The Age of Revolution in the Irish Song Tradition 1776 to 1815 – Edited by Terry Moylan

The Age of Revolution in the Irish Song Tradition 1776 to 1815 – Edited by Terry Moylan

A review of a significant new anthology of songs, poems and tunes.

The Age of Revolution in the Irish Song Tradition 1776 to 1815, Edited by Terry Moylan
The Lilliput Press in association with Góilín Traditional Singers Club, 168pp

This recently published collection of songs, poems and tunes is both comprehensive and impressive. The core of the book draws on the traditional song literature of the period of the United Irishmen, but the editor has set limits widcr than that. He has covered the forty-plus years from the American Revolution to the defeat, exile and death of Napoleon Bonaparte. And what a rich seam he has tapped.

This was not just an era of revolution in Ireland, Europe and America. It coincided with a significant linguistic development at home. The Irish language, deprived of status under English rule and of patronage, was in decline. There had been a colonial English literature here, of Swift, Goldsmith and others.

These songs were in the first wave of an indigenous Anglo-Irish literature of the people, and they are of interest from this perspective also. But the Irish language is well represented in this collection too, with pieces like ‘Ó Bhean a’ Tí’ and ‘Sliabh na mBan’. Songs of 1798 written by the Young Irelanders, songs written for the Centenary in 1898, and even some more modem compositions are included.

The wealth of material is indeed a blessing, but an editor soon finds out that he or she must make some arbitrary choices if the book is ever to see the light of day. Compromises must have been inevitable in the endeavour to make the work as representative as possible.

In all of this, Terry Moylan has succeeded in producing a book that will undoubtedly become a standard work of reference. There are 157 songs (text and tune), 27 poems (text only) and 25 tunes (music). As is unavoidable in a folk tradition, different texts and versions would have had be to assessed and choices made.

The presentation on an A4 size page has made it possible to introduce to the reader words, music and background simultaneously, as well as many contemporary illustrations. This means that on looking at the open page, which in effect means looking at two pages or an A3 size, one gets the full picture, and the reader is immersed immediately in the song and its background.

Songs like these cannot stand alone or be interpreted or sung in isolation from the events that inspired them. I often feel that singers should explain the background, even in one sentence before they sing. Terry Moylan’s background notes are superb. He has a real feel for the subject and the extensive bibliography reveals the scope and sweep of his research.

We have dance tunes here also that we have all heard over the years. There are set dances like ‘Madame Bonaparte’, jigs like the ‘Kinnegad Slashers’ and ‘Cornwallis’, not to mention the ‘Rights of Man’, ‘Napper Tandy’, the ‘Salamanca’ and ‘General Humbert’s Mistake’.

The Loyalists are here two, with songs like ‘Croppies Lie Down’ and ‘Oliver’s Advice’. And there are songs here that have not been available since the nineteenth century and even some that have never been published before. Thus items that survived so far in the oral tradition are now in print and safe for posterity.

On reading the anthology from the beginning to end, one is struck by the optimism of the earlier songs. Talk of monarchs and help from the Stuarts is gone. Now it is all of democracy, trees of liberty, ‘every man’s your brother’, ‘all will be harmony and peace, and the whole world one nation’.

These new ideas found a ready response in Irish hearts, particularly among Catholics and Presbyterians. The French Republic was invoked, despots would be laid low and justice would prevail. Such idealism inevitably came up against the interests of Britannia and her ruling classes.

The 1798 songs recount deeds of great valour, but these deeds are tinged with a bitter and brutal defeat. The contemporary songs can be both fierce and sad, but later poets like Davis and McCall have the advantage of hindsight and can be more measured and reflective.

There are four songs here on the fate of Henry Joy McCracken, one of the most lovable of the United Irish leaders, who was sold by an informer for fifty pounds, as well as a song writen by himself, ‘The Social Thistle and Shamrock’, expressing a wish for a Gaelic alliance of the Scots and Irish.

It is a pity that the editor did not adopt standardised modern Irish spelling in all of the songs in Irish. Spellings like buidhe, suidhe and truagh are difficult for all except the over-60s. Also, we are told here that Wolfe Tone committed suicide. I doubt if this can be stated beyond question. We have only the word of his jailers for this, and the circumstances of his trial and the refusal of the prison authorities to accept a writ of habeus corpus from the Chief Justice all raise suspicions about the matter.

The editor’s keen eye for detail leads him to see coincidences, like the fact that John Keegan Casey, author of the ‘Rising of the Moon’ was born on 22 August 1846, the anniversary of the French landing in Killala in 1798. By further coincidence it can be noted that General Humbert landed at Killala on his own birthday. He was born on 22 August 1767.

The scope of this work extends to include the defeat and exile of Napoleon in 1815 and his death in 1821. As the editor says when introducing Song No. 170: ‘with this song we move the focus of attention outside Ireland, to the career of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Napoleonic wars.’

The result of this is that almost one-fifth of the songs, Nos. 170 to 209 – some of them of course very fine in both words and music – deal with this period. This may be perceived as giving the book a certain imbalance, especially by those who would regard the later Napoleon as something of a despot himself. Nevertheless, a collector and editor is constrained by whatever is available when collecting the fragments of history.

In his preface, Terry Moylan expresses the hope that the material he has presented will be used again. These songs ‘were written to inspire or entertain, or both … tum off the television and learn a song instead.’

He need have no concerns. There will always be an interest in traditional songs and patriotic ballads. He has done a splendid piece of work. This anthology will rank in importance with Bunting, Petrie and Zimmermann.

First published in JMI: The Journal of Music in Ireland, Vol. 1 No. 3 (March–April 2001), pp. 16–17.

Published on 1 March 2001

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