U2’s “Van Diemen’s Land” Lyrics Meaning

U2’s classic 1980s track “Van Diemen’s Land” is actually dedicated to a famous Irish born American poet named John Boyle O’Reilly.

You can view the lyrics, alternate interprations and sheet music for U2's Van Diemen's Land at Lyrics.org.

As a young man, O’Reilly joined a revolutionary group known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The primary aim of this group was to fight for the establishment of an independent republic of Ireland through force. O’Reilly was eventually caught by the British authorities on account of being a member of this revolutionary body. He was convicted of the crime of treason and subsequently sentenced to two decades of penal servitude in Western Australia. However, he only served two years of his penal servitude before escaping. After his escape, he succeeded in making it to the United States where he forged a successful career as a writer. Today, his works are widely celebrated across the world.

Meaning of “Van Diemen’s Land”

Actually prior to 1856, the island state of Australia known as Tasmania was called Van Diemen’s Land. In the past, certain people convicted of certain serious crimes in Britain were sent to serve their prison sentences on the island in question. And that is the relationship this island has with O’Reilly (the primary subject of this song).

Who wrote “Van Diemen’s Land”?

All four members of U2 are credited with the song’s writing duties. However, the band’s iconic guitarist The Edge is the primary writer of the lyrics.


In addition to writing the lyrics, The Edge also handled the lead vocals of this song. This was one of the very, very rare times the lead vocals of a U2 track was being handled by someone other than Bono. And truth be told, The Edge really did a yeoman job on the track.

Release Date

“Van Diemen’s Land” was unveiled on the Tenth of October, 1988. It appears as track number 2 on the project “Rattle and Hum”, which is both a studio and live album. The entire project was produced by famous record executive Jimmy Iovine. The project produced four official singles, excluding this track.

2 Responses

  1. Linda Y says:

    I read a lot of Irish historical fiction. I have always came across Van Diemans Land in these books and wondered if it was a real place. I typed it into a search engine and I found out it was real penal colonies in Australia: also came up with Us’s song and lyrics. It is such a touching song and the way it is sang is so very haunting and beautifully done! I will listen to it often.
    Although I am not Irish, I feel I am in my heart and long to be there.

  2. Rc says:

    Don’t understand why this great song was excluded, which is our daily reality.

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