Wednesday 13 December 2017

My 1916: 'Why those haunting ballads of 1916 mean so much to me...'

The songs of the Easter Rising can still be heard in pubs across the country. Graham Clifford hopes they never die

Rebel songs: Graham Clifford, mid-ballad, in the Wagon Tavern, Fermoy, Co Cork
Rebel songs: Graham Clifford, mid-ballad, in the Wagon Tavern, Fermoy, Co Cork

A hush falls over the stout-drinking crowd. 'Respect for the singer' is the code of the country pub and as I lick my lips and close my eyes, my time has come to tell a story through song.

Nestled in a corner of the Wagon Tavern in the Cork town of Fermoy, an area which saw its fair share of fighting and turmoil from 1916 to the end of the Civil War, I flick through the record player in my mind before deciding that a local tune is called for.

There's a pause while the fiddler fixes a string, and as glasses clink in another corner of this fine establishment, the lyrics start to flow.

"I joined the Flying Column in 1916/In Cork with Seán Moylan/In Tipperary with Dan Breen/Arrested by Free Staters and sentenced for to die/Farewell to Tipperary said the Galtee Mountain Boy."

Bodies sway and backing singers come out of the woodwork.

While the ballad, made famous in recent decades by Christy Moore, is predominantly about the Civil War, its roots, as described in the opening line, refer to 1916, like so many such rebel songs.

There's something about the 'Galtee Mountain Boy' which has always intrigued me. It's a song of bravado and purpose, the narrator claiming "we were outlawed but free men", but tinged with the sadness of a young man bidding farewell to the hills that kept him safe.

Indeed all songs of 1916 share these sentiments.

As British forces marched Irish revolutionaries out of a crumbling GPO, the romantic vision of these men and women grew with every step they took. Days later, when Irish rebels were executed, a shocked nation reacted by immortalising these men through song.

Peader Kearney, who wrote 'Amhrán na bhFiann' in 1907, composed 'Erin Go Bragh'.

One verse goes: "God bless gallant Pearse and his comrades who died/Tom Clarke, MacDonagh, MacDermott, McBride/And here's to James Connolly who gave one hurrah/And faced the machine guns for Erin go Bragh'.

For the politically inclined, these words make the hairs stand on the back of the neck, for others they celebrate an unnecessary battle which resulted in the deaths of 254 civilians, including many children.

But to me, songs such as 'Erin Go Bragh' provide vital snapshots of history. And undoubtedly I'm intrigued and proud of these ordinary men and women who were willing to risk their lives in the pursuit of freedom.

When singing a ballad where 1916 features, I'm mindful that there might be some present who link Republicanism with the Provisional IRA and other paramilitary groups and perhaps feel uneasy with hearing such songs. But I feel confident that the likes of the 'Galtee Mountain Boy', and indeed my own grandfather, who was a member of the Old IRA in South Kerry, would certainly not condone the atrocious actions of those Republicans who would follow them decades later. I explain this before I start.

The ballads of 1916 remember ordinary Irish people who hoped to achieve extraordinary things, and to lose these songs would be a cultural tragedy. And so, in recent months, when my children have asked about 1916, I've tried to explain to them the massive and tragic human impact on all sides - for the rebels, the soldiers, the policemen and the civilians.

To do this I find the song 'Grace', written about Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett who married in Kilmainham Gaol a few hours before he was executed for his part in the Rising, especially useful.

My eight-year-old daughter Molly frowns and asks why did Plunkett want to shoot at other Irishmen just because they were in British uniforms. But then she asks why the British would want to shoot Plunkett.

"That's so mean," she told me the other night. But always 'Grace' herself receives the most sympathy.

As I discuss the complexities of 1916, its legacy, the ballads and the upcoming commemorations with another local, a booming voice from across the bar startles me.

It's Tom, the owner of the pub: "Clifford, less of the talking and more of the singing," he jokes.. and so off again I go. Eyes closed, lips licked.

The three most popular 1916 ballads


Perhaps the most well-known and stirring song which commemorates the events of the 1916 Rising. Connolly's execution while tied to a chair in Kilmainham Gaol is emotionally recalled.


Written in 1919 by Canon Charles O'Neill, a parish priest of Kilcoo and later in Newcastle, Co Down. The hard-hitting song reflects the thoughts of Irish nationalists who believed Irishmen who fought for Britain during WWI should have stayed at home and fought for Irish independence. O'Neill sums up this feeling in the lines: "Twas far better to die 'neath an Irish sky, Than at Suvla or Sud el Bar".


Despite being penned as recently as 1985 by Sean and Frank O'Meara, this ballad captures the human cost of the Rising as lovers Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett marry just hours before his execution. Made famous by the recently departed Jim McCann.

Irish Independent

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