as long as most
He became a legend, north to south and coast to coast
He came upon two soldiers out one night on patrol
They shot him in the firefight and the bullets took their toll
He crawled off into the bushes but they found him the next day
Put him on a stretcher and they carried him away

“Up the Provos,” that’s what he said
With a shattered bone and a body full of lead
With a rifle on his shoulder, a timer and a fuse
Long may we remember Commandante Francis Hughes

They beat him and they tortured him and they gave him eighty years
When they brought him to the H-Blocks he was greeted there with cheers
He went right onto the blanket and when the hunger strike began
He was the first to volunteer along with Bobby Sands
He was an Irish soldier and that’s how he did his time
He knew he was no criminal when occupation was the crime
Bobby Sands had passed beyond us, where Francis soon would be
And although he couldn’t stand and he could barely see

“Up the Provos,” that’s what he said
As they carried him to hospital to lay in his death bed
With a rifle on his shoulder, a timer and a fuse
Long may we remember Commandante Francis Hughes

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Sheet music:
Up the Provos

“Up the Provos” originally appeared on the Soundclick album, Ten New Songs (2010) and then on the CD, Troubadour:  People’s History in Song (2010).  The following year it was recorded again for Big Red Sessions (CD, 2011).

After many visits to West Belfast, doing shows at Roddy McCorley’s and elsewhere in the area with bands like the Irish Brigade, I decided I should try to write one of these Irish rebel songs myself.  And I was very moved by reading the book about the 1981 prison hunger strike, Ten Men Dead.  There were loads of real-life characters in that book that I could have chosen for a subject, but I landed on Francis Hughes.  Bobby Sands is well-known for having been not only a dedicated IRA volunteer as well as an eloquent spokesperson for the movement, and a poet.  Francis Hughes was known for being an extremely talented and cunning IRA volunteer, and a man of few words.  While Bobby was known for many thoughtful phrases, Francis was known for one — “up the provos” — which he would utter on any occasion, no matter what it was.  Thus the hook line.

This song has gone over well in certain communities in the north of Ireland, certain communities in Scotland, and elsewhere in the world where you find Irish Republicans of a certain stripe, or supporters of the Celtics Football Club.  The song has also gotten a lot of people angry, as they see it as an uncritical pro-IRA song — which more careful listeners have noted it is not.

Perhaps more notable than the positive reception the song has gotten in West Belfast and the negative reception it has gotten from many people in England in particular, is the fact that the songs I’ve written that move people in West Belfast the most are not songs like this one, “St Patrick Battalion” or other songs I’ve written about Ireland.  The songs that go over the best continue to be my songs about Palestine and Iraq (“Jenin” and “Fallujah” in particular).  Showing, to me, that the idea of solidarity continues to be the most powerful notion to a certain significant portion of the population in that part of Ireland (and elsewhere, too).