Balladry in English

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Balladry in English

The ballads or popular songs of nineteenth-century Ireland, as elsewhere, included songs of place, love songs, comic or bawdy compositions, and narratives of shipwrecks, battles, and executions. But those most popular among both the Catholic majority and the loyal Protestant population dealt with the local community in conflict with the authorities or with another hostile community, or with other political subjects.

Types of Ballad

Political ballads in nineteenth-century Ireland were of three main types. First, there were Irish compositions, generally transmitted orally or in manuscript. The second type was the street ballad, usually an anonymous composition in English (or, infrequently, in Irish), printed on broadsheet by jobbing printers like Haly of Cork or Brereton of Dublin, and sung in public places by traveling singers. The third was the patriotic song composed in English as propaganda by groups or individuals committed to a particular political cause, and published in either newspapers or in specially produced songbooks.

The common characteristic of all ballads was thematic simplicity. Typically, a ballad was based on a single incident and underdeveloped characters, and focused on narrative rather than analysis. It made no attempt to challenge its audience's majority value system. Precisely because of this thematic simplicity, and because its main audience was among the poorer, disaffected sections of society, the ballad was a powerful expression of and shaper of contemporary popular feeling and therefore was regarded by the authorities and by respectable society as disruptive.

The Disruptive Power of Street Ballads

The ballads' power to disturb was threefold. First, by referencing contemporary social distress, millenarian prophecies, and successive O'Connellite reform movements, they fueled popular expectations of great change. Produced within the community, they proved a potent mixture of exciting narrative, emotive words, and familiar airs. Moreover, the mode of their transmission was guaranteed to cause disturbance, sung and sold as they were wherever large crowds gathered, as at fairs, markets, and on the corners of streets.

Second, the ballads were powerful instruments of communal recall, mostly of relatively recent events such as elections, political meetings, or riots. For the Catholic majority, memories that inspired ballads included bloody tithe-war incidents like the killing of a tithe proctor and his police guard at Carrickshock in south Kilkenny in 1831. Among loyalists, ballad memories centered on Orange marches and clashes between Orangemen and their Catholic opponents; the famous incidents at Garvagh in 1813 and at Dolly's Brae in 1849 were typical. Some more long-term recollections, too, proved particularly emotive: the 1798 rebellion, still within living memory in particular areas, was guaranteed to summon phantoms on both sides of the political and religious divide.

Such recall of popular memories was inseparable from the third function of the ballads: the enforcement of communal solidarity through the incitement of popular hostility towards "the enemy." Magistrates, unpopular public representatives, and informers were typical scapegoats, but the main targets were sectarian—either "heretics" or "papists," as time, place, singer, and audience demanded. Territorial and denominational loyalties fused in a powerful sense of identity. Thus one Orange ballad warned its Catholic opponents to: "Stop counting beads and quit midnight parades, / And put on Orange shoes when you come to Kilrea," while a popular ballad from south Leinster in 1835, recalling 1798, proclaimed: "Success to Kildare and Sweet Wexford, / Their children were never afraid!" (McIlffatrick 1995, p. 19; Cronin 2001, p. 124).

Street ballads were most influential before the Great Famine purged Irish society of its most serious social and economic problems, though they still provoked popular feeling over the following half-century, especially during the Fenian scare of the 1860s and early 1870s and during the Home Rule campaign and Land War of the 1880s. Typical was the Dublin ballad of 1883 targeting James Carey, who had given evidence against those who had assassinated Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke in Phoenix Park in 1882: "May every buck flea from here to Bray / Jump through the bed he lies on, / And by some mistake may he shortly take / A flowing pint of poison" (Zimmermann 1967, p. 283).

The Emergence of the Patriotic Song

By the 1890s the patriotic song had taken center stage. Sharing the street ballad's one-sidedness and naiveté, and usually of little intrinsic literary merit but extremely emotive when wedded to an appropriate air, this type of song was less a spontaneous reaction to recent events than a deliberately created instrument of politicization. Its genesis can be found in the 1790s when the United Irishmen used song to transmit republican and secular ideas. Many of their compositions, such as "Freedom Triumphant" and "Plant, Plant the Tree," were published and disseminated in Paddy's Resource, which first appeared in Belfast in 1795 and was re-issued in Dublin in 1798. On the other side, loyal Protestants, fearful of the passions unleashed during the 1798 rebellion, responded with songs such as "Croppies Lie Down" and "The Tree of Liberty," the latter effectively turning revolutionary imagery on its head: "Around this fair trunk we like ivy will cling, / And fight for our honour, our country, and king; / In the shade of this Orange none e'er shall recline / Who with murderous Frenchmen have dared to combine" (Zimmermann 1967, p. 310). Political song writing, however, really took off in the 1840s when Thomas Davis, romantic nationalist poet and founder/editor of the Nation newspaper, and the Young Ireland cultural movement which he represented produced song after song proclaiming a nonsectarian nationalism modelled on the ideals of the United Irishmen of the late eighteenth century and on contemporary European romantic nationalism. Emphasizing that a common Irishness must replace the denominational animosities that inspired the street ballads, Young Ireland's songs turned the guns on the "the Saxon," replacing anti-Protestantism with anti-Englishness as the mainstay of popular nationalism: "We hate the Saxon and the Dane, / We hate the Norman men— / We cursed their greed for blood and gain, / We curse them now again" (O'Sullivan 1944, p. 438).

First published in the Nation newspaper, and then in successive editions of the Spirit of the Nation song-book, these songs were initially more limited in their popular impact than the street ballads. But as literacy and popular competence in the English language increased, a retail economy developed, and a more militant popular nationalism and reactive loyalism grew from 1848 onwards, the broadsheet with its single song was supplanted by the song collections of the cheap songbook sold in shops and railway stations. The titles echoed the contents: on the nationalist side, Wearing of the Green Songbook, O'Donnell Abu Songbook, Spirit of 'Ninety-Eight Songbook and, on the loyalist side, The Marching of the Lodges, The Boyne Book of Poetry and Song, and The Protestant Boys' Songbook. However, at times the distinction between the old street ballad and the published political songs was blurred. Davis's songs were sold on broadsheets as late as the 1860s; two decades later, anti-Home Rule broadsheet songs were printed by Nicholson of Belfast; and in the late 1890s old street ballads were rewritten and published to mark the upcoming centenary of the 1798 rebellion.

The centenary compositions and anti-Home Rule songs accelerated the transition from sectarianism and localism to a broader sense of identity. Anti-Home Rulers avoided abuse of "blind-led papists," stressing instead Irish loyalists' staunch and ill-recompensed stand against betrayal: "We've been true to Old England, the land of the brave, / But we'll never submit to be treated like slaves" (Zimmermann 1967, p. 319). On the other side, writers like P. J. McCall and Eithne Carbery emphasized high-minded nationalism, epitomized in the closing stanzas of McCall's "Boolavogue": "God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy, / And open heaven to all your men; / The cause that called you may call tomorrow / In another fight for the green again" (Zimmermann 1967, p. 291). The new songs, unlike the street ballads, were somewhat artificial creations, yet they were still powerful reflectors and shapers of communal memories and political attitudes. Despite the competition of other mass entertainments, they continue to be sung in the twenty-first century, particularly in areas and times of political crisis.

SEE ALSO Davis, Thomas; Duffy, James; Literacy and Popular Culture; Newspapers; Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation; Primary Documents: "God Save Ireland" (1867)


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Maura Cronin