Tuesday 28 January 2020

From Amhran na bhFiann to The Foggy Dew - the songs of 1916


The US TV musical The Bloody Irish! Songs of the 1916 Rising
The US TV musical The Bloody Irish! Songs of the 1916 Rising
Peadar Kearney
Thomas Moore

For the Great Gaels of Ireland

Are men that God made mad,

For all their wars are merry

And all their songs are sad

G.K. Chesterton, a sparring partner of George Bernard Shaw, wrote those lines in 1911, five years before the Easter Rising.

If he was around today, he'd no doubt recognise how the Rising and subsequent War of Independence revived a ballad-writing tradition which grew to become a lucrative commercial goldmine.

There was already an extensive repertoire of patriotic songs in circulation before 1916. The ballad tradition stretched back centuries and provided memorable social media content that was both educational and entertaining in an age prior to the development of radio, television and the internet.


Ballads formed a repository of history, story-telling and political comment for those who could neither read nor write. In Ireland in the nineteenth century, a store of patriotic songs and rebel yells formed the cultural currency of an impoverished population.

The power of political ballads to motivate and rally the public had long been acknowledged. In 1788, an English minister of the church spoke of "…one of the more striking instances of the power of poetry, a Greek political ballad, which used to be sung by the Athenian liberty-boys, at all their jolly drinking bouts, and by the mob and the ballad singers, in the street and the alleys of the city."

Echoes of that scenario can be heard today at international football matches when the crowd invoke a sense of patriotism by singing 'The Fields of Athenry', Pete St John's modern epic on the Great Famine.

A hundred years ago, there were plenty of singalongs to set hearts beating faster with patriotic pride.

Before the Easter Rising, the song that was regarded as the nationalist anthem was 'God Save Ireland', a ballad written a Corkman who became the Lord Mayor of Dublin.

TD Sullivan had been inspired to write his song by Edward O'Meagher Condon's speech from the dock in the trial of the Manchester Martyrs.

The song that replaced it in the affections of nationalist Ireland was written as a marching song for the Volunteers by Peadar Kearney.

An uncle of Brendan and Dominic Behan, Kearney was an enthusiastic ballad composer. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1903 and his songs were hugely popular with his colleagues.

His composition 'The Soldiers' Song' was written specifically to galvanise the rebels and was later adopted as the national anthem with a translation, 'Amhran na bhFiann', by Liam Ó Rinn.

Among Kearney's other songs were 'The Bold Fenian Men', 'Erin Go Bragh' and the popular anti-recruiting song 'Sergeant William Bailey'.

He also reworked an old English ballad as 'The Tri-Coloured Ribbon'.

During the War of Independence, Kearney was interned in Ballykinlar Camp with, among others, my grandfather Seamus Ginnity.

There are other songs directly associated with those tumultuous days of political and social upheaval prior to the foundation of the modern state.

Fans who've attended Conor McGregor's big fights in Las Vegas tell of the spine-tingling effect 'The Foggy Dew' had on all present as it signalled the Dubliner's march to combat.


While many Irish people are familiar with the song since childhood, not all know that it was written three years after the Easter Rising by Canon Charles O'Neill, a priest from Co Down, who attended the first sitting of the Dáil in Dublin's Mansion House.

Struck by the number of times he heard the response "faoi ghlas ag na Gaill" (locked up by foreigners) as the elected names were read out, he was moved to write a song.

Of course, there had been rebellions before 1916 and men and women who'd made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. These prompted many of the songs that would have lifted the spirits of those nationalists who followed Pearse and Connolly.

It's an exhaustive list that includes 'The Rising of the Moon', 'Kelly the Boy from Killane', 'The Wearing of the Green', 'The Croppy Boy' and 'The Boys of Wexford'. All of these commemorate the doomed rebellion of the United Irishmen in 1798.

'O'Donnell Abu' celebrated Red Hugh O'Donnell who died in Spain in 1602. Patrick Pearse added new verses to the old Jacobite march 'Oro Se Do Bheatha 'Bhaile', which was also sung during the Rising.

The most prolific writer of Irish songs before Peadar Kearney was Thomas Moore. His enduring ballad 'The Minstrel Boy' was also inspired by 1798. 'Shall the Harp Then Be Silent' was written on the death of Henry Grattan.

Other notable songs with a patriotic undertow are 'Let Erin Remember the Days of Old', 'The West's Awake', 'The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls' and 'Song of the Battle Eve'.

From Black 47 to the Wolfe Tones, you can find a number of songs about 'James Connolly'. Cork poet James Galvin's account is the one which attracted the great custodians of tradition Liam Weldon, Frank Harte and Christy Moore.

Grace Gifford married James Plunkett hours before his execution - her story is recalled in the song 'Grace', written in 1985 by Sean and Frank O'Meara and brought to prominence by Jim McCann.

A century after the Rising, the songs keep coming.

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