In 1907, Kearney wrote the lyrics to ‘The Soldier’s Song’. It was used as a marching song by the Irish Volunteers and was sung by rebels in the GPO during the 1916 Easter Rising. Its popularity increased among rebels held in Frongoch internment camp after the Rising, and the IRA in the Irish War of Independence (1919–21).
In the weeks before the Rising broke out, Kearney had been touring England with the Abbey Theatre as an odd-job man and small parts actor. He returned to Dublin in time to take part in the rebellion and fought with Thomas MacDonagh at Jacobs Factory. After the surrender, he managed to escape before the rebels were taken into custody.
In the years that followed the Rising, civil unrest continued all over Ireland and when the War of Independence broke out in 1919 Kearney saw active service. He was arrested in November 1920 and was imprisoned for 12 months.
Kearney backed the Treaty and took the Free State side in the Civil War that broke out following the ratification of the Treaty. A personal friend of Michael Collins, after his death, Kearney lost faith in the Free State, and no longer took no further part in politics. He returned to his house painting job and settled in Inchicore in Dublin where he died in relative poverty in 1942. His sister Kathleen was the mother of writers Brendan Behan and Dominic Behan. A monument to him stands on Dublin’s Dorset Street, where he was born.
In 1926, the Irish translation of his song The Soldier’s Song, Amrhán na bhFiann (translated to the Irish language by Liam Ó Rinn in 1923) was adopted as the Irish National anthem, Kearney never received any royalties.
He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
‘Erin Go Bragh’/’Row In The Town’
I’ll tell you a story of a row in the town,
When the green flag went up and the Crown rag came down,
‘Twas the neatest and sweetest thing ever you saw,
And they played the best games played in Erin Go Bragh.
One of our comrades was down at Ring’s end,
For the honor of Ireland to hold and defend,
He had no veteran soldiers but volunteers raw,
Playing sweet Mauser music for Erin Go Bragh.
Now here’s to Pat Pearse and our comrades who died
Tom Clark, MacDonagh, MacDiarmada, McBryde,
And here’s to James Connolly who gave one hurrah,
And placed the machine guns for Erin Go Bragh.
One brave English captain was ranting that day,
Saying, “Give me one hour and I’ll blow you away,”
But a big Mauser bullet got stuck in his craw,
And he died of lead poisoning in Erin Go Bragh.
Old Ceannt and his comrades like lions at bay,
From the South Dublin Union poured death and dismay,
And what was their horror when the Englishmen saw
All the dead khaki soldiers in Erin Go Bragh.
Now here’s to old Dublin, and here’s her renown,
In the long generation her fame will go down,
And our children will tell how their forefathers saw,
The red blaze of freedom in Erin Go Bragh.