The Felons of Our Land – Frank McNally on the various lives of a republican ballad

 

In the dusty archives of The Irishman’s Diary recently, I chanced upon a short but fascinating correspondence from the 1920s. It started when the writer mentioned his surprise one night while listening to a BBC radio lecture about British military music.

This had mentioned the regimental march of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, entitled “The Lower Castle Yard”, which made the Diarist think of Dublin Castle. Then they played it, and to his “utter astonishment” it turned out to be the music of an Irish rebel song, The Felons of Our Land.

As a follow-up letter revealed, the British regiment in question was then stationed in “Burma”, where the sun had not yet set on empire. But it seemed troops there were marching to a song that, in Ireland at least, celebrated sedition: “Let cowards mock and tyrants frown, ah little do we care/A felon’s cap is the noblest crown an Irish head can wear.”

Well might the Diarist have been astonished, because although the ballad dated from the Fenian years (and concerned the deportees of an earlier uprising, 1848), it had undergone a revival after 1916.  This despite the increased risks anyone singing it then faced.

In 1917, for example, a group of Dublin men were court-martialled under the Defence of the Realm Act over a concert at which they performed songs, including the aforementioned, “calculated to cause disaffection among His Majesty’s subjects”.

Defence argued that “The Felons” had been sung publicly for decades, without action, and asked if the meaning of sedition changed “with the weather or with the seasons?” But the political weather was changing then. In September 1918, after another court-martial, one John O’Sheehan of Roscommon was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for a performance of the song.

This was raised in the House of Commons, when MPs asked the Solicitor General for Ireland, Denis Henry, if there was a law now against “amateur singing”.

Henry confirmed the sentence, noting the defendant had previous convictions of a non-musical kind. As to suggestions that the ballad had been heard here for “50 years” and that he was only increasing its popularity, he said he knew nothing of the song’s history “and I am not aware that it is popular”.

Well, it was popular enough a few years later to provoke the puzzlement of The Irishman’s Diary. But it emerged that the confusion arose from a well-known phenomenon in Irish and British folk music: the recycling of old tunes. 

The matter was subsequently clarified by one Denis Devereux, a publisher who had included the Felons in a book of patriotic songs 30 years before.

According to him, the lyrics had been written circa 1868 by an Arthur M Forrester “who, by the way, was a proof-reader once on the Irish Times”. The song had since changed musical settings as frequently as an escaped republican prisoner swapping safe houses.

In the 1890s, it was given the tune of Auld Lang Syne. Devereux had recommended “Ireland Boys Hurrah” instead. But after 1916, “the younger generation sang it to the air of ‘Irish Molly O’”, which had since stuck.

He could not, however, enlighten anyone as to how the air had been recruited by the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. Perhaps there were Bucks of an Irish kind involved.

Arthur Forrester is listed in some collections as being born in Monaghan, which if true (and if Devereux’s detail about his proof-reading is reliable), would make him part of a small but select body of people from that county to have infiltrated The Irish Times.

But in a biographical dictionary of poets, I find he was born in Salford (the “Dirty Old Town” of song) in 1850, and died 45 years later in Boston, where he had been a proof-reader for the Herald.

In between, during a short, eventful life, he had spent time in Dublin, been jailed for Fenian activities, went to France, fought in the Franco-Prussian War, and then returned to Ireland long enough to be implicated in the Phoenix Park Murders, before emigrating to the US.

It was his mother, Ellen Forrester, also a poet of the patriotic kind, who was born in Clones. And Arthur was only one of three of her offspring to feature in the dictionary, along with his sisters Fanny and Mary Magdalene.  

They were well surnamed. The Irish National Foresters (one “r”, no relation) was a popular benevolent society of the period, whose Dublin headquarters became a hive of political activity during the revolutionary years. The seditious concert of 1917, just to confuse things – or keep proof-readers on their toes – was in the Foresters’ Hall.

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