Not all that traditional – Satire and song in Irish historical debates

The recent publication of Niall Meehan’s article “Examining Peter Hart” in the 2014 issue of Field Day Review looks like one of the first volleys in the decade of centenaries on the long running historiographical debate about Hart’s work and the War of Independence. Because of Hart’s unfortunate passing in 2010 the fundamental flaws Meehan highlights will have to be answered by his supporters rather than the man himself. Meehan puts forward a strong argument, particularly regarding the Kilmichael Ambush, and on that topic it is possible that this first volley may also be the last. Time will tell. In this post we’ll concentrate on the last paragraph of Meehan’s article which contains a song titled A New Revenge for Skibbereen sung to the air of The Galtee Mountain Boy, a popular nationalist/republican song:

‘Twas in the month of April, in the year of ‘22
We took it out on the Protestants; we could only catch a few
In Bandon and Dunmanway, Kinsale and Skibbereen
Their colour it was Orange and they trampled on the Green

Old Buttimer came down quaking ‘What do you want’?, says he
‘Come out or we’ll make ye, we want your drapery’
The missus tried to argue ‘Go to bed old women’, says we
We sprayed his brains with bullets that Ireland might be free

We visited Tom Bradfield, we dressed up in Khaki
Says he, ‘You’re welcome officers,’ a fine snug farm had he
We gave him a grand court martial, and sentenced Tom for to die
We tried a note around his neck, it read ‘convicted spy’

Farewell to all ye Protestants, so prim and dry and tight
Ye thought ye owned old Ireland, yet ye fled without a fight
From Bandon and Dunmanway, Kinsale and Skibbereen
Ye scuttled out of the County Cork and never since was seen

‘Twas revenge for Skibbereen

Professor David Fitzpatrick sang this song at the annual Parnell Lecture in January 2013 at Cambridge. To a non-Irish audience the song might appear to be a genuine republican song, however anyone familiar with Irish songs would immediately recognise it as a strange sort of impersonation of popular ballads. Meehan described the piece as “sectarian doggerel,” and he is certainly correct musically, since there exists no republican song from the War of Independence that talks so specifically about those killed, so graphically about the dead, or frames the conflict as a sectarian struggle. After the performance Fitzpatrick was questioned by his audience and he admitted that he wrote the song the morning before the lecture.

While there have been many other historian balladeers, for example John A. Murphy, and while the retired UCC historian is widely known to hold a vast repertoire of songs that he happily employs at any occasion these are traditional songs, not songs he has written himself. This might mark the first time a historian waded into a historical topic utilizing the music of the historiographical camp he is opposed to in order to both ridicule it and put forward his own position. However for a professional historian to write such a unusual and biased account of a sensitive historical event, even in verse (and perhaps jokingly) is at least a little disconcerting; not least because the case that the War of Independence was a sectarian one remains unproven. As Meehan firmly concludes in his article, “Southern Protestants did not in general experience sectarian attacks because republicans did not generally engage in them.”

An interesting companion to the above song might be The Gentle Black and Tan by the late Breandan O hÉithir which refers to the aforementioned revisionist historian John A. Murphy in the final verse. As a “Come all ye” it fit into a long tradition of Irish sing-songs. A famous collection of such songs by Manus O’Conor is available for free at archives.org.

Come all you staunch revisionists
And listen to my song,
It’s short and it’s unusual
And it won’t detain you long.
It’s all about a soldier
Who has carried history’s can,
Who dodged Tom Barry and Dan Breen
The gentle Black and Tan.

‘Twas the curse of unemployment
That drove him to our shore.
His jacket black and trousers tan
Like a badge of shame he wore.
“Subdue the rebel Irish
And shoot them when you can!”
“May God forgive me if I do,”
Prayed the gentle Black and Tan.

The burning of Cork city
Was indeed a mighty blaze.
The jewellers’ shops were gutted
Not before the spoils were shared.
Gold and silver ornaments,
Rings and watches for each man,
“But I only struck the matches,”
Said the gentle Black and Tan.

Croke Park and Bloody Sunday
Was our hero’s greatest test.
The spectators on the terraces
Nigh impossible to miss.
With salt tears his eyes were blinded
And down his cheeks they ran,
So he only shot Mick Hogan
The gentle Black and Tan.

So take heed you blinkered Nationalists
Fair warning take from me.
If you want to live in safety
And keep this land at sea.
Take heed of our three heroes
Murphy, Edwards and Yer Man,
Who will sing the fame and clear the name
Of the gentle Black and Tan.

The parody portrays the First World War veterans who enlisted for service in Ireland as victims in a obvious feign of sincerity. The Auxiliaries are not mentioned, the ex-officers who were famously paid a pound a day for joining up, although this is not surprisingly as the psuedo-police forces were generally referred to as the Tans by the locals. Revisionist historians have tended to brush over British atrocities in Ireland in their efforts to demolish nationalist myths about the War of Independence and thus the song seeks to humorously place side by side the ‘minor’ actions of the Black and Tan in order to highlight the outrageous criminality involved in both the Burning of Cork City (actually begun by the Auxiliaries of K Company) and shooting dead of innocents at Croke Park during Bloody Sunday.

As to the other two figures mentioned in the song, the “Edwards” referred to is Ruth Dudley Edwards who writes the odd piece for the Telegraph. The “Yerman” might refer to several people, most believe it is Peter Hart but this is unlikely as O hÉithir passed away in 1990, slightly before Hart arrived on the scene. It might refer to Kevin Myers, but the most likely candidate is Eoghan Harris, a contrarian who writes for the Sunday Independent.

Leading on from Harris it is worth noting this interesting example of reinterpreting narratives though not in song this time, and in a fictional universe to boot (although I’m putting it on this blog as technically it was historical. “A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far Far Away…”) a certain wag on a sadly defunct satirical website called The Shankill Moaner, decided to critique Eoghan Harris’s venomous comments about The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) in the following way:

Last night I watched on DVD the recently released Star Wars film The Solar Wind That Shakes The Banthas which supposedly is an heroic account of life in the Star Wars galaxy during an utterly disgraceful ‘struggle‘ for independence from an ‘evil‘ empire, and I have to say that its disgusting and uncalled for one-dimensional portrayal of the Stormtroopers as villains and fiends to a man had me spluttering with moral indignation into my wine glass. Yes, I will admit that some members of the Stormtrooper regiment were no angels but the representation of them all in this piece of leftist propaganda as foul, murdering thugs is beneath contempt, as is the film’s cowardly refusal to show the so-called ’resistance fighters’ of the self-styled ’Rebel Alliance’ (in reality a terrorist plot led by pseudo-fascist extremists with no mandate from the people) with the sharpened, blood-stained fangs and gnarled, hideous claws common to all rebels. There were many good and decent Stormtroopers, as many a fair-minded wookie who lived through that period can attest to, and to show not one of them as the gentle, kind, conflicted souls that they really were is a staggering evil which has no parallel anywhere in the whole history of space and ti…(cont. every week for the next ten years).

Moving back to the traditional nationalist songs the singer Jimmy Crowley requested that Cork poet Patrick Galvin write an additional verse to The Boys of Kilmichael “to dispatch a broadside in the direction of the historical revisionists” because “songs from the War of Independence have become so frowned upon in post-modern Ireland that young people are being denied any recourse to national pride, landscape, legends or any form of heroism, all very necessary components of the Irish psyche.” Most people would likely argue that the Irish psyche has more often had too much national pride rather than too little and that perhaps young people refuse to believe in heroism thanks to the limited bravery demonstrated by our present-day leaders, rather than the actions of a few revisionist historians. The added verse is as follows:

There are some who will blush at the mention
Of Connolly, Pearse and McBride
And history’s new scribes in derision
The pages of valour deny
But sure here’s to the boys who cried, Freedom!
When Ireland was nailed to the mast
And they fought with Tom Barry’s bold column
To give us our freedom at last

It is very similar to the first verse, which itself is surprisingly self-aware that it is a part of a nationalist traditional of honouring “in song and in story” the heroes of the Irish independence movement. I can’t say I’m very fond of it, the subject it is supposed to rebuff, “history’s new scribes” who are dismissed with a blithe “But sure.” Does this dismissal actually prove them wrong in any way? It’s more like an attempt at ignoring them. Also the repetition of freedom appears forced, while “nailed to the mast” just feels like the wrong phrase to use in this context. Is it a reference to the British navy, or the Union Jack? Either way to refer to Ireland’s subjugation in the last verse of a song celebrating one of the greatest victories of the rebels against the crown forces is a little strange. Perhaps I expect too much from a few brief lines.

As the historical debates continue it seems certain that more new “songs” and verses will emerge during the decade of centenaries. I, for one, hope that Pat Shortt decides to turn his attention towards the debates. Now that would be a cracking tune whatever side of the debate it came down on.

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About Alan Noonan

Alan Noonan is currently a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He received his PhD in history from University College Cork, and has experience as a historical consultant and researcher. He has been awarded several fellowships including the Glucksman Government of Ireland Fellowship at New York University, a Mellon Fellowship at the Library Company in Philadelphia, and a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American History.
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