Edited by Terry Moylan
The Lilliput Press in association with Góilín Traditional Singers Club, 168 pp. ISBN 1-901866-49-1
Once in a while a volume of songs appears from Ireland which is welcome for its comprehensiveness or its special focus and which will properly provoke questions about content and implications of social and historical context. This is such a volume and will go alongside, say, Hugh Shields’ Shamrock Rose and Thistle, the two sets of Sam Henry songs, the songs of Tom Lenihan via Tom Munnelly in The Mount Callan Garland; and, then, from a few years back, Zimmerman’s Songs of Irish Rebellion1 or Colm O’Lochlainn’s familiar books - these, in modern times. Each of the named volumes here is represented, as it happens, in Terry Moylan’s compilation together with numbers of lesser-known sources and a most welcome selection from material long unavailable or almost forgotten.
In such a case the success of a volume will depend to a great extent on the sensitivity of the editing. We are long used to what we now perceive of as bias or distortion, frequently unconscious in its echoing of the social niceties of a dominant and class often somewhat ignorant of the subject-matter under consideration, such as may be found in the published versions of songs collected the particular generation - as instanced by Cecil Sharp’s or Baring-Gould’s publications or, perhaps, in the work of P W Joyce in Ireland who, in a sense, was collecting from himself, principally from his own memories and without benefit of corroboration from other sources. Charges or suspicions of this nature may be argued over as each of us strives for understanding to go with the delight and excitement usually engendered (and the subject is, of course, more complex than a bald summary suggests). This is not, then, to condemn in any way but is to recognise the inevitable dialogue that ensues when the scope and nature of a particular volume is examined, a dialogue that certainly emerges from The Age of Revolution without necessarily damning the editorship.
In this volume we are led, amongst other things, to investigate the kind and extent of what is called ‘The Irish Song Tradition’; and, perhaps, in the end, to be happy to accept a heritage of a clear mix of several strands that encompasses the extremes of a spectrum involving - say - in terms of language and of opinion, the sometimes purple colouring of Young Ireland patriotism, Irish language songs, predictable and unpredictable shades of orange and green sentiment, drawing-room as well as native heath; and, then, the continuing interest and prolongation of themes and ideas which contemporary song-producers employ, which point is made both in Terry Moylan’s introduction and, by example, throughout the volume itself. This is not to dismiss the validity of protecting pockets of songs which can be defined in various ways within such a heritage - geographically speaking, for instance, the songs of south-east Munster, of Inishowen, of Dublin, Belfast and Cork…
And, in remembering that songs are meant for singing, which Terry Moylan is at pains to stress at the outset, we might also consider just what kind of a challenge this involves. For, surely, a singer will want to know the circumstances of composition, the pedigree, the associations that each song evokes. This, it is suggested, engenders a question or two about the present volume (below) though, it must also be emphasised, not in any spirit of mean-ness.
Terry Moylan insists, for instance, that the volume is not a ballad history of Ireland; yet the nature of the period from which the songs are drawn which he himself stresses was one of the most volatile of all in Irish history (one might add ‘modern’ Irish history; and one might canvas an even wider relevance - to ‘modern’ world history) continuously presses its claims for examination: we simply cannot escape the history since the very existence of so many of the songs depends on its progress - even if, at the same time, we acknowledge much retrospective comment. There is, then, something of a sleight of hand to justify editorial criteria.
And in respect of this editorial hand, as it emerges in terms of notes to songs, for instance, there is sometimes an unsatisfactory irregularity where some pieces are comprehensively set and others almost neglected as products of time, space and specificity in social and historic terms. Of course, some songs will appear to be more important than others, not least in the extent to which they were taken up and sung; and one does not expect precisely equal attention.
However, to pursue, for a moment, a rather important aspect already mentioned, close examination reveals that so much of the material gathered here is, in fact, retrospective. Immediately, then, different perspectives are invoked which may well indicate a change of direction or emphasis in public attitude to events. Clearly, this did happen historically where Irish progress towards independence from England was concerned. So that the inclusion and setting of songs, in this context, is important in order to establish a particular contemporary feeling and apprehension and then to distinguish the use to which such songs were put at a later stage. The most well-known of ’98 songs, as an example, seem to have come into existence a hundred years after the event as Irish nationalism - of various kinds, it must be said, ranging from rhetoric to parliamentary pressure and military threats - swelled to unstoppable proportions - and the centenary of 1798 was celebrated. The point is returned to more than once below.
To come, however, to the nub of things: the editor distinguishes four elements of the period he has engaged with:
To give an example of how editorial method works: the first eleven items cover the time - though not the course of events - of the American revolution. Yet the first item of all is one of Thomas Davis’ songs, Song of the Volunteers, put out ‘in the early 1840s’; so is the fifth, The Dungannon Convention. And, immediately, that strong retrospective slant is allowed which, it is suggested, should be held in mind as a possible factor in the building of a kind of mythology about Irish nationalism; and in colouring our own perception of Irish song tradition(s). Now: we all, to an extent, reconstruct the past and there is much continuing debate about the invention of traditions, both political and social: English nationalism and English song-traditions are full of them - as the fortunes of what English people now accept as their national anthem show: only attaining that position after long usage in various contexts and becoming popular as a rallying point at the time of the ’45 in Scotland eventually to be accepted as a national anthem in the 1800s, a history of some eighty odd years.2
Against - or, rather, alongside - Davis’s songs, therefore, we need to set contemporary pieces such as The Shamrock Cockade (3), written by John Sheares who was, later, to be hanged for treason. Even here, though, we encounter another factor in possible mythology: this is a written song and posits a level of input from literary sources that could offer compromise to any idea of a song tradition resting solely in the hands of a particular section of the population and independent of any ‘Art’ aspect (our Sharpian working perspective in England). Even the famous Rodney’s Glory (8) might just be viewed in this light: Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin’s piece praising an English admiral for whom he was fighting - and it is not clear if this service was a matter of necessity either.
When the notes are considered, more variations occur. Song of the Volunteers merits a historical setting and an excursion into the circumstances of the song’s composition - including the information that ‘Unlike other airs in the book, this air in neither named nor declared to be an original composition, but is described as ‘arranged by Professor Glover.’’ The note to The Dungannon Convention (5), though, reads, rather briefly:
…this song by Thomas Davis celebrates the Volunteer Movement, in this case specifically the Dungannon Convention in 1783. The church in which the convention took place is shown in the accompanying illustration.If the Dungannon Convention was so important then a historical note would have been useful. The fact of illustration is welcome - a strong point throughout the book - but, in this case, the item seems to be a slightly gratuitous addition which has counterparts elsewhere.3 Once more, the points are raised as a way of trying to sort out the main substance of the book and one or two possible omissions of information from its entertaining but, sometimes, secondary attractions. Moreover, those points do show, perhaps, how we are irresistibly drawn towards the matter of history.
In fact, this whole first section seems, at first glance, to be a little tenuous, always granting the necessity of starting somewhere. The American revolution, as apprehended through this volume, did not materially affect Ireland and its inclusion in reference serves only as background to events already happening (there is certainly one direct reference to America, in item 44, Defender’s Song - ‘In America the seed was sown…’). The Saratoga Hornpipe and the song about Cornwallis (6 and 7) merely remind us of the fact of a British surrender in America and of a character who re-emerges in connection with the 1798 insurrection. And yet, and yet - Hugh Shields has revealed that the Cornwallis song was ‘in use’ in Ulster before or around 1845 which might well bespeak circulation through oral transmission beforehand.4 Cornwallis does also re-appear as Lord Lieutenant in Ireland at the time of the 1798 insurrection; and the tune, Corney is Coming (item 88), included here, is generally though to refer to him.5 And, as another feature, the appearance of the particular song does demonstrate the editor’s inclusive methods in the volume (the song is a rather grim recapitulation of the tribulations of English prisoners) - there is no single, absolutely unsullied ‘green’ flavour. Further still in this case, whilst no tune is actually given, Dr Shields’ suggestion that singers might use The Boyne Water (a well-known tune which appears for item 14 here, the text, Freedom Triumphant) is taken up - which is as well, because the metrical layout of the text is in a relatively difficult pattern which would test a singer’s ability to manipulate lines and chosen tune - even here, the line ‘By cold and hunger we feel very great extremity’ in the final stanza requires a dexterous moulding of syllables in respect of The Boyne Water.
There are, in fact, a number of texts here to which tunes have been suggested or supplied - by others as well as by the editor (see The Green Flag, below, for instance, and Here’s A Chorus, item 167 for two of Terry Moylan’s own suggestions).
And so the complex nature of song traditions begins to be revealed together with the social and historical factors which helped formation and growth. One singularly pleasing aspect is the straight inclusion of a number of songs from Paddy’s Resource - one, The Green Flag, in this section (10) - which was contemporary to events in the early part of the period covered by the book, appearing first in Belfast in 1795 and, subsequently, in Philadelphia, New York and Dublin; and other Paddy’s Resource items through Madden’s Literary Remains of the United Irishmen, itself a retrospective volume (the date of publication is given in the bibliography as 1887) with clearly literary overtones from which ten songs are taken and reference made in other cases (again, there is one song in this section). Other sources introduced at this point include ‘a garland printed in Newry around 1783’ for item 12, Ireland’s Glory; Crofton Croker’s Popular Songs of Ireland for Sheares’ song (5); and Amrháin Eoghain Ruaidh Ui Ó Súilleabháin, by ‘an tAthair Pádraig Ui Diunnin’. This represents a comprehensive grappling with diverse material and, even if it is sometimes uneven, is particularly illuminating of events and songs.
The tunes in this section are Favourite March of the Old Irish Volunteers, from the Stanford-Petrie collection, The Saratoga Hornpipe - for which no source is given - and the tune to Rodney’s Glory which, likewise, appears to come from no particular source - perhaps the editor’s own repertoire - but which, it is noted, appears in both O’Neill’s Music of Ireland and Roche’s collections. Tunes like these appear throughout the volume, reflecting the editor’s own interests and, certainly, are full of contextual fascination, but - it might be thought - do not necessarily contribute to a concentration on what the title proposes - that is, on an Irish song tradition.
A flavour of the general tenor in this section may be given by the following quotations from text, the first from The Green Cockade (4):
And still we see the patriot-fire(Terry Moylan added that the tune given is his own ‘conjectural’ one based on a hornpipe).
Is handed down from son to sire;
As Grattan lived he a patriot died,
But he’s left a son his country’s pride
And a shout from freedom from the north
Was coming from Dungannon forth.
Peel he was as much dismayed
As Lord North was on seeing the green cockade.
Then hey for the boys of the green cockade,
They were every creed and hue and shade.
The flame extended from wife to maid.
And their love nerved the boys of the green cockade.
The second quotation is from The Green Flag (11):
Hibernia then will raise her head,The air of optimism, then, in both these pieces from traditional sources, but matches (or vice versa) the flourish from Davis in Song of the Volunteers (1):
The Green flag wide extending,
Her harp well tuned to liberty,
Her sons their rights defending:
Justice then begins her reign,
Triumphant in our nation,
Good-will on earth, and peace to men
Throughout the whole creation.
Remember still, through good and ill,Not quite - it may be added - and what is most interesting at this stage is that songs appeared which supported the British against the French (Rodney’s Glory, of course, but also The Shamrock Cockade). Only Ireland’s Glory (11), of the selection given, adopts a more grimly humorous tone even though it too has wide appeal in it - ‘We made no distinction ‘twixt Meeting or Mass’ and ends up optimistically with ‘From a nation of slaves we’ve emerged into glory’. Indeed, there is a strong element, strongly implied here, of northern participation in events which partially offsets the differing options of orange and green that eventually emerge - and this, of course, follows or is part of history in that the United men were to be found, firstly, in Belfast.
How vain were prayers and tears -
How vain were words till flashed the swords
Of the Irish Volunteers.
By arms we’ve got the right we sought
Through long and wretched years -
Hurrah! ‘tis done, our Freedom’s won -
Hurrah for the Volunteers!
Finally, to return to the ‘contributing’ balance of items, there are four unattributed pieces (including the Cornwallis text) which we would hold to be from traditional sources - probably shaped orally; and it is suggested as a continuing reminder that this proportion of such pieces and that of written contributions should be pondered in respect of any concept of Irish song tradition(s). Thus, George Reilly Who Fought At Port Royal Bay, familiar in a guise very much like broadside printing convention of theme, image and archetype (it did appear in English broadsides), makes a useful counterpart to Rodney’s Glory (about the same action) and, incidentally, seems to be a precursor of the more well-known song usually known as The Plains of Waterloo (found elsewhere in the volume as item 189 and itself placed after The Mantle So Green, probably the other best-known song of returning-lover, broken-token denomination associated with the period6).
Some time has been devoted to this section because it encapsulates editorial method and poses questions about the mix of contributions to song tradition(s). Points made here may be revived by a reader - by someone proposing to sing the songs - during the progress of the volume. More particularly, the period and its songs may not be quite so familiar to some as that of 1798 or of Napoleon: the section most definitely elicits both enthusiasm and curiosity.
It is not, though, the intention to pursue such a detailed survey throughout this review and so, in amongst a more general reference, a selection of items is considered, which consideration, hopefully, both encapsulates some of points already made and introduces individual ambience.
We cannot, then, pass through the next group of songs without remarking the heady hopes expressed in items such as the song - another from Paddy’s Resource - Man Is Free By Nature (12) which introduces the revolution in France with the phrase, ‘Gallia’s bright example’, found in very similar terms elsewhere (‘Gallia burst her vile shackles’ in 15, The Glorious Exertion Of Man 14th July 1789) along with references to ‘Liberty’s Tree’ (14, Freedom Triumphant, another ‘written’ song), a favourite symbol, lengthily extolled in 19, Plant, Plant The Tree. Specific reference to Ireland comes with a piece by Richard Shiels, the Drogheda weaver, who expressed a native sharing in expectation in The Rights of Man (18) in the form of a dream - another frequently used device in Ireland during the eighteenth century when to speak openly was to court prosecution - and where, in a manner reminiscent of Irish-language syllabic rhyming, a ‘virtuous Queen’ speaks:
‘My cause you chided, you so deridedHere the most prominent feature of the volume emerges - Ireland’s bid for freedom from England’s oppression - in terms that are, nonetheless, at this stage, all-embracing in terms of shades of opinion in Ireland. The struggle of Ireland to be released from English domination is such an expectedly strong feature that it is taken as read in the rest of this discussion.
When divided, alas you know.
All in disorder round Erin’s border
Strife, grief and murder has left you low
Let each communion detest disunion,
In love and union join hand in hand.
And believe old Grania that proud Brittania
No more shall rob you of the rights of man’.
There is, as counter, a snorting dismissal of French progress in a song by William Ball (see below), Do As They Do In France (21) and we are, as it were, up and running in a specifically complex Irish context where complaints against Orange-ism appear and, in one piece, The Exiled Irishman’s Lamentation (28), from George Nugent Reynolds, a characteristic note of self-doubt and woe is introduced which features more strongly as the nineteenth century panoply of song is displayed. These two elements re-emerge regularly during the curse of events.
The various items gathered in this section - a second one, so to speak, though there is no suggestion that we can detect abrupt breaks - are from different periods of history and commentary and in the accompanying notes there is a continuing mixture of brevity and full exposition. Editorial methodology is confirmed. The first of the very familiar appears: a version of The Shan Van Vocht (28): in this respect, Terry Moylan does not appear to miss a trick and all the expected pieces can be found scattered through the volume. Some are mentioned below but - as the appear in the volume - one may also cite The Wind That Shakes The Barley (63), Croppies Lie Down (76), The Exile of Erin (126), The Memory Of The Dead (136) and The Green Linnet (201) which, together, make up a fair sampling of shades of opinion and perspective that can be encountered. In contrast, one mentions a neat, humorous little piece called General Wonder (29) as one of those unexpected and welcome interjections (almost) which do not have strict application where a song tradition is concerned but which encapsulate event and observation, this time about the intended French invasion of Ireland:
General gale our fears dispersed,There is a similar piece to be found further on in the volume called Captain Fowler (39) which has a touch of black humour and involves no less a personage than Beezelbub - again, not a song (see the discussion below).
He conquered general dread;
General joy each heart has swelled,
As General Hoche has fled.
Then we come to one of several clusters of pieces about a single event or personality: in this case, three versions of The Wearing Of The Green (33-35). Oddly, perhaps, the earliest version, dating, it is thought, from 1798, is not the ‘traditional’ one which did not appear, apparently, until Sparling published it in his Irish Minstrelsy (1887 edition). The early version itself was not published, it seems, until 1855; and Boucicault’s version in 1864.
One might also refer, in cluster formula, to three different versions of The Croppy Boy, five songs including one by the principal himself, surrounding Henry Joy McCracken, a clutch of songs on Michael Dwyer and no less than three Thomas Moore songs on Robert Emmett. In each case, a mini-history is presented of both actuality and apprehension of the particular subject and our own absorption is continuously led onward and, often, surprised. This represents skilful if - because of the varied support that notes give to each item - a tad erratic editing.
And, again, we cannot ignore items such as Wolfe Tone’s own To Your Tents, O Erin (36), the appeal of which is to a wide spectrum in society, thus echoing much of the heady stuff already encountered: ’distinctions forgetting, see Erin’s unite’. In this, it is followed by Advice to Paddy, written by Edward Lysaght and Paddy’s Advice from James Hope (items 40 and 41) where lines echo each other respectively:
Arrah Paddy my joy,and:
What makes you so shy
To join with your Protestant brother…
Arrah Paddies, my hearties,These are immediately countered by the laments of The Boys of Mullaghbawn and Bold MacDermott Roe. One cannot help but feel that The Boys…does not deserve to be quite so simply yoked. Terry Moylan himself writes that it could have been ‘about’ Defenderism, United Irishmen or even transportation consequent upon the attempted abduction of an heiress (not his own theory). If this latter were true then some judge had advocated leniency when the legal (!) response would have been the death penalty…to be fair, with other known abduction songs the sentence in each case was that of transportation but they (Sally Munroe, say, and Willie Reilly…) all concerned collusion between the putative lovers against which parents objected and not to violent and unwonted advances which, more often than not, began or ended in rape).
Have done with your parties,
Let men of all creeds and professions agree…
And so it goes on, item after suggestive item, into the days of the 1798 with a particularly elaborate denunciation of the rebel cause in a piece entitled, The Rebellion of 1798 (50) against which can be set songs on Father Murphy (64, and 58, of course, Boolavogue), the famous McCall piece, Kelly from Killan (72), the equally famous Dwyer piece, The Boys of Wexford (68) - and here a convoluted history to the song is given which is most welcome in setting it and its fortunes - some items on individual skirmishes and atrocities at Dunlavin (55) and at Prosperous (56) and about Captain Doorley and the Boyne (57). It is tempting to linger in discussion and comparison. Suffice to say that the same high level of interest and the same possible questions about the editor’s setting of each item as regards its history and genesis remain.
Nonetheless, one overall impression is of betrayal: literal - ‘Phil Mite the informer’ in The Song of Prosperous already mentioned; ’Dan Kelly’s perjury’ in item 66, In Collon I Was Taken (note that, in this case, the song came from Pa Cassidy - County Louth - in modern times - both suggestive of a long gap in supposed ancestry and then of a remarkable modern interest); ‘a perjured base deceiver’ in 47, James Garland’s The Blarismore Tragedy; the ‘base information’ given against insurrectionists by Saunders ‘who did their lives betray’ in Dunlavin Green - and where general hopes were concerned; the actions of Billy McKeever in one of two versions of Watty Grimes (81 - the second in the notes because it is somewhat different in character) for which it is a pity that no tune is given or suggested; and even familial betrayal in The Croppy Boy (items 95-97). These betrayals actually tend to localise and personalise events as if the composers’ minds were able to handle such situations more easily.7
Terry Moylan gives no source for the particular version of The Croppy Boy; but does add the intriguing information - from Madden - that the ‘Cornwall’ mentioned, generally accepted as being Lord Cornwallis, a reference already mentioned above, may, in fact, have been someone other:
Robert Cornwall of Myshall Lodge, an active and enregetic magistrate when suppressing disaffection before the rebellion and the leader of a body of Yeoman cavalry during it.Carroll Malone’s version of the text (96; 97 is a separate tune), printed first in 1858, is really only linked by title and theme, it being based, we are informed, on an actual incident. Perhaps, though, the ‘traditional’ version was so based itself, it being probable that, in such cases, specific incident came before generic sentiment.
(Myshall is in County Carlow).
Continuing the individual versus general idea: sometimes the songs give accounts of skirmishes and individual events as in Lady Connolly (51) or The Battle of Kilcumney (93) and, swerving away from actuality, in the memorable and unusually good-natured piece, The Cow That Ate the Piper (60) which piece, nonetheless, reminds us that pipers were hung by both the English and the Irish, for offences such as the playing of particular tunes - William Johnson, hanged at Scullabogue by the rebels for playing Croppies Lie Down; and an anonymous piper being hung by the English - shown in an illustration given here from Watty Cox’s Irish Magazine and dated 1813: O’Lochlainn gave the information that The Cow That Ate the Piper itself is dated from 18158.
Once or twice, though, a panoramic view is expressed such as those in the poem, The Rebellion of 1798 (50), in the song, Father Murphy (64), in The Lamentations of Patrick Brady (67) which appears to try to cram all known battles into one song and to suggest that the hero, Brady, was present at them all, and, then, in another poem, The Battle of Vinegar Hill (89), a singular view of events produced by a Rev. P. F. Kavanagh around 1880 for which it is worth reproducing part of Terry Moylan’s notes. He refers to ‘the Franciscan’, Father Kavanagh as being:
credited with the first great piece of revisionism of Irish history. His Popular History, published in 1870, propagated the idea that the rebels of 1798 were an apolitical mob, goaded into violence by religious persecution and political repression, and led, in the main, by hero priests. The pre-eminent place occupied by Father Murphy in the popular perception of the rebellion is due in the first pace to Father Kavanagh.This, it would seem, confirms the idea of a ‘making’ of the past, of a process of mythologising. Altogether, the poems, in particular, reflect either a need for some kind of illumination or an intrinsic value as historical comment which the editor had already suggested was not part of his intention.9 Such importance, it is counter-argued, cannot be ignored.
In a sense, therefore, one cannot help but notice an aspect of ‘ballad history’ and, if the selection is a good one, then a historical perspective does emerge which, it must be assumed, does reflect the sentiments of the time. Time and again the rebel cause is portrayed in uplifting terms only for it to be dashed amid scenes of ferocious revenge and retribution and the tide of rebel progress marked by gradual grinding down of opposition. That, surely, reflects historical actuality?
From it, heroes and heroines continue to emerge - some well-enough known like Henry Munroe (84-86), Bagenal Harvey (90) and Henry Joy (108-112) but many - to someone not versed in the minutiae of the time - fresh characters - such as Betsy Gray (82) or Teresa Malone (93); or the Sheares brothers (107) in a piece by Lady Wilde couched in particularly in dramatic language. And, all the time, there is this strong admixture of what we take to be traditional material with other contributions produced by later writers and not necessarily meant as songs. This is such a strong feature that it becomes easy to forget the editor’s intention to explore a song tradition.
The following samples might help to gain a flavour of the mixture.
Firstly, to note that the songs of William Ball, a Dubliner whose sympathies were on the loyalist - British - side in conflict over independence, are a revelation. Three of them have forthright but, at the same time, whimsical content which can be illustrated as follows - a stanza from an ironic song lamenting Bonaparte’s failure to send troops to help Irish uprising, Faithless Boney (placed not with the rest of the Napoleonic material but in the earlier section devoted to 1798) which was sung to Oh Dear, What Can The Matter Be? - evidently already a popular air at the time of the song’s composition which, though unstated, would have been around the time of Napoleon’s voyage and eventual defeat in Egypt (1798 and 1801):
Who’d think, passion so strong over!Two of the others (including Cockeldemoy, already cited) have this same playing with words and a humorous tone. The fourth, a more sentimental story which centres on the death of an Irish rebel against the British Crown (he repents, of course, as Ball, with his own views, would have him do), nonetheless, still has some of the word-play as exemplified above.
Morbleu! Coming ding dong over!
Yet, now, Christmas is long over,
Leaving us just as we were.
He promised to bring twenty thousand sang cullets,
To help us to cut all the royalists’ gullets,
And feast on their bullocks, pigs, sheep, geese and pullets,
With brandy our spirits to cheer.
Ball’s contribution here is neatly and easily summed up. But there are a dozen similar collective or individual gems which are more complicated in impact - such as the trio of songs, following one another in the book, about victims, Rody McCorley, Billy Byrne of Ballymanus and Henry Downs (122-124). In the first-named there is an interesting sea-change between the two versions given. In the first anonymously-conceived version which we would hithertoo have termed ‘traditional’ there is not a shred of flag-waving and the song concentrates on the pathos of Rody McCorley’s betrayal and hanging. It is wholly dignified, even a touch pious. In Ethna Carberry’s dating from 1896 there is rather more of a flourish as stanza five illustrates:
The grey coat and its sash of green were brave and stainless then,One cannot deny the appeal, as a fragment of litany, of the final line though it is worth noting that this, alongside a number of other songs, found their rather rhetorical voice a hundred years after the event - which may tell us more about the times then and the composers themselves than it does about 1798; and, maybe, about how traditions have sometimes worked at a safe distance or even appropriated. This is precisely what makes songs contemporary with an event worth having - to gain a feel of red hot perspective and emotion.
A banner flashed beneath the sun over the marching men -
The coat has many a rent this noon the sash is torn away,
And Rody McCorley goes to die on the Bridge of Toome today.
Billy Byrne, like Rody McCorley, was betrayed and the anonymous version again concentrates on the situation, the narrative appeal - a characteristic of song that we have accepted as traditional - not the cause, though, in the last stanza, there is a gesture towards a wider prospect:
God rest you, Billy Byrne, may your name for ever shineThe version of Henry Downs comes from Madden’s Literary Remains - is not a song - and is much more in tune with conventional patriotic sentiments though it must also be said that it is partial, as the following stanza indicates:
Through Wicklow, Wexford and Kildare and all along the line;
May the Lord have mercy on his soul and all such men as be,
Who stood upright for Ireland’s right and fought for Liberty.
Young Downs for Ireland’s freedom fought,t is most likely something of a new contribution to the canon for most of us and could, by the way, be easily accommodated in any of the tunes given for Rody McCorley and Billy Byrne...
On Erin’s verdant plains.
We’ll all keep him alive in thought
While blood flows in our veins.
He rushed forth tyrants to repel
Through dangers, scars and wounds
And many an Orange villain fell
Beneath the hand of Downs.
The accompanying notes exemplify the uneven-ness already encountered. For the first version of Rody McCorley we have a brief but sufficient account of the hero’s career - and the historical facts, it is noted, have been firmly established by the indefatigable John Moulden10 - and a suggestion made that the song was produced around 1800, the date of McCorley’s execution. For Ethna Carberry’s version, there is merely a suggestion that it could have been based on the older ballad. For Billy Byrne…, there is a summary of his career but nothing at all about the genesis or pedigree of the song. Those familiar with other sources may well turn back to Colm O’Lochlainn (oddly, perhaps, not acknowledged in the particular case though he is referred to often throughout the volume) who, as it turns out, is not a lot of help either. He wrote11 that the song was an ‘authentic’ 1798 song; referred to Joyce’s Old Irish Folk Music and Songs (1909) and gave the information that his text was got from a printed broadside. Joyce’s tune, he wrote, was an ornamented version of the one that he gave himself; and the present copy has the same tune save for a crucial change on the very first note - a straight ‘e’ rather than an ‘e flat’ - which might hint at a different character. At least some sort of history to the song is posited in O’Lochlainn. For Henry Downs, Madden is quoted on his life and career; but, in this case, we may have to be content - grateful, indeed - with the appearance of the song as text (a poem, more like?).
Many of us will be satisfied with the particular text and tune offered and the extent of supporting information. Others, probably, will feel the need to probe a little more deeply - in the way that Len Graham seems to have done in his prolonged researching of material or, as the editor hints, how Éamonn Ó Bróithe (Eamon Brophy) has sometimes gone about his own assembling of song versions; or, again, in England, with a similar persistence, Gordon Hall…one must make up one’s own mind about the results as eventually sung.
At least, though - and this needs emphasising - the juxtapositioning of pieces shows, as in the case of the three outlined above, how Terry Moylan has, valuably, got together well-known and unfamiliar material. Differing shades of opinion are well represented. It is also hoped that illustrations have been given of how, in this process, proper questions multiply, how the volume provokes enquiries.
To take the discussion a little further: the following few songs are all given a prominence in this volume that, perhaps, they have not enjoyed in comparison with more well-known pieces and each illustrates some of the complexities of source and complex viewpoint, about making a choice for inclusion, about providing information and, of course, about the actuality behind the song. Thus, Edward (52), the single instance here of a song about this particular person. It may, in this particular case, even be part of an editor’s job to include a song because the subject-matter has not been treated elsewhere - for the sake of comprehensiveness only - which might also support inclusion of material, as noted, on Cornwallis. The song itself is in high-flown language having the mark of literary composition (though given as an anonymous piece here) as the following stanza describing one of the assassins, makes clear:
So wide the gash, so great the gore,The brief notes are also quoted in part here in order to suggest how satisfying (it is always possible to do an Oliver Twist) simple references can be:
That tumbling out his entrails came;
Poor grovelling wretch! you’ll never more
Attempt to blast unsullied fame;
A baser death should you await,
The hangman’s rope - not Edward’s hand,
The gallows tree should be your fate,
Your life deserved a shameful end.
This piece…comes from Paddy’s Resource. The indicated air is ‘When Bidden to the Wake of Fair’, a song from William Shields’ opera Rosina, published in 1782.Immediately, then, a specific, contemporary context is given and this, in turn, indicates that it is not only in retrospection that such hot language was used: and that, it is suggested, is one other important point about the nature of what is termed the Irish Song Tradition here. Such language use normally contrasts so vividly with the somewhat formulaic presentation encountered in traditional song which has taken on or generated the style, in particular, of broadside balladry.
James Garland’s song, The Banished Defender (70), is equally high-flown as that of the previous item noted and, as Terry Moylan’s notes have it:
is remarkable and perhaps unique among ‘rebel’ songs for its inclusion and detailed exposition of Catholic religious belief, and for an explicit denigration of the Protestant religion.In fact, the narrative line is almost lost in rhetoric:
The reason that they banished me, the truth I mean to tell you here,The notes also refer to Samuel Lover’s description, printed in his Legends and Stories of Ireland, c. 1850, of how he heard ‘ a female ballad hawker’ singing the song on a corner of St. Mary’s Abbey in Dublin and then to Allingham’s comments on the ‘curious junction of the theologist with the insurgent’, published two years later. Together these give one small idea of the prolonged life of the song even though we have no similar evidence from sung traditions themselves - unless, that is, one is of the view that the recognition of a song in circumstances such as that proposed by Lover and Allingham is part of a song tradition.
Because I was a head leader of Father Murphy’s Shelmaliers
And for being a Roman Catholic I was trampled on by Harry’s breed,
For fighting in defence of my God, my country and my creed.
Garland’s song may be set in direct opposition to Oliver’s Advice (134), described in its subtitle as ‘An Orange Ballad’, and written, apparently, by one, Colonel William Blacker:
They come whose deeds incaradin’d the silver Slaney’s wave -The song is, reputedly, based on a saying of Cromwells’ (given in the final line) which, of course, would set up further ramifications of - usually - bad memories.
They come who to the foreign foe the hand of welcome gave;
He comes, the open rebel fierce - he comes the Jesuit sly;
But put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.
Neither song is, though, evidently, exactly contemporaneous: Garland’s ‘more or less’; the latter from Edward Hayes’ Ballads of Ireland, 1855, and ‘dated therein to 1834’. The extremes of religious intolerance are, obviously, most prominent - but should not simply be dismissed: they were, equally obviously, real enough - and (a very delicate point, this) they may just encapsulate a problem that exists for a present-day singer in that the singing of such songs may be counted as a sign that the singer too is intolerant in a sensitive area and there is nothing to gainsay this except courage and a belief in the community of singing.
As something of a softening point: Garland’s song is set in this volume directly before The Wexford Insurgent (71) which begins with extolling the Wexford insurgents themselves but then, surprisingly, goes on, it seems, to describe the death of a ‘Sassenach’ dragoon. In this description, the same dreadful end that overtook all participants appears, in what the editor notes as ‘drawing-room’ words:
O long in fair England each maiden may mourn -The information is also given that the song may have been composed in Irish by Micheál Óg Ó Longáin, ‘the author of ‘Maidin Luan Chincise’ and, some believe, Sliabh na mBan’’ the latter a favourite amongst singers such as Eamon Brophy (who is cited elsewhere in the volume). O Longain is described elsewhere in the volume too, as a committed United Irishman (notes to Song 53). Such curious conjunctions are constantly illuminated in this volume as the discussion on the first dozen or so songs illustrated.
The pride of her bosom will never return;
His heart’s blood is scattered - his last prayer is said -
And the dark raven flaps his wild wing o’er the dead.
In another ‘written’ song, The Ballyshannon Lane (75 - from a Michael O’Brien) the background is, once again, that of the 1798 insurrection, but the content of the song is, as it were, more local - or focussed - as the first stanza makes clear:
‘Twas in ninety-six as the moon did fixThe editor spends some time in the notes here sorting out apparent confusions in the song which conflates several episodes, involving atrocity on both sides. Outside that observation, it is worth noting that such episodes as they occurred during the events of 1798 and at other times - rather than the whole picture - figure frequently in the songs given rather than as full-blown accounts of the bigger battles (see below). Unfortunately, nothing is said in this particular case about the author or about when the song first appeared.
Her beams o’er Scullabogue,
The twinkling stars and the planet Mars
Shone brightly o’er its grove;
Where the Hessian brutes they bit the dust,
And Cromwells’ crew were slain,
Where the yeomen fled and left their dead
In the Ballyshannon Lane.
Finally, in this group, the song Sweet County Wexford, reveals even more localised detail - this time of the pattern of combat, mentioning Sliabh Beag, where the Ancient Britons ‘in their uniforms’ a ‘great show did make’; the insurgents’ advance from Gorey; and then:
‘Twas from the Watch House into BallyellisThe song goes on to describe an encounter at Ballarahan and movement through Camolin and Carrigrua; and then laments that:
To Pavey’s Height going towards Carnew
It’s there we had a great engagement…
Had we the wisdom to follow after,The song, then, is in the nature of a regretful summary. Editorial comment is again lengthy, recounting the episodes described and then citing Colm O’Lochlainn’s source for the words, Denis Devereux12 who said that ‘the song is the original upon which P J MacCall based his Boolavogue - one of the most widely-known songs of all concerning the 1798 insurrection though it came a hundred years after.
And not have tarried in Gorey town,
We’d have saved the lives of many a martyr
That died in Arklow …
The sheer variety of this group of songs alone underlines what is consistently fascinating in Terry Moylan’s volume. With this, however, we might continue to ask for an appropriate regularisation of additional commentary.
To return, though, to the main thread: only one of the six items about the French attempted invasion led by General Humbert, has any possible contemporary connection with the event: Rouse Hibernians (113), a copy of which was, apparently found on the personage of the mother of a United Irishman killed in 1798. The other five were all written much later and include John Keegan Casey’s The Rising of the Moon (117) and Davis’s The West’s Asleep (115) which, though not strictly a comment on 1798 seems, as Terry Moylan puts it, ‘to belong in this company’ - wherein, of course, lies a danger - as discussed below. Similarly, the five songs included which concern Michael Dwyer are all retrospective and range from Madden’s piece from Literary Remains…to a 1998 contribution.
Where Robert Emmett is concerned, his own song, Arbour Hill (154), therefore, is a useful counterpart to the songs that follow, all of which were produced long after 1803. Emmet’s ringing cry is:
O Sacred Justice! Free this landIn contrast, the other songs all dwell on the pathos of Emmet’s own case.
From tyranny abhorred…
One cannot help a growing feeling that this reconstitution of Irish history is a particularly strong element and the danger, if there is one, is that events become so coloured as to add to the sense not of actuality but of mythology - a Yeatsian transformation.13 Perspectives become subtly changed and the contemporary feel itself is lessened. This is not necessarily to doubt later additions to the canon as expressing a kind of ‘accuracy’ of feeling but one possible reservation is that such additions might well have been made from a relatively comfortable position (nothing would have been entirely comfortable, given the continuous agitation for independence) and exhortations to wave swords and make sacrifice take a little less account of the actual misery involved. More so, though, because of the access to such literature as opposed to what we accept as a norm for traditional material which, most often, circulated underground, so to speak, a view is propagated which has slid away from what actually happened and become something of a convenience. This, in turn, can lead to manipulation and a skewed legacy of history. However, these are not meant, in any case, to be observations of stasis because traditions obviously change in their make-up.
Norman Reddin’s song, The Three Flowers (162), ‘from the early 20th century’, encapsulates the transmogrification. It has softened all the harshness in a sweet-breathed admission from a cáillín encountered ‘when walking down a lane’ that the three flowers she carried represented phases of Irish history and that:
…Emmett, Dwyer and Tone I’ll keep,We have reached sentimentality - though not the end of the road, by any means; nor is it being suggested, then, that there is a single thread culminating in this way.
For I do love them all,
And I’ll keep them fresh beside my breast
Though all the world should fall.
Inevitably, in this review, the fullest discussion of myriad interests in the volume, such as in the selection illustrating how the 1798 gave way to Union and the Emmett rebellion, is not possible. It can be said that the various shades of opinion are continuously invoked despite the remarks made just previously. But the general make-up of the section relies much more heavily than previous sections on the contribution from outside what has been termed the traditional canon and it is, perhaps, disturbing - if our notions of song tradition - oral tradition - suggest that there is always such an engagement - to find so little apparent evidence from tradition of grappling with these events. At any rate, there is a marked change in this kind of conjunction from the flavour of individual involvement such as characterised many of the songs noted earlier to a more generic appeal and, as it happens, this acts as a sort of precursory assembly before the emergence of the slightly nebulous dreaming attached to Napoleonic songs as discussed below.
In respect of ‘un-traditional’ material14 the place of a bundle of curiosities may be examined briefly - where Terry Moylan has added pieces not, it seems, meant to be sung and the question is yet again posed thereby: of what use are they in the book except as a reminder of context and of historical actuality? Inevitably, they create their own interest, none more so than the extraordinary, extended libretto of Jemmy O’Brien’s Minuet (166). This is written in a kind of cod Irish pronunciation of English and would probably come particularly alive when recited (this cod pronunication, by the way, figures more than once - Erin Go Bray, item 26; Cockledemoy, item 31;The Groves of Blackpool, item 61, but Terry Moylan, on one occasion, that of Paddy’s Advice (41), decided to replace it ‘as the song needs no such gimmicks to make it more attractive’. This seems to miss the point; nor is there ground for supposing such intended gimmickry; and the practice is at cross-purposes with the appearance of the other pieces mentioned. The pieces following Jemmy O’Brien’s Minuet, Here’s A Chorus and Who Killed Cock Robin (167 and 168), also both invite and offer interest outside a song context. So had The Game of Cards and Fireball MacNamara’s Address To His Pistols (127 and 128) and you take them as you get them.
When Seamus Heaney’s poem, Requiem for the Croppies appears, though (item 141), it is, surely, beyond the limits of usefulness and, in the context of this volume, is just…a curiosity. It may be argued that we are reminded that present-day interest in events has not disappeared but as an element in song tradition, Heaney’s piece in particular amongst these others, is, like them, very much subsidiary in nature, despite its intrinsic value.
Our attention is drawn, in the end, to the sheer amount of material in the volume that has come, in respect of traditions, from extra-mural sources. In total, there are seventy-nine directly attributed pieces (out of two hundred and nine) and a number of possible attributions to known sources. There are also some twenty-six named tunes included. Roughly half the material, then, is not from the (an) Irish song tradition. There is no dispute as to the value of the majority of the items so included. The point is to underline the nature of what we tend to assume makes up song traditions - In England, Dr. George Gardiner included a version of The Rose of Tralee, for instance, in his manuscripts of material gathered during the so-called English Folk Song Revival of between (roughly) 1890 and 1920. Henry Burstow’s repertoire of over four hundred songs contained many kinds of material, from ‘older’ balladry to late nineteenth century parlour pieces. Alfred Williams made a point of collecting text which reflected, as he saw it, what was sung in his chosen area of the Upper Thames with no particular favour shown to the kind of repertoire from an illiterate peasantry (with several omissions in terms of form and source - Louie White, Sharp’s informant, declared that she knew three times as many songs from ‘popular’ and music-hall sources than she did an from an inherited legacy - that had somehow gained prominence between the years of Baring-Gould’s first involvement in 1887 and Sharp’s working conclusions as they appeared in 1907).
So the intention is not to take Terry Moylan to task but to welcome the broad perspective - even if some of the material is not necessarily that attractive. It is also tentatively suggested - very tentatively - that, in this kind of light, some revision of our notions of Irish song traditions may be necessary. We must also remember that the particular focus of this volume does not, by any means, constitute the whole panorama of such traditions. We have a specific compass here and others - the themes, say, of love or of exile, may or may not entertain similarly open prospects…
Eventually we come to what is rapidly becoming a contentious area.15 The matter of Napoleon seems to occupy a growing number of enthusiasts and the selection here may be applauded as illustrating the kinds of songs that have lasted in traditions both in Ireland and in England (let alone across the Atlantic). There are few blatantly engrossed in the disgusting matter of war itself. Most here are concerned with the promise of and then the defeat of a Saviour for Ireland; and turn the yearning into a portrait of a hero for which supposition we can only cite probability and circumstance. For there is, as yet, debate over the exact value Napoleon offered to his admirers and no satisfactory explanation of his elevation. Further, such is the uncertain nature of scholarship surrounding these songs that it might be unwise to claim the songs as being specifically Irish. Perhaps Donal O’Sullivan, cited here, was a little too confident in his assertion that the class of ballads surrounding the career of Napoleon was inevitably Irish. Napoleon’s legendary status did not materialise in France until the time of his removal to Paris: retrospectively, that is (1840). Napoleon seems to have acted as a hero, too, in post-war England. Many of the English variants of these songs appeared then - Roy Palmer has unearthed copies of The Bonny Bunch of Roses in 1820s broadside printing. The exactly contemporary stuff - mostly flag-waving castigation of the Corsican tyrant - disappeared quickly from repertoire as far as is known.
So is it the case in the present volume that Irish versions of the songs anticipated or were vitally important in the transformation of Napoleon from tyrant to hero? This is not meant as a rhetorical question: it deserves close attention.
There does not, for instance, seem to be any record of the song The Dream of Napoleon being sung in Ireland though we know that the text was printed by, amongst others, Kelly of Waterford, possibly in the mid-1820s. There is nothing in the brief note to help us.16 The tune as printed in The Age of Revolution looks to be awfully like the one sung by Sam Larner; and other tunes, such as that got by Vaughan Williams from a Mr. Crist - like Sam Larner, as it happens, a Norfolk man, or from William Durkin of Ilminster by Sharp (1908) - tend to be similar in structure and melodic phrasing and seem first to have found shape in England. In this case, there seems, in short, to be no clear connection with Ireland at all unless it is in a contemporary (that is, 2000-2001) context - it would actually be nice to be disabused!
Nobody, as it happens, appears yet to have come up with a satisfying tune for the spacious and high-flown language of The Grand Conversation Under the Rose (197). Tom Pháidín’s tune for the ‘other’ Grand Conversation…(196) would appear to be unique - Baring-Gould got one and there is one other which, together, seem alone to serve the text in English song repertoire. So where did Tom’s come from - a guide to how the song survived in Irish tradition?17 Mrs. Carolan’s tune for The Bonny Light Horseman (181) is given here although there are others with a similar melodic plangency, such as that given by Sam Henry18: the song text, however amalgamated with tune, is a particularly affecting one but also one where there is a warning not to take Napoleon as quite the hero he is made out to be in other songs.
The four songs entitled here, The Plains of Waterloo (items 189-192), are particularly centred on Irish sentiment though three are of the returned lover denomination common enough in both Ireland and England and only one has a specific Irish input into the fortunes of soldiers. None describe the battle itself in any detail, as certain other texts with the same title do, mostly from an English perspective.
I Am Napoleon Bonaparte is given alongside its parent Farewell to Paris (186 and 187). Only one tune seems hitherto to have been associated with the former, sung by the redoubtable Mike Flynn in Bangor, north Wales, in the sixties and now very much associated with Fred Jordan and, again, only two with the latter (as given in the Journal of Folk Song Society19) in England. There does not seem to be any clear evidence of Irish sung versions though there are broadside printings (unfortunately, as is the usual case, with no date of imprint).
As a matter of concern, indeed, it would be more than a useful exercise to trace the pedigree of such songs. The suspicion is that, at the moment, too many assumptions are made. The editor here is silent about the matter, beyond accepting orthodox comment already made, presumably in the absence of firm evidence. Clearly, such songs may have travelled over to England as part of a continuous two-way traffic over the centuries. Equally clearly, the reverse may have applied and there is no reason why Ireland should not have appropriated song material from England.
The point, once again, is to suggest that we certainly use the book with proper caution but, equally, that it is this kind of question that the same book keeps provoking.
One other feature of this section is that there is but one song taken from ‘outside’ sources and that is actually about the death of Sir John Moore at Corunna and appeared in 1817. All the rest have a presumed oral connection. This contrasts starkly with the section as described above centred on the Union and on the time of Emmett. If an explanation is needed, it probably lies in the extent to which Napoleonic material has been investigated and the lack of such intense delving into the other period which, sadly, also points to a deficiency in the extent of interest vested in Irish song traditions which the list given at the head of this review underlines: not the only books available but suggestive of a relative paucity.
With this volume, given, then, that the nature of traditions receives a serious and salutary examination (intended or not) - and it must be said that much more could have been written about the selection offered - other questions also arise which are more to do with how the book is constructed.
One such question immediately arises: not as a means of undermining the full impact of the volume but, nonetheless, as a comment on a significant aspect. There are some fifteen songs in the Irish language here and it would be facile to accept that, if you want to learn the songs and about the songs, then you must learn Irish…It is not suggested, for a moment, that this is Terry Moylan’s attitude. Nevertheless, these songs are, in the main, a closed shop and a valuable insight into how a possibly differentiated culture viewed the events of the age is denied some of us. What is more, as is characteristic of the volume, the supportive treatment of these songs is irregular. Some, as example, come with notes which elucidate (87, 118); one which illuminates the life of the author but not the song (53); some with attempts at translation either in the notes as an ‘explanation’ (45; 102) or in a separate version (104; 139); some with nothing at all useful to a non-Irish-reading audience (30; or 135 stressing the regret that the writer of the text felt on including English expressions at all). Trying to view them as songs, as printed artefacts in this case, do any of them, for example, work through image and archetype as do many broadside printings? Is there an eliptical reference20 or an elaborate one such as might be found in certain love songs in the way but not, perhaps, with the same sort of context or intention that the well-known aisling operated (there is one such song included, McKenna’s Dream, item 133)? Did the composers inevitably share the feelings and aspirations of their English-speaking compatriots…it is notable, for instance, that there are no Irish language songs here which deal with the earliest subject-matter of the American revolution nor, indeed, is Napoleon treated?21 Simply: it would have been nice to have had an indication of how each song encapsulated its particular moments - the general subject-matter is, by implication, obvious enough - the sort of thing provided for item 78, An ‘Croppy Lie Down’, in a single paragraph and adequate enough to satisfy curiosity at the least:
This song is reprinted from Duanaire Déiseach, the anthology of songs from the Deices compiled by Nioclás Tóibín (the uncle of the famous singer of the same name). The narrator of the song says that in the near future, when Spain and France come to the aid of Ireland, the English will be defeated and he will no longer have to listen to the ‘Croppy Lie Down’. In the last verse he tells how Bonaparte has promised to come and scatter the enemy, after which everything will be wonderful and the only tune the women will be singing will be ‘Croppy Lie Down’!Of course, not every song will be susceptible to such an easy treatment, but even an extended ‘explanation’ need not be too long-winded: it is, after all, given in many instances for English-language songs in this volume.
And, simply, how do non-Irish-speaking Irish people cope?
If, then, they and all non-Irish-speakers are excluded, who or what is the intended audience? The whole question of translated material is to do with a viewpoint and, perhaps, an element of intended audience, situate in Ireland, in England, in America and, indeed, anywhere where English is linguistic currency, who may all be disbarred from the fullest enjoyment. The immediate retort might be that translations, of themselves, do not necessarily convey exactitude and that approximations clutter the scene but this is not really an adequate argument where a wide audience is involved - which, presumably, the volume was intended to satisfy. Terry Moylan himself writes, in connection with the notes that he did supply, that ‘If the singer does not know what happened…they (sic) will be losing a great part of the pleasure of singing the song’. This, surely, applies to the absence of ‘explanation’ of Irish text.
The point is raised because it is an important one just as the volume is an important one. It may be temporarily set aside in favour of the positives in the volume - but not dismissed altogether. It would be nice for The Age of Revolution to succeed - but not with too many disturbing shadows around it.
There is then the matter of an absence of a discography: simply unaccountable unless, of course, there was some tangle of copyright - which would not seem likely in this connection. Firstly, this would have been useful for those without the ability to read music. Secondly, it would have fleshed out the sometimes sparse indication of from whom or where a tune was got for the songs included. Thirdly, bearing in mind Terry Moylan’s injunction to people to have a go and his hope, in his introduction, that the material ‘will be used again’, it might have enabled comparison of tunes before a choice was made. And, fourthly, it would have very much made the point that many of these songs are still valued in repertoire.
There is, too, another ramification. There are barely a dozen present-day singers cited in the volume, mainly in connection with Napoleonic material, which would appear to be a strangely limited number. One might be a little surprised, too, that certain associations have not been made - for example, surely, Frank Harte with Dunlavin Green in the sixties and, similarly, Tim Lyons with The Bantry Girls’ Lament a few years later; or, perhaps, Joe Holmes - along with Len Graham - with Rody McCorley? Given possible quibbling of this sort the major point is that, if this is, truly, a volume which seeks to underline the presence of the songs in Irish song tradition(s) then, in modern and relatively modern times, this sort of evidence can not be ignored. If it is not there, the credibility of the volume suffers: known singing of the songs puts a length of life onto the ideas that the songs portray, illustrating how important they still are - at least in the minds of singers. And, at a second remove, this forces us, the reader, the singer, the new acquaintance, to acknowledge the rather peculiar fact that we maintain such a passionate interest in the past itself and, what is more, we express it through what is, basically, an outmoded idiom.
Turn the last remark on its head and we may glimpse one of the reasons why traditions are so strong in themselves: the ideas and the emotions - particularly the latter - do not die with the passing of a finite period of time. That would seem to be an important issue which is often taken for granted but, surely, is something of a raison d’etre for our present-day involvement with songs and singing. It might be suggested that this often has much to do with the narrative interest in songs as opposed to or as well as the historical associations. 1798, as it happens, is the one clear happening in Irish history that has found its way into nineteenth century English song repertoire and in the case of each song that can most probably be ascribed to genesis in Ireland (if for no other reason than there was absolutely no reason at all for such songs to have been composed in England) - The Croppy Boy, say, or The Rambler from Clare (46) - specific reference is gradually elided - Anglicised, in other words - which does suggest that the stories themselves were the main attraction. This applies in both printed versions as they can be viewed in broadsides and to sung versions found in the manuscripts of the English Folk Song Revival. There is some evidence, too, that song-texts which may be thought to have had their origins in England - perhaps even in the broadside press - when transferred to an Irish context, also seem to have their major appeal vested in narrative - The Isle of France, from the same period as this volume, is an example.
One other point concerning intended audience may be raised. Terry Moylan indicates that it is primarily for singers, but the reasoning in the brief introduction might also suggest that such singers are, somehow, different creatures to humans (!) with a focus on songs that does not admit any connection between them and the events that they allude to or, to put it another way, that the singers themselves inhabit a bubble and would not be interested in contextual matters. Patently, this has to be a false concept in general application, though there may, indeed, be blinkered singers of songs, and it is not suggested that the main thrust of Terry Moylan’s efforts is at all in this direction. Perhaps it is something of a defence mechanism in keeping with the expressed notion of what the book is not (‘a ballad history’, that is). At any rate, anyone, though, who has heard - in recent times - the singing in Ireland of, say, Frank Harte, Len Graham, Roisin White, Eamon Brophy or Jim McFarland; or a few years back Eddie Butcher, Tom Pháidín, Sean MacDonagh - must acknowledge that singing is or was their lifeblood: they cannot do without it as a means of spiritual and emotional communication whatever their individual dispositions and leaving aside all questions of, shall we say, monetary professionalism (a convenient accident for the passionate singer); and they in their respective singing characters and when in conversation confirm their deep interest in the songs that they sing which does not stop at the words and tune in their heads but explores context, pedigree and genesis and their own beliefs. Yet there is a faint whiff in the premises of the volume under consideration: it is either simply a Moylan pleasantry or a limited view of potential singers that they are asked in the notes to ‘turn off the television’ and give the songs a go: hardly a serious view of a seriously conceived volume.
And - at the last - this does bring us to the very personal nature of the selection. Terry Moylan admits that his choice was made from the standpoint of his interest in music and song. One does not, as a result, necessarily argue the selection itself. As he says, there could have been other volumes of equal value done by another hand: different volumes, it needs to be said. Yet, even so, no different volume is likely to offer a different overall perspective. There can be no ‘balance’ in the matter off Ireland’s struggle towards independence. It is a matter, as it were, of record.
Terry Moylan has also been careful when indicating his own preferences for tune or version. Yet the varied nature of the song-notes, especially where the pedigree of the song itself is missing, reflect an editorial involvement that, once or twice, militates against the success of the volume in its given terms. One might even wonder if the title is truly apt…Certainly, Terry Moylan has nailed colours to a mast and one is grateful for the courage and enterprise. And, incidentally, one must record a debt to the Goilin Singers Club which was heavily involved in the conception and production of the volume.
This is more, though, than a look at songs…in this review, the attempt has been made to ‘stick to the crathur’ and not to introduce too much blatantly historical comment; to concentrate, mostly, on description of content: as if to prepare if one were about to embark on using the songs in a manner encouraged by Terry Moylan. Nonetheless, the book, will he nill he, is an exposure of both editorial prerogative with all the possible criticism and counter-criticism that this might entail (a risk always present with such a volume); but, moreover, the whole substance of traditional (and other) repertoire as it makes up a song tradition - song traditions - and despite the self-importance that is part of our small ‘singing’ world, is, as it emerges, crucial evidence for the expression of the hopes of people in the past and of our own hopes, fears and character which, together, by extension, may help to realise some of the ambition of a nation. There is no question but that this volume is relevant in this respect. It is a welcome addition to the available store and elucidation of song material. Whatever minor (in the main) questions have been raised they do not, ultimately, compromise purpose and achievement.
Roly Brown - 15.9.01
|Top of page