Thursday, 28 November 2013

BRIAN O'HIGGINS Brian na Banban





Image of Frank HarteThe Rebel song tradition is explored by Frank Harte who was born in Dublin and trained as an architect. His introduction to traditional Irish songs came from a chance meeting at a fair in Boyle, Co. Roscommon in the 1940s with a member of Ireland’s ‘travelling’ community who was singing and selling his ballad sheets. Since that chance encounter Frank has been obsessed with songs that tell stories. Over the years he has collected a phenomenal number of Irish ballads that reflect the culture and politics of Ireland.

Songs of rebellion
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Throughout Ireland’s long history of struggle for independence, each of the various uprisings has generated its own collection of songs. These invariably tell the story of Ireland’s troubled history with its more powerful neighbour, Britain, and capture and support the political dreams of the generations who sought an independent nation.
The songs that we are dealing with here are just some of those that were sung during the time leading up to, and including, the Rebellion of 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War.
The introduction of the 1912 Irish Home Rule Bill radicalized politics in Ireland. The detailed facts of the negotiations between the British Prime Minister Asquith and John Redmond the leader of the Irish Nationalist Party at Westminster are adequately dealt with in history books. However, the oral history of that period contained in the songs of the people is given cursory attention by historians.
Shortly after the passing of the Home Rule Bill in parliament, Britain became embroiled in the Great War and Redmond made a political calculation that in time would backfire. He encouraged Irishmen to join the British army in the belief that by showing solidarity with Britain, Westminster would not renege on its home rule commitments. Although Redmond received tremendous support not everyone was prepared to back him. Opposition was soon voiced in the many anti-enlistment songs popular at that time. These derided his call for the National Volunteers to enlist in the British army and fight in France. The Grand Old Dame Britannia is one of many songs which captures the spirit of that opposition.

The Grand Old Dame Britannia

Come all ye scholars saints and bards,
Says the grand old dame Britannia.
Will ye come and join the Irish Guards,
Says the grand old dame Britannia.

Oh, don’t believe them Sinn Fein lies,
And every Gael that for England dies,
Will enjoy ‘Home Rule’ 'neath the Irish skies,
Says the grand old dame Britannia.

Now Johnny Redmond you’re the one,
You went to the front and you fired a gun,
Well you should have seen them Germans run,
Says the grand old dame Britannia.
But if you dare to tread on the German’s feet,
You’ll find a package tied up neat,
A Home Rule badge and a winding sheet,
Says the grand old dame Britannia.
 
Anti-enlistment songs, and later on anti-conscription ones, relied heavily on sarcasm, a device used by ballad makers throughout history because it was considered the only weapon the oppressed had against the powerful. These ballads specialized in lampooning politicians and authority figures who encouraged Irishmen to fight in foreign wars. The figure of the ‘Recruiting Sergeant’ has traditionally been a target for verbal abuse and during the Great War he provided inspiration for many ballads as in this one from Tipperary,

The Recruiting Sergeant

As I was going along the road and feeling fine and larky O,
A recruiting sergeant trim and neat said you’d look fine in khaki O,
The King he is in need of men just read the proclamation O,
The life in Flanders would be fine, for you it would be vacation O.

That may be true I answered back but tell me Sergeant dearie O,
If I had a pack stuck on my back would I look fine and cheery O
The proclamations are alright I have read the last of French’s O,
Well it might be hot in Flanders but its draughty in the trenches O.
 

The recruiting sergeant in Dublin fared no better than his colleague in Tipperary. The Dublin ballad maker Peadar Kearney who wrote many popular songs during this turbulent period, including the Irish national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann, treated the recruiting sergeant in an equally sarcastic manner in his song ‘Sergeant William Bailey.’

Sergeant William Bailey

Sergeant William Bailey was a man of high renown,
Tooral looral looral looral loo,
In search of gallant young recruits he used to scour the town,
Tooral looral looral looral loo,
His face was full and swarthy, of medals he had forty,
And ribbons on his chest red white and blue,
It was he that looked the hero as he made the people stare O,
As he stood on Dunphy’s corner tooral loo.

But alas for human greatness every dog he has his day,
Tooral looral looral looral loo,
And Sergeant William Bailey he is getting old and grey,
Tooral looral looral looral loo,
No longer youths are willing to take his dirty shilling,
And things for him are looking mighty blue,
In spite of fife and drumming no more recruits are coming,
For Sergeant William Bailey tooral loo.

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Peadar Kearney and another popular ballad writer, Brian O’Higgins (Brian na Banban), continued to use the cutting edge of sarcasm to great effect. They used some of their songs to mock the police who at that time were encouraged to learn the Irish language so that they might be able to charge the rebels with making seditious speeches. However, when it came to writing about the ‘Easter Rising,’ Peadar Kearney wrote not about a ‘glorious rebellion’ but in an understated, sarcastic Dublin fashion, referred to the Rising as a row in the town.

The Row in the Town

I’ll sing you a song of a row in the town,
When the green flag went up and the crown rag came down,
‘Twas the neatest and sweetest thing ever you saw,
And they played the best game played in Erin go Bragh.

God rest gallant Pearse and his comrades who died,
Tom Clarke, MacDonagh, MacDermott, McBride,
And here’s to Jim Connolly he gave one hurrah,
And he placed the machine guns for Erin go Bragh.
 

Big moments in history like the 1916 Rebellion do not always provide inspiration for a great ballad. Patrick Pearse, the iconic leader of 1916 is not celebrated in the popular song tradition, yet the labour leader James Connolly is. Why is there a ballad for Connolly but none for Pearse? Perhaps the manner of Connolly’s execution – still suffering from his wounds he was shot sitting in a chair – or perhaps his role as a trade union leader inspired the ballad maker to immortalise him in song.

James Connolly

Where oh where is our James Connolly,
Where oh where can that brave man be,
He has gone to organise the Union,
That working men might yet be free.

Where oh where is the citizen army,
Where oh where can that brave band be,
They have gone to join the great rebellion,
And break the bonds of slavery.
 
The inspiration for a ballad is many and varied. Sometimes it can be a great tragedy, an ambush, a murder or just a simple phrase that sets a chord vibrating. A parish priest from Kilcoo in Co.Down, Canon Charles O’Neill, attended the first sitting of the new Dáil, or parliament, in Dublin in 1919. As the names of the elected members were called out he was moved by the number of times the names were answered by "faoi ghlas ag na Gaill" (locked up by the foreigner). On returning home he wrote one of the finest songs that recounts the story of the 1916 Rebellion.

The Foggy Dew

As down the glen one Easter morn
Through a city fair rode I.
There armed lines of marching men,
In squadrons did pass me by.
No pipe did hum, no battle drum,
Did sound out its loud tattoo.
But the angelus bell o’er the Liffey’s swell,
Rang out through the foggy dew.

Right proudly high over Dublin town
They flung out the flag of war.
‘Twas far better to die ‘neath an Irish sky,
Than at Suvla or Sud el Bar.
And from the plains of royal Meath,
Brave men came hurrying through,
While Britannia’s Huns with their long-range guns,
Sailed into the foggy dew.
 

Perhaps the best known and most widely sung of all the songs of Irish resistance is the one which commemorates the execution of Kevin Barry in Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail on 1st November 1920. Barry was an 18 year-old medical student who joined the Irish Volunteers and was sentenced to death by hanging after he was convicted of the killing of a British soldier. The execution received international attention and many appeals for a reprieve were turned down. The song was written by an anonymous exile in Glasgow and later was heard by a worldwide audience when the great American singer Paul Robeson recorded it.

Kevin Barry

In Mountjoy Jail one Monday morning,
High upon the gallows tree,
Kevin Barry gave his young life
For the cause of liberty.
Just a lad of eighteen summers,
Yet no one can deny,
As he walked to death that morning
He proudly held his head on high.

Just before he faced the hangman,
In his dreary prison cell,
British soldiers tortured Barry
Just because he would not tell
The names of his brave comrades,
And other things they wished to know,
‘Turn informer or we’ll kill you!’
Kevin Barry answered ‘No!’
 

The ballad maker has also recorded the atrocities of the Black and Tans. In many parts of the Republic of Ireland the traveler often comes across small roadside monuments commemorating an ambush or the death of a republican volunteer. If you were to investigate further you would probably discover that there was also a song written to commemorate the same event. In a field in Gortaglanna in County Kerry, there are three crosses bearing the names of Padraic Dalton, Padraic Walsh and Diarmuid Lyons, who were shot by the Black and Tans in the Valley of Knockanure. The song that commemorates their deaths is one of the finest examples of this type of narrative ballad.

The Valley of Knockanure

You may sing and speak about Easter week and the heroes of ninety eight.
Of Fenian men who roamed the glen in victory or defeat,
Of those who died on the scaffold high or outlawed on the moor,
But no word was said of our gallant dead in the Valley of Knockanure.

There was Padraic Dalton and Padraic Walsh they were known both far and wide,
In every house in every town they were always side by side,
A Republic bold they did uphold though outlawed on the moor,
And side by side they bravely died in the Valley of Knockanure.
 

‘The Treaty’ which was signed in London on 6th December 1921, established the ‘Irish Free State’. The republican members of the Dáil opposed it and the resulting Civil War saw old comrades who were previously united in their struggle against British rule now bitterly opposed to each other.
Many of the songs written during the civil war were written by and for those who fought on the republican side. They invariably dealt with the atrocities of the Free State troops and the betrayal of the republican ideal of a thirty-two county Ireland. The song Take It Down From the Mast captures the sense of betrayal felt by those who took up arms against the new state. It is perhaps surprising that one seldom hears a song in praise of the two most outstanding individuals of that time, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera. Nor does one hear a song in praise of the Irish Free State.

Take it Down from the Mast

Take it down from the mast Irish traitors,
The flag we Republicans claim,
It can never belong to Free Staters,
You brought on it nothing but shame.

Then leave it to those who are willing,
To uphold it in war and in peace,
To those who intend to continue,
Until England’s cruel tyranny cease.
 

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