Craft Recordings CRCD03; 1998
Craft Recordings CRCD02; 1998
Of all the events in Ireland's long and difficult history it is hard to find a single episode which produced a crop of songs larger or finer than that of the rebellion of 1798. None of the later uprisings produced anything to match it, nor did the potato famine, and it is not until the troubles of the early twentieth century that we find a similar outpouring. For my tastes, though, many of the songs from that campaign are imbued more with the sentiments of the drawing room than with the spirit of the street rally. The songs of '98 are raw and angry. They did not all find a niche in oral tradition, but most possess the qualities of directness and passion so characteristic of that tradition.
The reasons for this profusion are varied and uncertain and our understanding of them will doubtless improve as historians currently reassess the significance of '98. However, at the present time, I believe we can identify several key factors. First of all there was the size of the rebellion. If we except the period which stretches from the Easter rising of 1916 to the civil war of 1921, and if we also except the present troubles in Northern Ireland, '98 was the biggest and most widespread of all the insurrections. It was the longest and it was the bloodiest. At the end of a campaign lasting some five months, about thirty thousand Irish citizens had been put to the sword for the 'crime' of defending their rights to Irish citizenship. Secondly, the rebellion, erupting at different times and in different places, involved different interest groups. Around Dublin and North East Ulster, it had much of the character of, and took a lot of its inspiration from, the bourgeois rebellions of France and America. In those places it was largely Protestant led and fired by an aspirant middle class whose upward mobility had been thwarted by imperial domination. In the Southeast the insurrection had more of the character of a peasant war, as cottiers and farmers rose against the usurping landlords of the Protestant ascendancy. Different interest groups shared a common legacy of bitter memories, but they threw up different songs. Thus the song harvest of '98 is made up mainly of contemporary stall ballads aimed at the lower orders, and literary songs made by an educated elite. Finally, there is the significance of '98 in popular memory. It has gone down in the vernacular imagination as a failure, but as a magnificent one, and one which the Irish almost won. 'A near run thing', as a certain Irishman was to say of another military campaign a few years later.
For me, this disc is a bit of a hot potato. That is partly because, being born and educated outside Ireland, my feelings on imperialism and its attendant evils, exploitation and oppression, are no less indignant than those of my Irish confreres, but have been arrived at via a different perspective. There is enough of the Marxist in me to see those evils less in terms of the domination of one nation by another, than as the pursuit of exploitative class interests. That is to say, imperialism was a mechanism whereby the ruling classes of Britain or Austria or Turkey or Russia extended their spheres of economic control outside of their immediate national boundaries. To put it another way, the forces which ground down the ordinary people of Ireland held the English working class in similar stark subjection. One might logically have expected a community of interests to have grown out of common oppression. That it never emerged is in part symptomatic of the way British rulers dominated, and continue to dominate, the thoughts of the English working class. It is however, also symptomatic of the direction which Irish nationalism took in the nineteenth century. The depredations of England produced a very understandable desire, on the part of the Irish, to place as much social distance between themselves and the benevolences of the British Empire as possible.
Another reason for the hot potato is that I am on good speaking terms with practically all the singers on this disc and wish to remain that way. In fact, I knew before agreeing to do this review, that quality of performance was the last thing I would have to worry about. Of the twelve singers present, only Frank Harte, Tim Lyons and Roisín White are particularly well-known in Britain. Of the others, a good proportion have no more claim to fame than do the singers down at your local folk club. If your local folk club had singers half as good as this lot I wouldn't be catching the boat to Ireland quite as often.
As well as insurrectionary ballads, there are five instrumental pieces, two from piper Mick O'Brien and three from the Four Star Trio. The pieces have been picked for their titles, which show a connection with the turbulence of the times. However, Irish tunes are seldom programme pieces, and the names are mostly fortuitous. A title like A '98 March suggests that it may have been used to stir the insurgents as they marched into battle. However, if any evidence exists to support such a proposition, it does not appear in the booklet. Also, with titles like The Downfall of Paris and Repeal of the Union, the connections with the immediate uprising are just a little bit tenuous. Nevertheless, they do liven up the disc and I feel the producers were correct to open with The Rights of Man. Tom Paine's pamphlet of that name, in celebrating human dignity under free commerce, was a tribune for the ideas espoused by the United Irishmen.
From what I know of the singers, the programme seems to have been selected mainly on the basis of what was already in their repertoires. This means that some of the more hackneyed items have been excluded, but it does throw up a problem, vis-à-vis the use of the disc as a historical document. That is to say, I am not sure of the extent to which the programme reflects a geographical imbalance in the production of '98 ballads, but it certainly presents an imbalance in the historic record. The struggles of Ulster and the Southeast are covered handsomely, but there are no songs telling of Mayo's part in the fight and the only effort from Dublin is a loyalist squib. Also, Terry Timmons' Cow that Ate the Piper is a song about a practical joke whose only connection with '98 lies in the first four lines of verse one. Finally, the squib from Dublin included, there only two examples of loyalist songs. I wonder whether the loyalists were quite as inactive songwriters as this suggests. Perhaps they were, for both their songs are contemporaneous to the event, where a number of insurgent songs were written in retrospective. For opponents of the crown, the memories of '98 burned long and deep. I doubt we could say the same for supporters of the institution. Of these two, one is the famous Croppies Lie Down, which shows that the loyalists were as good as anyone else when it came to writing invective. The other, Faithless Bony, turns out, surprisingly, to be a parody of Johnny's so Long at the Fair. It also set me puzzling. In his novel, The Trumpet Major, Thomas Hardy prints a very similar squib. I had always assumed he had written this to tie in with the threat of French invasion, against which the story is set. Also, Ruth Firor - Folkways in Thomas Hardy - seems of the opinion that it was a Hardy original. She says, "Some rollicking refrain from folk tunes no doubt gave rise to the ballad of Boney". However, bearing in mind his familiarity with the ways of his Dorset compatriots, was Hardy actually quoting a contemporary ballad?
Deep memories produce powerful songs and the disc contains some superlative examples of the art of ballad writing. The Rody McCorley which Roisín White sings here for example is a street ballad upon which Ethna Carberry based her song of the same name. This one is, for my money, much the better song. It feels as though, and is sung as if, the verses were thrown across the ballad sheet in defiant indignation.
Defiance is the operative word for several other fine specimens, notably Jerry O'Reilly's Father Murphy. Again it is a product of the broadside press, which seems to have inspired a more well known rewrite; PJ McCall's Boolavogue. The latter creation may appeal to some, but for me it is hampered by a mixture of histrionics and Victorian convention. By comparison, the broadside ballad rings like a battle cry.
There's some crossed Donnybrook and more through
And some up Shankill without wound or flaw
And if Barry Lawless be not a liar
There's more went groaning up Luggelaw
To the Windmill Hill of Enniscorthy
The British Fencibles they ran like deer
But our ranks were tattered and sorely scattered
By the loss of Kyan and his shelmaliers.
Barry Lawless is not a name familiar to me and I wonder whether the individual referred to might have been John Lawless, a Dublin leader of the United Irishmen, whose part in the uprising was somewhat less than creditable. Whether or no, he knew how to express a fine sentiment.
Not all the songs are so forthright. British folksong enthusiasts will note the similarity between the Wexford lament, Bagenal Harvey's Farewell and the Northumbrian Jacobite song, Derwentwater's Farewell. The former presumably grew out of the latter, but how is something of a mystery. Derwentwater never seems to have circulated much outside of its native North Country. So far as I am aware, the song never existed in oral tradition, although the melody certainly did, it being a great favourite among Northumbrian pipers. In fact Derwentwater did not see print until 1821, when it was published as part of Hogg's Jacobite Relics, and was subsequently included in Stokoe and Bruce's Northumbrian Minstrelsy of 1882. The editors of that collection say that the song was sent to Hogg by Mr Surtees of Mainsforth, and they claim him as the author. The CD booklet identifies Bagenal Harvey as a traditional piece, by which is meant that no authorship has been established. In fact, the piece has been turned up in the folk tradition of Wexford, but sounds to me as though it could have originated as a literary composition.
All of which makes me wonder whether a copy of Jacobite Relics found its way into the hands of some literary soul in the south east corner of Ireland. Whether or no, I was surprised to find that the performer of the piece is not Paddy Berry, the Wexford singer and collector, who first brought it to the notice of the outside world. Instead, it is sung by Seán Garvey of Caherciveen, Kerry. It is an admirable performance. Garvey is one of the few singers left who performs in the authentic sean-nós style of West Kerry and I look forward to hearing his forthcoming CD. Incidentally, although it is here sung to Derwentwater, Bagenal Harvey is normally associated with a completely different air.
Getting back to the broadsides, the high quality of a substantial number of Irish creations is an interesting puzzle, for broadsides generally are a byword for doggerel and dross. True, the Irish street press contains its share of 'veritable dunghills'. Yet a substantial number of Irish political broadsides rise so far above the norm that I am forced to ponder the reason. I think the answer ties in with another peculiarity of '98; the fact that so few Gaelic songs celebrate the event. There are two songs in Irish on this disc. They do not complete the total, but neither do they fall far short of it. Both pieces come from Waterford and owe a debt to Nioclás Tóibín, the late master of Waterford sean-nós, although neither are actually sung by him. An Croppy Lie Down turns out not to be a piece of Gaelic loyalism. It is in fact a satirical attack on the loyalists, by a man who longs for the day when Bonaparte arrives and he will no longer have to listen to Croppy Lie Down. It is sung in superb fashion by Éamon Ó Bróithe, a Dublin man who has steeped himself in the singing traditions of Southeast Munster. His style rests heavily on Tóibín, yet it is something Ó Bróithe has made entirely his own.
The other song, Sliabh na mBan, is a veritable tour de force, which celebrates a battle on the slopes of the mountain of that name in South Tipperary. At nine and a quarter minutes it is not all that long, at least not by sean-nós standards, but it has an air of heroic proportions. The song was one the cornerstones of Tóibín's repertoire and it took up the entire side of an extended play record he once made for Gael Linn of Dublin. Even so, two verses had to be omitted. Here, at last, it is committed to record in its entirety.
Why, in a land where the vast majority of people were Irish speakers, did the rising produce so few songs in Gaelic? The question seems all the more odd when we compare the harvest with that other failed enterprise, the Scots Jacobite rebellion of 1745. There, the involvement of a large number of Gaelic speakers, produced such a flood of songs that the antiquarian, John Lorne Campbell, published no less thirty-one of them. In part, the paucity of Gaelic '98 songs is due to the fact that much of the rebellion took place in areas where English was the first spoken language. But what of Mayo and Southeast Munster? Both regions were Irish speaking. Both played a large part in the insurrection and both might have been expected to celebrate the event in song.
In the writing of Irish political songs generally, we can identify three potential classes of author. First, there were the learned antiquarians, people like PJ McCall, John Keegan Casey and Charles Kickham. They loved their country and its people, and they hated the tyranny which ground them down and they said so in song. Frequently, their ideologies and sympathies combined with their knowledge of Ireland's history, leading them to versify events retrospectively. Then there were the broadside poets, who reported contemporary and near contemporary events, much as a modern journalist does. If that suggests a motivation less worthy than the one which fired the first group, it does not show in their utterances. Finally there were the folk, the fishers and farmers of Ireland, whose songs reflected their education and horizons. The folk tend not to make up songs on great events, or if they do, the event frequently serves as a backdrop to the immediate situation. In the words of the Kentucky songwriter and union organiser, Aunt Molly Jackson: "The folks composes there own songs about there own lives an there home folks that live about them". The Kentucky education system may have deprived Aunt Molly of the ability to spell, but it did not deprive her of insight or intelligence.
A look at Campbell's collection reveals that the songs were mostly made by professional bards in the service of clan chiefs of the Scottish Highlands. Irish clan society had maintained a similar class of poet, but the fortunes of this group took a drastic downturn when the native aristocracy was dispossessed by Cromwell. By the time '98 occurred, professional Gaelic poets were a spent force in Ireland. Also, there were no antiquarians writing songs in Irish, neither was there a Gaelic broadside press. A few Gaelic songs appeared on broadsides but I am not familiar with any which had a connection with '98. Moreover, the spelling of them is often so bad that they appear to have been written down phonetically by people who knew no more Irish than did Aunt Molly Jackson. As far as Gaelic '98 songs are concerned, therefore, they are few in number because there was nobody around to write them.
Even so, the invective of the Gaelic bards may have been heaped on the heads of the English by proxy. I haven't the facility to read these notables in their original language. However, the rhetoric of poets like Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabheáin, or Dáibhí Ó Bruadair, or Eibhlín Dubh ní Chonall, said to have been responsible for the monumental Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (The Lament for Art O'Leary), is very reminiscent of songs like Father Murphy. As further evidence of Gaelic influence I would cite the fortunes of the aisling, or vision poem. The aisling began its existence as a type of literary love poem, before being adapted in the eighteenth century as a weapon to berate the English. The political aisling does not exist as a creation of the folk, either in Irish or English. Yet, the device of a poet dreaming of a beautiful woman, who turns out to be the soul of Ireland, is extremely common in eighteenth century literary Gaelic, and it also emerges as a cornerstone of nineteenth century broadside balladry. (See Ireland's Green Shore in Musical Traditions’ Hammons Family article).
I think this is why some of these broadside pieces show such merit. They were written by people who stood in the shadow of the professional Gaelic poets of an earlier era, and who would doubtless have continued the tradition in that language had things been different. These people wrote, and largely thought, in English. But their poetry, in terms of the way it was structured and what said, was Gaelic.
Which brings me to an odd question; why was this disc issued? The obvious answer is to acclaim the rising of 1798. That makes it a timely celebration and a welcome one for two reasons. Firstly, the remembrance has been overshadowed by the commemoration of an even greater catastrophe, the potato famine. Secondly, one effect of the English education system has been to hide from the English just how appalling was the British imperial presence, not just in Ireland, but anywhere the sun happened to set. For the matter of that, few English people have even the clumsiest grasp of the significance of popular memory in terms of fuelling the present conflict. It is a pity then that, as a historical or social document I found it wanting. First of all, while the immediate circumstances of the songs are described in reasonable detail, there is no attempt to put them into the wider context of the rising. Indeed, the songs are not even arranged chronologically. I am sure it is not just people born outside Ireland who would lack the detailed knowledge needed to relate songs and events to the episode as a whole. Also, the source listings could have been more expansive. Where these are known, we are given the original source, be it broadside or author. However, many of the songs were got from singers of the oral tradition and it would have been helpful if these had been identified. It is widely known, for example, that Roddy McCorley was in the repertoire of Joe Holmes of Ballymoney, County Antrim and that the source for Henry Joy was Tom Pháidín Tom Mac Choisdealbha of An Spidéal, Connemara. However, in the case of Jim MacFarland's Blarismooor Tragedy, the notes trace the authorship, in 1797, to one James Garland. I know not who James Garland was and the booklet offers no enlightenment. But did Jim get the song from George Zimmerman's Songs of Irish Rebellion, as I suspect, or could it have been acquired during his collecting trips around Inishowen, Donegal? Such details are more than mere pedantry. It is a matter of courtesy to credit source singers and it is a useful aid to researchers. Moreover, the fact that some of these songs survived in oral tradition, while others did not, may be significant in terms of our understanding popular attitudes towards the rising.
Finally, with popular attitudes in mind, I'd have thought it appropriate for the booklet to give some consideration to the historical implications of 1798. Many people take the view that the conflict of the last thirty years is simply the result of colonial oppression. That is far too simplistic. As much as anything it has been brought about and sustained by a conflux of pre-existing attitudes, Orange, Green, Red, White and Blue. At the start of this review I mentioned my own feelings on imperialism. To extend that point, empires exist and ideologies legitimise them. In Roman times there was no problem. The Romans were better fighters than anyone else and believed themselves entitled to the seizure of any and every polity they could defeat.
However, the British Empire, arising more or less concurrently with the Enlightenment, found it needed to square its existence with the new humanitarian ethos, with the new generation of scientific thinkers, and with the growth of belief in free humanity in a world of free trade. The explosion of scientific learning, which had begun in the eighteenth century and was carried forward into the nineteenth, meant that scientists had uncovered a universe which was ordered and structured by immutable laws. In the view of science such laws applied to all matter and all societies, natural and human. They argued that laws existed which governed the organisation of mankind and of human social progress, and that perceived differences, in human behaviour and types of social organisation, were the results of differential rates of progress. To the Victorians, these arguments were the perfect justification for their imperialist aspirations. In essence, the Victorians felt that science had given them a rationale for their empire. While certain races were fit to rule, and to enjoy the benefits of free trade, others were not. The British ruling class had been put on earth as benevolent overlords, to rule over those races and classes whom God had left incapable of ruling themselves. One nineteenth century hymn says it all; 'He made them high and lowly and ordered their estate'.
The ideology which cloaked the adventures of Gordon and Kitchener therefore, was one of an ordered world in which God had assigned different places to all the peoples of a peaceable empire. It was called Pax Brittanica and it was absolute bunkum, as the massacres of Cawnpore and Amritsar and the Bloody Sundays of London 1887 and Derry 1972, all witness. Moreover, the scientific precepts on which this was founded have also been shown up as bunkum. Where ability or intelligence, or any other identifiable human traits, are concerned there are no perceivable differences between the various races of humanity. We are all Jock Tamson's bairns. Nevertheless, it fooled large sections of the British working class into chauvinistic acceptance of their position within the empire, and it has bedevilled relations between the ordinary peoples of Ireland and England ever since. For the matter of that, it has bedevilled relations within the island of Ireland. The so-called loyalists feed off exactly the same ideology whilst conveniently forgetting the part their ancestors played in 1798.
The rebellion of the United Irishmen, bourgeois as it now appears, was in fact founded on the same Enlightenment philosophies which were used to legitimise the British Empire. Their purpose, however, was infinitely more noble. It was not one of division or subjection, or enslavement, but of unification; a peace process of 1798. At the time of writing, the peace process of 1998 is still on the agenda, although recalcitrant elements on both sides make it look an increasingly shaky prospect. Nevertheless, it remains the best hope in two hundred years, that the dreams of the United Irishmen, for an Ireland united and free and at peace with itself, will one day become reality.
As well as lending support to The Croppy's Complaint, The Four Star Trio can be heard squaring the triangle on the second of these CDs. Their music is extremely hard to fault. It is well played and well arranged and tastefully executed, and it is very well packaged. Moreover, the three musicians, Johnny McCarthy, Con Ó Drisceoil, and Pat Ahern show a lot of experience of playing together. For example, on the polka, Sonny Riordan's, there is some very tight interplay between bouzouki and accordeon. Unfortunately, as one who likes his music meaner than hell, I found very little in it to move me. As with so many modern recordings of traditional music, passion seems to have been sacrificed on the altar of taste and technique.
Besides instrumentals, the disc contains several songs. I can't say I found any of them more exciting than the instrumentals. They consist of a song in Irish, Idir Corcaigh agus Dúghlas - complete with atmospheric flute, The Banks of the Lee, and two recent compositions. The Banks of the Lee is a stalwart of the fleadh competition scene. There its commonality among certain entrants reminds me of Cecil Sharp's observation on All Jolly Fellows that Follow the Plough; "the bad singers often know but little else". I was surprised to hear it on this CD when so many other fine creations languish in obscurity. Of the contemporary pieces, one is a paean of praise to St Finbarr, while the other is about a drunken man being persecuted by a cockroach. Compositions in similar vein to the latter are popular in Irish singing circles and I confess to having penned one or two myself. However, a song which leavens a heavy ballad session can pall very easily on repeated hearing.
I'm sorry I couldn't have been kinder to this disc, and those who think they may disagree can form their own opinion via The Croppy's Complaint. However, Musical Traditions is a magazine for discriminating listeners, used to hearing grassroots music raw and uncompromising. I doubt that stalwart readers would find a lot here to celebrate.
This review by Fred McCormick was originally written in 1998 for Musical Traditions.
 Seán’s first CD, Ón dTalamh Amach (Out of the Ground) appeared on his own Harry Stottle Records in 1998. His second, The Bonny Bunch of Roses, was about to be released at the time of writing this footnote (May, 2003). Ed.