Tuesday 22 May 2018

True story of Irish soldier whose plight inspired one of the world's most famous anti-war ballads is finally unveiled

The story of the blind soldier's plight was published in 1857 in The Freeman's Journal
The story of the blind soldier's plight was published in 1857 in The Freeman's Journal
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

LANDMARK documentary has unveiled the remarkable true story of an Irish soldier whose plight inspired one of the world's most famous anti-war ballads.

Patrick Sheehan was arrested for begging on fashionable Grafton Street in Dublin in 1857 - despite the fact the young man had lost his sight while serving in the British Army during the horrific battles of the Crimean War a few years earlier.

The horrors endured by soldiers in the Crimean campaign were so appalling that Florence Nightingale organised nursing care for the wounded - and thereby helped form the modern nursing profession.

Despite his honourable military service and having lost his sight due to an infectious disease contracted on the battlefield, Patrick Sheehan was left penniless when his temporary pension of six pence a day expired after just nine months.

He was jailed by a Dublin magistrate for seven days for illegal begging despite his explanation he had no other way of supporting himself.

The story of the blind soldier's plight was published in 1857 in The Freeman's Journal - a predecessor of The Irish Independent - and caused national outrage.

Charles Joseph Kickham in Mullinahone, Tipperary was so appalled by the shameful treatment of the injured veteran he penned a ballad called 'Patrick Sheehan' under a pseudonym.

That ballad became hugely popular and reflected national anti-war sentiment as well as concern at the appalling treatment of Irish soldiers recruited to fight colonial wars by Britain.

The ballad 'Patrick Sheehan' now ranks alongside the Irish anthem, 'Mrs McGrath', which was recorded by Bruce Springsteen, as amongst the most famous anti-war ballads of the 18th and 19th centuries.

A Tipp Mid West Radio documentary has now revealed the ballad was a key indicator of anti-war sentiment across Ireland in the years around the Boer War and World War I, particularly when conscription was controversially being contemplated.

The ballad 'Patrick Sheehan' had such a powerful impact it is still sung today, particularly in Tipperary.

The documentary - researched by Tom Hurley - unearthed anecdotal evidence that Dublin Castle were so concerned at the impact on Irish recruitment of the ballad that Patrick Sheehan's pension was restored.

Sadly for the young soldier, who was reported to have been from the Glen of Aherlow in Tipperary, the story didn't have an overly happy ending.

Despite the reported restoration of his pension, he eventually ended up staying in the Ennistymon Workhouse.

He died in 1920.

'Reward of Valour' is broadcast in four parts by Tipp Mid West Radio and is available here.

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