Review: The Indignant Muse: Poetry and Songs of the Irish Revolution, 1887-1926

This great, mammoth collection shows how Irish revolutionary writers sang from one hymn sheet, writes Diarmaid Feritter

The Indignant Muse: Poetry and Songs of the Irish Revolution, 1887-1926
The Indignant Muse: Poetry and Songs of the Irish Revolution, 1887-1926
Author: Edited by Terry Moylan
ISBN-13: 9781843516644
Publisher: The Lilliput Press
Guideline Price: €30

I had to lie down after finishing this mammoth book, dizzy from the intensity of the wrath and invective it documents in great, lyrical detail. Such is the range of songs and poems included that, as pointed out in the foreword by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, it “surpasses in scale, variety and historical interest anything that’s been attempted to date . . . clearly this has been a Herculean effort by a lifetime collector of songs with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his material”.

It is difficult to disagree with that assessment; the book is a remarkable achievement and should form part of any serious library of the revolutionary period. It is also a monument to the research endeavours of historian, piper and archivist Terry Moylan, who managed to find over 1,000 songs and poems in over 300 sources. This collection includes roughly half of that trove, including many from the Samuels Collection in Trinity College Dublin which contains much contemporary printed ephemera from Ireland a century ago, the sort of material considered seditions and confiscated by the Royal Irish Constabulary, many of which have not been printed since their capture.

A very modest Liam McNulty has provided many of the contextual notes and informative and concise commentaries but preferred not to be credited on the cover.

Some puzzlement might be expressed at the dates the collection spans, given that 1887 is not a year that stands out in the Irish revolutionary calendar, but it was the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee and nationalists had plenty to reflect on in relation to the impact of her reign on Ireland and "Erin's tear-clad story" in the words of Thomas O'Hagan's A Jubilee Ode, 1887: Modified by Irish Circumstances.

For obvious reasons, this collection is a complete antidote to the focus in recent times by historians on complicating the narrative of the Irish revolution. By their nature, poems and songs of a revolutionary era are going to do anything but complicate; or, in Moylan's words, they are full of self-righteous certainty and highlight "the tendency to see all matters in absolute terms. No shades of grey here!" As George Zimmerman pointed out nearly 60 years ago in his Songs of Irish Rebellion, they were more about "confirming people in their own already existing attitudes".

The extent of the "no compromise" message is apparent from the outset; the title of a poem by Arthur Forrester, which tells of the reaction of a sister of a soldier killed with the Royal Irish Regiment in Egypt, is Served Him Right: "I have no tears for brother Pat . . . the foes he fought were not his own."

Arthur Griffith responded poetically to British imperialism in Africa in The Song of the British 'Ero by parodying the cockney diction of Rudyard Kipling. Irish involvement in the Boer wars generated much verse, while later, marching songs for the Irish Volunteers became increasingly common, including Felix McGlennon's We're Building for Ireland Now: "We have followed the Flag, ay, for many weary years / But we're building for Ireland now!"

Maeve Cavanagh, described by James Connolly as "the poetess of the revolution", was remarkably prolific and published much in the contemporary radical press, including in The Workers' Republic where Outward Bound was unveiled in January 1916: "The tide is full – why wait we here/ Is there no fearless one to steer?"

Patrick O'Brien's England's Downfall was "dedicated to the traitors, recruiting agents, lickspittles and bedwetters of Bantry Bay" and was a "tour-de-force of invective" which would "merit a place in any compilation of comic verse".

Neither was there any shortage of wishful thinking, as seen in Jim Connell's The Class War: "Hurra! For the Red Revolution / 'Twill come when the Bushes are Green."

Labour and class conflict, gun running in 1914 and the home rule question provided no shortage of material for the songsters, while the First world war, as well as witnessing the "fighting Irishman" theme of Irish-American vaudeville song exploited for recruiting purposes, also generated its own visceral and often moving pieces, including poems from Brian O'Higgins, as seen in When Tommy Comes Marching Home:

With half a leg and a pair of toes

A twisted head and a broken nose,

We’ll wash every workhouse ward,

When Tommy comes limping home.

The moving poetry of Tom Kettle is also afforded space, as is material from Patrick Macgill's Soldier's Songs:

I dream of the grasses the dew-drops drench

But here I’m kept to the narrow bed

A maimed and broken thing.

WBYeats, of course, looms large, with The Second Coming in 1919 and much else; as his biographer Roy Foster has pointed out, Yeats had an acute sense of knowing how things would appear to people after the event, and "his best known poetry defines for many people the Irish identity which was forged in revolution . . . his own discovery of his voice is often neatly paralleled with his country's discovery of independence".

Less well known are the mock heroic songs of Seán O'Casey, which get a good airing here as do other clever parodies; O'Casey was fond of lampooning British war propaganda, as seen in The Divil's Recruitin' Campaign and I Don't believe it, Do You?

The 1916 Rising and the executions in its wake were like a lottery win for balladeers as well as allowing the work of The poets of the Revolution to travel far and wide; Connolly, Pearse, MacDoangh and Plunkett had all produced work that poured scorn on the moderates, while Thomas Ashe ramped up the piety in Let me Carry Your Cross for Ireland, Lord, written in Lewes Jail in 1916. His own death from force-feeding in prison the following year generated more songs, as did the fate of so many of his fallen comrades, while the women of the revolution were sanitised to the utmost, as seen in The Cumann na mBan, by Phil O'Neill:

Sweet Modes of propriety

Models of piety

Cream of Society, Cumann na mBan.

Fourteen poems were published anonymously in 1917 to raise funds for the prisoners’ families; introducing them, Fr Patrick Browne wrote: “It is to be hoped that the public will respond generously, not so much for the sake of the poems themselves as for the cause they are intended to help.” That was probably just as well, given the awfulness of the verse, including Browne’s own effort:

The Passionate Dark Rose whose strange surprise

Of beauty nerved them to their enterprise.

The execution of Roger Casement also prompted numerous laments, from Yeats, Teresa Brayton, Padraic Colum and Sigerson Clifford: “Enough we slept while Casement wept on lonely Banna Strand.”

The prison experience during the War of Independence also provided the time and the stimulus to generate verse and songs as did individual ambushes and the death of volunteers such as Seán Treacy and Kevin Barry: “Shoot me like an Irish soldier, Do not Hang me like a Dog,” called the chorus of Barry, later recorded by American singer Paul Robeson.

The Black and Tans were mocked to the tune of "I'm forever blowing bubbles", with the line "I'm forever chasing Shinners" in the song Black and Tan, found in the Ernie O'Malley collection in New York University.

Almost any incident could generate a song; there is even The Night Darrell Figgis Lost His Whiskers, the product of an assault on Darrell Figgis; when he stood as a pro-Treaty candidate for the Dáil in 1922, his cruel attackers cut off half his beloved red beard ("More power to your whiskers sir, this will be our refrain").

Laments for Michael Collins, including The Laughing Boy by Brendan Behan also feature: "So strong, so wild and brave he was, I'll mourn his loss too sore."

While the depth of republican passion produced much Civil War verse, songs in praise of the Treaty were a rarity, though the book finishes with this little rhyme:

Oh Lord above,

Send down a dove

With beak as sharp as razors

To cut the throats

Of the dirty louts

That shot our brave Free Staters!

It is fitting that the book ends on a violent note, but this final verse is also a reminder of the reworking of so much material; an earlier version of the verse during the War of Independence also referred to the dove being sent down but with different targets:

To cut the throats

of the English dogs

Who shot our Irish leaders!

At the time of the 25th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, Donagh MacDonagh, son of the executed 1916 leader Thomas, and also an accomplished poet, wrote in The Bell magazine that the ballads of 1916 included sarcastic malice, suave satire, passion, emotion, strength and determination, but that there were also many with "that foolish quality which makes the most tragic events silly, humorous or pathetic".

This collection confirms that assessment can be applied to the songs and poems of the revolutionary period generally, but it does so in unprecedented detail, which is to be lauded. The poems and songs document the importance of the oral and musical traditions; the original creations but also the degree to which both domestic and foreign ballads and verse could be adapted, subverted and updated.

Moylan has performed a great service in underlining the extent of this form of nationalism during these tumultuous decades; the inclusion of contemporary illustrations and the music scores for 179 of the songs for which airs are known adds to its richness.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. His latest book is A Nation and not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913-23 (Profile Books)

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter, a contributor to The Irish Times, is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. He writes a weekly opinion column