Pulse of the Bard – An Irishman’s Diary on poet and songwriter PJ McCall

There was a time when patriotic ballads were considered important enough in Irish culture to be taught in our primary schools, and Dubliner PJ McCall, who died 100 years ago on March 8th, wrote some of the most well-known of them.

He was born in March 1861 in Patrick Street in Dublin’s Liberties, the son of John McCall, a publican, grocer and writer, who came from Clonmore, Hacketstown, Co Carlow. The father is of interest in his own right as he wrote stories and poems for the Dublin Journal, Argus Magazine and Catholic Advocate. He wrote a series of essays on the poets of Ireland for Irish Emerald, was friendly with James Clarence Mangan and was the first to publish his work. Irish history and folklore, traditional music and the Irish language greatly interested him, and he was editor of Old Moore’s Almanac from 1874 to 1902.

His son Patrick Joseph attended CBS Synge Street, St Joseph’s Monastery in Harold’s Cross and Catholic University School on Leeson Street Lower.

He started writing poetry at a young age and was published in the Dublin Journal, The Nation, Shan Van Vocht, The Shamrock and in Arthur Griffith’s United Irishman and Sinn Féin. His collections of poems were published under the titles Irish Nóiníns (1894), Songs of Erin (1899), Pulse of the Bard: Cuisle na hÉigse (1904) and Irish Fireside Songs (1911).


He gathered much information on the history and street lore of the old city of Dublin, which was published as In the Shadow of St Patrick’s (1893). Dublin Historical Record published his In the Shadow of Christ Church in 1949-40 and it also published his account of the 19th-century Dublin street rhymer, Michael J Moran, popularly known as Zozimus, the “Blind Bard of the Liberties”, in 1945.

McCall spent his summer holidays in Rathangan, on the south coast of Co Wexford, where his mother, Eliza Newport, came from. There he spent time with local musicians and ballad singers.

His aunt, Ellen Newport, knew a vast amount about local songs and tunes and he carefully recorded what she told him. He also collected other rural tunes, airs and ballads; the National Library of Ireland has 13 volumes of his collections.

Despite his friendship with McCall, Arthur Griffith, in his newspaper United Irishman, called on the voters of Wood Quay to support James Connolly

The Pan-Celtic Society was a literary association formed in Dublin in March 1888 and McCall was a member. There he got to know Katherine Tynan, Michael Cusack and Seamus McManus. When the Irish National Literary Society replaced it, he was chosen as secretary, with Douglas Hyde as president.

In 1901, he married Margaret Furlong, sister of the poet Alice Furlong, and the following year he inherited his father’s business, including becoming editor of Old Moore’s Almanac. Their family home attracted many writers and musicians as visitors.

He was elected a member of Dublin Corporation in 1896 and again in 1902. In the latter election, his opponent was James Connolly. He won 1,425 votes to Connolly’s 341. Despite his friendship with McCall, Arthur Griffith, in his newspaper United Irishman, called on the voters of Wood Quay to support Connolly. When Griffith formed Sinn Féin, McCall represented it on the corporation. He was also a Poor Law Guardian and concerned himself particularly with finding ways to alleviate poverty.

He is best remembered today for some of his patriotic ballads.

One of the most famous, Follow Me up to Carlow, celebrates the victory of Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne over the English at the Battle of Glenmalure in 1580. Two of the ballads that he wrote to commemorate the 1798 Rising in Wexford, Boolavogue and Kelly the Boy from Killanne, also became famous. Arthur Warren Darley, the fiddle and piano player, composer, music teacher and traditional-music archivist, assisted him in putting the Wexford ballads to music, using traditional Irish airs.

Probably his other most famous song is The Lowlands Low, which tells of the departure of a group of Wild Geese (Irish soldiers who had fought under Patrick Sarsfield in the Williamite War and who were allowed to leave Ireland under the 1691 Treaty of Limerick) from Dunmore East in Waterford.

When he retired from his pub and grocery business, he and his wife lived in Sutton on the north Dublin coast. He died at the age of 58 and is buried in Glasnevin. Liam Gaul wrote a book about him, entitled Glory O! Glory O! The Life of PJ McCall, which was published in 2011.

As patriotic ballads went out of fashion and popularity, so too did the memory of those who composed them. PJ McCall made a significant contribution to his country and deserves to be remembered.