Replying to a query on Quora on the above question, I spent some time thinking and typing the reply and then thought I might as well make that effort available to a wider audience. I have participated in many Irish instrumental music and singing sessions over decades, mostly in London and Dublin and I have two brothers who are musicians and another who is a singer. I am myself a singer, not an instrument player, nor an academic but will attempt an answer. I would recommend consulting the Irish Traditional Music Archive and reading books on the subject such as Ó Súilleabháin’s and Ó Lochlainn.
Traditional Irish music has had many external influences and among the main forms of its dance expression, jigs, hornpipes and reels, only the latter is considered originally Irish. Polkas are particularly popular in Kerry and, I suppose, built around reels. There are also slip-jigs.
The best way to experience these is probably is probably at or viewing a set-dancing session. These are based in form on the “quadrilles” of the Napoleonic period (which can be found as far away as Latin America and Cuba) and are similar to English and US Old Timey square dancing. Probably all the variants of the Irish instrumental dance music will be heard performed among the various set-dances — virtually all sequentially in the deceptively-named “Plain Set”.
The form of dance called “sean-nós” (see description of the singing form by the same name further down) is individual expression, fast footwork with what one might also call “ornamentations”, similar to tap-dancing. The arms are held loosely down to the side or elbows to the side, slightly extended but also loosely. The overall posture may be erect or slightly stooped.
In terms of instruments used today, not one is believed to be originally Irish except the harp (which incidentally is the symbol of the Irish state, the only state in the world to feature a musical instrument in that capacity though we are far from being the only nation with a harp tradition).
The harp (there two main kinds, the smaller knee-standing and the larger resting on the floor between the knees) was described by Norman travellers (spies) prior to their invasion of Ireland but were known also in Wales (observers remarked not only on the aesthetic quality of the performances but also on their speed). A kind of drum was referred to by the travellers and some kind of flute but without any detail on either. The proliferation of instruments in a traditional Irish session are therefore far from being originally Irish: fiddle (violin), uilleann pipe, flute, whistle, accordion (piano or more likely button), concertina, melodeon, bazouki, mandolin, banjo and …. guitar. This last is mostly performed as an underlying rhythm instrument, a function also of the bodhrán (a kind of one-sided drum) and one may also hear a pair of spoons or sections of rib bones played for percussion. The guitar-player is often also the singer and given space to do so accompanied by his guitar, presumably in recompense for his restriction to rhythm performance the rest of the time. In many sessions there has grown sadly a tendency to restrict the performance of song to this individual or some other in the circle of musicians whereas in the past a member of the audience would perform the song; this restriction has led to the growth of song and even voice-only sessions (such as the Góilín in Dublin).
We owe the typical instruments in traditional Irish music to northern and central Europe, the Middle and Far East and to Africa. Many other instruments have been brought into use in performing Irish traditional music (including, famously, the Australian didgeridoo) but, apart from the proliferation of variations on the whistle, they have as yet failed to win popularity among musicians.
Traditional march airs also exist and, to my ear, have a tendency to be fast for the purpose. I have speculated that these represented trotting horses of the elites or warrior-caste with lower-ranking fighters running alongside — but that is pure speculation.
There are many slow airs and waltzes, definitely an import, have been composed and are also played.
With regard to the ethnicity of the performers this is not of great relevance and Irish traditional music on instruments and in voice is being played well in many different parts of the world or in Ireland by musicians with a non-Irish ethnic background. Naturally too the Irish diaspora has spawned many excellent traditional Irish musicians (and, we can remark in passing, in many other genres too: rock, pop, blues, jazz, classical).
The term “traditional” itself can open up a debate but with regard to song, I was offered this interesting definition some years ago: “author unknown, performed over three generations.” Authorship is therefore an issue as is permanency (or at least persistency). One feature of traditional music throughout the world, according to Ó Súilleabháin is never to end in a crescendo (although occasionally one may hear a traditional song or ballad treated in this way, it is rare).
However, as with “tunes” or “airs” in instrumental music, songs are being composed all along within the traditional or folk form, sometimes re-using known airs, sometimes adapting them and on occasion composing new ones.
It is important to note that ballads are not considered a “traditional” form, having entered Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries but they are accepted in traditional singing circles.
THE SINGER AND THE SONG
Traditional-style singers not only eschew crescendos but also, in general, bodily gestures or dramatic pauses or changes of volume. There are emphases rendered on occasion but these tend to be subtle.
A form of singing known as “sean-nós” (literally ‘old style’) exists with regional variations. From experience and perception (but without formal study) I would say that the main distinguishing feature of this form is in the ornamentation of notes, viz. drawing some out to briefly twist around them (interestingly, one verb in Irish for “play” as in instrument or “sing” is “cas”, literally “twist/ turn/ weave”) and the ending of a line may have an additional note added. The Qawwali religious music of Pakistan and Indian shares many features as does parts of the Flamenco singing, albeit the latter is loudly expressive.
In terms of the great themes of Irish song (and at times of instrumental pieces) these are overwhelmingly love, patriotic struggle and emigration, with sub-categories, including some that merge two or even three of the main themes (hear for example “Skibereen” or the waltz-air “Slieve na mBan”.
PLEASE DON’T CLAP ….
A very important element of Irish traditional and folk singing is not only the performance but also the audience. The tradition is not for choral or duet etc singing with harmonies, though these exist but rather for the single voice. In this we differ from other Celtic nations such as the Welsh and Bretons but parallel the Scottish tradition as well as some other folk traditions, including some English and USA Old Timey expressions.
The tradition has been that a singer will be heard through to the end with perhaps some sounds of encouragement at various junctures (on occasion I have observed a noisy Irish pub become suddenly silent as the customers become aware that a song is being sung, remaining totally silent until the end of the song). Should there be a chorus, listeners may join in and a well-known and appreciated line may get listeners joining in too (think for example of the last line in the non-traditional form — but often sung in sean-nós style — ballad about the Great Hunger: “… revenge for Skibereen!”).
I should mention here that accompanying the beat in traditional music by clapping is certainly not “cool”, although traditional musicians performing on stage have been seen to encourage it (presumably in order to reduce the isolation feeling of the performers and to increase the enjoyment of non-perceptive listeners). In fact clapping overcomes the nuances of the performance as well as the concentration of the listener, therefore limiting the depth of the experience. “Tap feet by all means and clap at the end if you please” is the general rule.
I must note also in conclusion that Irish/ Scottish traditional music with some English folk contribution are the main influences in not only Old Timey USA music but also bluegrass and country & western, with spillover into some other forms. As such, this fount of music is responsible for the creation of the “white” or “European-origin” popular music of the USA, ie around half of the entire body. The other half is of African origin, in blues and jazz (in so far as these are not the same thing), giving rise to rock n’roll, swing etc. But both these “halves” have naturally had an influence on the other and in Ireland, traditional music is also influenced by — and contributes to — “crossover” variations of music.
I would comment also that socially and politically Irish musicians have tended to identify to one degree or another with the people and their resistance and were often persecuted for doing so. This was natural, given that they mostly came from the Irish population and that was where they found their audience. In that regard it is sad to note that some, including the Chieftains musician group and singer Imelda May, performed at a state banquet in Dublin a few years ago for the English Queen, who is head of the UK state and of the British Armed Forces, currently occupying one-sixth of our small national territory and also invading other parts of the world.
Driving out of frenzied Manhattan heading out over the 59th Street Bridge and through the highway traffic east into Queens, the dense urban landscape is suddenly broken up by a jarring sight- an immense sea of green. Coming closer, the driver, who sees a vast number of gravestones and monuments, realizes that this great green space is a huge city of the dead.
This great green city of the dead is Calvary Cemetery, a place rich in New York Irish history. Founded by the Archdiocese of New York, the graveyard contains the remains of a staggering three million people, more than all the current population of the borough of Queens. Calvary holds more burials than anywhere else in the United States, covering an unbelievable 365 acres of prime real estate. The cemetery reaches into two neighborhoods and is comprised of four large sections. Many of the most important characters in New York Irish history rest beneath its fields and walking around Calvary is a lesson in New York Irish history. It even holds the remains of Annie Moore, (1874-1924) the Irish immigrant who was the first person of the millions of hopeful immigrants who passed through Ellis Island.
By the 1840’s, Lower Manhattan’s Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral graveyard was filling up and it was no longer possible to bury its large population on the island. In 1847, faced with many corpses from a raging cholera epidemic the New York State Legislature passed the Rural Cemetery Act, authorizing non-profit corporations to operate commercial cemeteries. The trustees of St. Patrick’s bought the 151-acre Alsop farm in Queen, which became the original section of Calvary Cemetery, today known as Old Calvary. When Mrs. Ann Alsop sold the farm to the Trustees, she insisted that her Protestant Alsop family burial ground remain separate from the Catholics and the trustees have maintained this division to this day. The tiny family plot still remains walled off, dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands of Catholic tombstones around it.
Calvary was consecrated by the legendary Tyrone-born Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes (1797-1864) in August 1848 and by 1852 there were 50 burials a day, half of them poor Irish kids under seven years of age, victims of the noxious conditions in the disease-ridden, teeming Manhattan slums. It cost seven dollars for an adult to be buried there, children under age seven cost three dollars and children aged seven to fourteen cost five dollars. In the early 20th Century, influenza and tuberculosis epidemics caused such a shortage of gravediggers that people were forced to dig graves themselves for their own loved ones.
In the days before highways and city parks, people reached Calvary by ferryboat and excursions to the graveyard were regular Sunday family outings. People often picnicked while visiting their loved ones and enjoyed the bucolic charm of the giant green expanse. With amazing statuary, marble mausoleums and towering trees, the graveyard remains a place of great beauty, though today there are few family visitors. Calvary, though retains a wonderful tranquility, making it a welcome refuge from the noisy city around it. Today, some harried New Yorkers visit Calvary to collect their thoughts or just to enjoy its wonderful calming silence. I have just written a book The Irish in New York and I realized that many of the characters in my book and hundreds of other famous Irish figures lie in Calvary’s ground. The Irish clawed their way to power and acceptance by creating an infamous political machine called Tammany Hall and dozens of its most notorious members lie in Calvary’s earth. The most famous Tammany Hall politico lies there, Al Smith, (1873-1944) the first Catholic Governor of New York, a reformer and the first Catholic nominee for President of the United States. A poor boy himself, Smith enacted many factory safety and labor reforms to help the working class. Another Tammany Hall figure who lies there is the infamous “Big Bill” Devery” (1854-1919). Serving as a notorious police chief of New York City, Big Bill stole enough money to become part-owner of a baseball team that would be known as the New York Yankees. A generous thief, Devery died almost broke.
A contrast to the corrupt Devery, Fr. Edward McGlynn (1837-1900) also lies in the graveyard. McGlynn was so passionately attached to the ideas of socialism and helping the poor that the Catholic Church branded him as a Communist and had him defrocked, though he was later reinstated. He was so loved that three decades after McGlynn’s death a parishioner wrote these words in Gaelic and English on paper attached to his tombstone:
Fr. McGlynn, We thank the Lord who gave us you, Soggarth aroon, (beloved priest in Gaelic)
Learned and wise, kindly and true, Soggarth Aroon,
You know your cause was sanctified,
Stood till measures were rectified,
And rest with God’s beatified, Soggarth Aroon.
There are also many infamous characters in Calvary including “ The Queen of The Night Club” Tex Guinan (1884-1933), who became a legendary, and often arrested, hostess of speakeasies during the Great Depression. She became famous for her sharp tongue and for insulting her rich male clients who still spent vast sums in her clubs. Tex lies amongst many famous murdered Italian mafiosi who also sleep in Calvary.
The Irish have been valiant New York fire fighters and some who lie in Calvary died fighting fires. One of the memorable graves contains a life-sized statue of Charles Keegan (1858-1882), a Brooklyn firefighter killed in the line of duty while fighting a blaze at Locust Point (the long-lost locale is at Meeker Avenue where it meets Newtown Creek), caused by a lightning strike at the Sone and Fleming Kings County Oil Refinery in 1882. Explosions associated with the blaze claimed the first Penny Bridge; Keegan and fellow firefighter Stuart Deane suffered grisly deaths, being burned alive. Some of the teenage girls who were burned in the tragic 1911 Triangle Fire also sleep in Calvary.
Perhaps the most striking feature in the cemetery is the city park located completely inside Calvary, dedicated to the Civil War soldiers who defended the Union. Irish sculptor Daniel Draddy from Cork created the park’s most stunning feature — amazing life-sized statues of Civil War soldiers. There is also a Fenian Monument in Calvary, erected in 1907 to honor members of the Fenian Brotherhood buried there, one of whom is the great Tipperary Fenian leader and Civil War veteran Michael Doheny (1805-1862) .
There is also — and a monument also honors — the legendary Civil War NY Irish regiment, the Fighting 69th, whose leader Thomas Meagher is also profiled in my book. My friend Peter McHale, author of Greenpoint Doughboy, wrote his excellent work about his great-uncle who fell in France fighting with the 69th in World War I. The book ends with the fallen hero’s return to be interred in Calvary.
One of the most famous figures interred there is Mayo legend and Olympic Gold Medalist Martin Sheridan (1881-1919). Sheridan, a World Record-setting discus hurler, was cut down just short of his thirtieth birthday by the last great pandemic a century ago. He lies in sight of the former Celtic Park where a number of Irish immigrants formed a legendary sports club that brought home several Olympic medals.
Artists and musicians also lie there. Galway-born Patrick Gilmore (1829-1892), song writer and band leader, known as “The Father of the American Band,” who wrote When Johnny Comes Marching Home and Meath’s John Mulvany (1839-1906) the great western painter of Custer’s Last Stand also rest there. Also among the dead is James Blake (1862-1935) who wrote the text to the iconic New York song “ The Sidewalks of New York.”
Millions of New Yorkers lie here, each with his or her own biography. Sadly, the Archdiocese shut down walking tours of the cemetery and unlike Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, Calvary fails to commemorate its amazing history. Let’s hope that this changes soon.
The 1st February is Lá Fhéile Bríde1 the feast day of St. Brigid, one of three patron saints of Ireland and one of the many traditions associated with this personage on her feast day was the making of the Cros Bríde (“St. Brigid’s Cross”) in many households and their placing in the loft or above the door, for example, to guard the house. But whether St. Brigid was a real historical person and whether the cross really represented her and Christianity, the origins of both are much, much older.
The cross associated with St. Brigid is woven from rushes, a thin-stemmed plant growing in wet places (so, easily found in Ireland!), or from straw, the dried stalks remaining after the seed-heads and chaff of cereal crops have been gathered. The distinctive four-armed woven shape was the logo of Teilifis Éireann, the forerunner of RTÉ as the Irish national TV service, when it was launched in 1960 and remained so until it was short-sightedly removed in the 1990s. The four-armed shape was the symbol adopted by a number of organisations and it is still that of An Bord Altranais, the Irish national nursing profession authority. Though its ubiquity now is considerably less, it was recognisable as one of the symbols of Irish national identity, along with the Harp, the Shamrock and the Tricolour. But interestingly, a three-armed version has also been known historically2.
The four-armed shape, with our without a large centre, has recurred in many places around the globe. The closest to us geographically perhaps where it is still in use is in the Basque Country, with the Lauburu (“four-head”) and the Basques, who tend to zealously defend their heritage and their role in developing that, say that it was from the Celts that they received it.
Long before the Nazis appropriated it, the Swastika was a symbol of deity and good fortune of people across Asia and I still recall the feeling of shock when I saw the symbol replicated many times across the stonework of the Indian Embassy in Aldwych, London. It is still used in a number of important Eastern ceremonies. The swastika also had a strong presence in Europe under different names but the Nazis have ensured it will be a long time before it can be used in the Western world without its fascist association. It also has a presence among American Indigenous people and has been found in archaeological excavations in Africa.
Further afield one could argue that the Ojo de Dios so widespread in Mexico and in some other Latin American regions is also one of them – or at least a close relative. Of course the mystic Eye is also a symbol in many cultures, thought to express divine providence, God watching over humanity and the Ojo may be another one of those as its name suggests — but in many places it is contructed by weaving yarn around two crossed twigs. And in any case could the Eye and the Cross all originally represent the same thing, the Sun in the sky?
Many anthropologists think that sun-worship was once an important part of human societies across the globe and, given the life-giving properties of the sun (and the fact that we live in its system, the solar system) that should come as no surprise to us3. In Ireland many places are associated by name with the sun, for example An Ghrianán (“Greenan”), in locations as far apart as the counties of Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone in Ulster; Dublin, Meath, Wicklow, Westmeath and Wexford in Leinster; Tipperary and Waterford in Munster; Mayo and Sligo in Connacht (see Sources).
The symbol of circling movement might however also represent the turning of our planet Earth, the cycle of life through the seasons (see Wikipedia entry in Sources).
THE FEAST DAY – OF CHRISTIAN SAINT, PAGAN GODDESS AND SEASONAL MARKER
As noted earlier, February 1st is the feast-day of St. Brigid but it is also date of the pagan Celtic feast of Imbolc (though probably the exact date would have varied somewhat according to the astral calendar), one of the four great festivals of the year4. Falling midway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, it is considered in Ireland as the first day of the Spring season.
The feast-day’s role as the harbinger of Spring is mentioned in the first verse of Cill Aodáin, the poem (and song) by the celebrated blind poet Raifteirí (1779 – 1835), as with the coming of Spring he anticipates heading to his native Mayo:
Anois teacht an Earraigh beidh an lá dul chun síneadh
Is taréis na Féile Bride ardóigh mé mo sheol;
Ó chur mé i mo cheann é ní stopfaidh mé choíche
Go seasfaidh mé síos i lár Chondae Mhuigheo.
Brigid is known in Irish as Muire na nGael (“Mary of the Gaels”), which points to her importance as an individual personage, since in Christian belief Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ, in turn believed to be an aspect of God in human form. Brigid’s status is underlined by her nomination as a patron saint of the nation but points also to the significance of the female, of some status in Gaelic society5 and very likely representing a trace of a more ancient matriarchical society.
Brigid’s feast day in Irish culture was of greater importance than that of St.Patrick’s, although the latter was always considered the highest in that he is thought responsible for the conversion of the society of the Gaels to Christianity. There was little ritual associated with the feast day of Patrick and even the wearing of shamrock on the day seems a late innovation6. On St. Brigid’s Day the Cros Bríde was woven, the old one burned or otherwise disposed of as the new one took its place as a protector of the house. In some areas there would be ritual visits to a well and I have read too, though I cannot now find the references, of ritual milking and butter churning. Of course the rituals may owe more to custom of veneration of the pagan goddess and the marking of a place in the cycle of the seasons than to the Christian saint.
There is some disagreement about the date and provenance of some of the early accounts of the life of St. Brigid as well as their accuracy but the earliest known is thought to have been written two centuries after her death7. We are told that she was born in 451 CE in Faughart near Dundalk, Co. Louth to Brocca, a Pict slave woman who became pregnant by Dubhthach, a Leinster chieftain who then sold her due to the jealousy of his wife. According to the tradition Brocca had been converted to Christianity by St.Patrick. The selling of a pregnant slave seems unlikely but according to the tradition not only was that done but she was sold to a Druid. At the age of ten Brigid went to Dubhthach’s home as a household servant and the tradition relates that Rí Laighin (King of Leinster) Crimthann Mac Énnai, noting her charity and piety, freed her (however it has been my understanding that slavery in this part of the world was not hereditary8).
Accounts of her life describe her performing miracles as a child and also of acts of charity towards the poor. The doing of great deeds as a child is one of the recurring themes in accounts of heroic characters in legends (in Ireland, think of Culainn’s giant guard hound slain by the boy Setanta with hurley and ball).
Around 480 CE the tradition has Bríd founding the abbey at Cill Dara (Kildare – “the Church of the Oak” or Oakwood) on the site sacred to the Celtic Goddess Brigid (see more later) where female devotees guarded an eternal flame and by this founding act alone the saint’s story is being conflated with the pagan deity. At the abbey St. Brigid brought about the institution of Christian female devotional community, starting with seven followers9.
St. Brigid founded two religious institutions, one male and one female and for centuries history records that the abbey was ruled by a dual abbotship, female and male with the former being considered head of all monasteries in Ireland.
At Kildare, Brigid founded a school of metalwork (another nod to the Goddess); also one of art and Giraldus of Wales (c. 1146 – c. 1223), the Norman-Welsh visitor (and founder of anti-Irish racism in literature) reported seeing The Book of Kildare with gorgeous illumination of every page, which he pronounced as beyond compare, declaring it to be “the work of angelic and not human skill” (a verdict of his on Irish harp music also). The book disappeared during the Reformation.
According to tradition, Brigid was a friend of St. Patrick and also traveled through many parts of Ireland.
Among the many miracles which Brigid of Kildare was said to have made were healing, with which she has traditionally been associated and preservation of chastity. The latter seems more likely an outgrowth of feudal Christianity imported by the Norman occupation from the 12th Century and of course would have been highly valued by the Catholic Church in Ireland, in particular in the 19th Century.
Healing reminds us of the Druids and her foster-father, to whom her mother was given by her real father. There has long been an association between Bríd and healing, which is presumably why “her” cross is used as a logo for An Bord Altranais, the nursing authority in Ireland.
She was also reputed to be able to turn water into beer (some publicans have been reported tending towards accomplishing the reverse) and was also associated with dairy production. These latter two are reflections of plenty and are represented in a number of pagan deities. Brigid was also associated with fire, which reminds us again of the Goddess Brigid.
Bríd, Bridget and Brigid are common names given to girls in Ireland (also encountered in parts of the world where Irish missionaries have been) as are other variants: Breda, Bridie, Breedge, Bree, Biddy, Bridge, Bridgie. There are also variants of the name in other languages, for example Brigitte, Brigida, Bergit, Britt, Bricia, etc.
Christianity and Druids
If she existed – and it appears likely that someone of the kind did — it seems an impossible task to completely disentangle the abbess of Kildare from the pagan goddess. Indeed it is even possible that the Bríd or Brigid referred to in Irish Christian hagiography was herself a Druid and her early life with a Druid as her foster-father hints at that. However one of the traditions has her vomiting food he gave her which seems to represent a violently symbolic rejection of the old religion at a time when it was the dominant one in Ireland.
Being the daughter of a Pictish concubine10 slave is also interesting although the advent of Christianity in Ireland pressured for an end to chattel slavery.
The early history of Christianity in Ireland is curious for unlike most other countries in Europe, it was introduced into a pagan society largely without violence. The Gaels had a number of gods and goddesses and were very familiar with trinities and dualities, so that the (very late historically) account of St. Patrick explaining the Christian Trinity with reference to a three-leaved shamrock is of course pure nonsense. Nevertheless the conversion represented a radical enough change in culture and religious belief and one can only speculate on some kind of accommodation between the Druids and early Christian missionaries and certainly the Celtic Christian Church was quite different from the Roman one, as the family names signifying descent from priest and bishop attest, as well as those associated with a Christian ancestor11 who might well have been a monk or devotee of some saint. It is a matter of record that the Roman Christian Church struggled with the Celtic one to impose celibacy on monks, abbots, priests and bishops, as well as to insist on lay marriages being monogamous and to abolish the right of divorce.
From Wikipedia: “In Gaelic Ireland, Imbolc was the feis or festival marking the beginning of spring, during which great feasts were held. It is attested in some of the earliest Old Irish literature from the 10th century onward. It was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Bealtaine (~1 May) and Lughnasa (~1 August).
“From the 18th century to the mid 20th century, many accounts of Imbolc or St Brigid’s Day were recorded by folklorists and other writers. They tell us how it was celebrated then, and shed light on how it may have been celebrated in the past.
“Imbolc has traditionally been celebrated on 1 February. However, because the day was deemed to begin and end at sunset, the celebrations would start on what is now 31 January. It has also been argued that the timing of the festival was originally more fluid and based on seasonal changes. It has been associated with the onset of the lambing season (which could vary by as much as two weeks before or after 1 February), the beginning of the spring sowing and the blooming of blackthorn.
“The holiday was a festival of the hearth and home, and a celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of spring. Celebrations often involved hearthfires, special foods, divination or watching for omens, candles or a bonfire if the weather permitted. Fire and purification were an important part of the festival. The lighting of candles and fires represented the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months. A spring cleaning was also customary.
“Holy wells12 were visited at Imbolc, and at the other Gaelic festivals of Bealtaine and Lughnasa. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking ‘sunwise’ around the well. They would then leave offerings, typically coins or ‘clooties’ (see clootie well). Water from the well was used to bless the home, family members, livestock and fields.
“Donald Alexander McKenzie also recorded that offerings were made “to earth and sea”. The offering could be milk poured into the ground or porridge poured into the water, as a libation.”
Many young people went from house to house with a symbol of the saint, ‘The Brideóg’: this was an effigy supposed to represent St. Brigid and made according to the local custom. It was usually a straw doll, dressed to portray a human figure. Often small children went to the neighbours’ houses and were given money. In some areas unmarried girls carried the effigy bestowing Brigid’s blessing on the house, often they handed out crosses to the head of the houses they visited. It was accepted that the girl who carried the effigy was the most beautiful and modest of all. In other regions no effigy was used, the girl dressed in white and carried a locally made cross to represent the saint. Those who carried the ‘brideog’ were called ‘brideóga’, ‘biddies’ or ‘biddy-boys’.
Whatever about the historicity of Saint Brigid, there certainly was a Goddess Brigid figure of great importance in Ireland and she was associated with the spring season, fertility, healing, poetry and blacksmithing. There is a suggestion that she may have been a triple deity from an entry in the 10th Century Cormac’s Glossary written by Christian monks, as it states that the Goddess Brigid had two sisters: Brigid the healer and Brigid the smith.
The Goddess of European Celtic society Brigantia may have had her qualities attributed to the Gaelic Brigid or possibly the latter was a Gaelic representation of Brigantia. The Graeco-Egyptian historian and geographer (among other scholarships) Ptolemy, who gave us the earliest description of a possible Dublin settlement, “Eblana” in 140 CE, mentioned a Leinster tribe called the Brigantes, possibly taking their name from the Goddess but nothing is known of them now. In Celtic pre-Roman northern England, an area centered around Yorkshire was the domain of the Brigantes, the largest Celtic tribe in Britain (and ruled by a queen) while there was an Alpine sub-tribe known as the Brigantii.
Eight inscriptions to Brigantia have been found from the Midlands to Northern Britain and the word appears on some Celtiberian coins. Elements of the name may appear in a number of settlement locations in mainland Europe and in Britain (including the river Brent) but is difficult to be certain of that due to the etymological origin of Brigid/ Brigida, “high, exalted” (ultimately of Proto-Indo-European origin), so that the toponym could also be describing the aspect of the location itself, “high place” or of the human occupants “high/ elevated”.
1“Brighde” in older spelling; Là Fhèill Brìghde in Scottish Gaedhlig; Laa’l Breeshey in Manx.)
2The Celtic triskele is a relatively well-known shape also thought to represent the sun and, in the form of three legs, is the national symbol of the Isle of Man, a nation of celtic origin. But there is also a four-armed version of the triskele design.
3Indeed the pronunciation of the word “Dia” for God in Irish and the word “día” for “day” in Spanish and Catalan are not just coincidences as I discovered ‘digging’ one day, finding an etymological connection in Proto-Sanskrit.
4The others being Bealtaine, and Lúghnasadh and Samhain.
5Apart from the representation of important goddesses and warrior queens or chieftains in Irish legend and history, according to the Brehon Laws free women’s rights to their own property continued into marriage and they had the right of divorce and even female slaves had some right in law (and had the possibility to rise in status).
10Cúchullain (Setanta) was taught skill of arms by Scáthach, a female Pictish warrior and bore him a son, unknown to him after he left, with tragic consequences years later for both father and son.
11Mac an tSagairt/ Taggart (“Son of the Priest”), Mac an Easpaig/ Nesbig (“Son of the Bishop”), Giolla and Mac Giolla Chríost/ Gilchrist (Son of Servant of Christ), Mac Giolla Bríde (S. Of Servant of Brigid!), Maol Muire/ Mulmurry (S of Servant of Mary), Maol Eoin/ Malone (S of Servant of John) and many more.
12Many wells in Ireland were dedicated to a saint and therefore considered holy, probably too originally a pagan view of wells.
In Irish history, which arquably is full of such wars, what is generally termed “The War of Independence” began with the Soloheadbeg Ambush on 21st January 1919 and ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 11th July 1921 (which however, because of its limited measure of Irish independence led shortly afterwards to the Civil War 1922-1923). That ambush was one of many during the war by Irish guerrillas on the Royal Irish Constabulary, the British colonial police force and these attacks continued with a three-fold aim: to capture arms for the guerrillas, to eliminate much of the intelligence source for the Crown from rural districts and to open up areas of relative safety in the Irish countryside for the forces of independence.
In 1920 two different constabulary forces were recruited in Britain to bolster the Royal Irish Constabulary: the “normal” recruits in January and the Auxiliary Division RIC in July1. There were insufficient police uniforms for the “normal” constable recruits at first, leading to their being issued a mix of dark green RIC and khaki Army uniforms (usually Army trousers and RIC tunics) and Christopher O’Sullivan wrote in the Limerick Echo that they reminded him of the “Black and Tans”, from a well-known pack of Kerry beagles in the Scarteen Hunt. The nickname spread quickly and soon they were almost universally known (and thereafter in Irish history and folklore) by that name or shortened to “the ‘Tans”. The Irish translation is “na Dubhchrónaí” but it is likely that even in the Gaeltachtaí, the Irish-speaking areas, they were also known as “na ‘Tans”.
WW1 had ended in November 1918 and many of the ‘Tans were ex-British Army soldiers. Some were perhaps even demobbed (discharged) specifically in order to enlist in the new force. At the time there was ongoing agitation for discharge from the armed forces and even riots among thousands of British soldiers, many of whom had been conscripted but whom the British High Command was reluctant to allow to leave, knowing that many would be needed to suppress resistance to British colonial rule across the Empire, on the Indian sub-continent, in the Middle East, Africa and China.
The Tans quickly gained a reputation for brutality towards prisoners and the general civilian populace when conducting personal and home searches. They were also considered generally indisciplined, liable to intoxication on duty and to carrying out theft and harassment of women. Their behaviour towards civilians was so bad that even some British Army officers and loyalists in Ireland complained of it. The fighters of the Irish Republican Army, the new name for the reorganised Irish Volunteers, though they might fear being captured by the Tans, quickly enough gained their measure and were soon engaging them with arms.
The Auxiliaries, or “Auxies” as they became known, were a different matter. Their role was a rapid response motorised strike force and every single member was a War veteran and ex-officer, some indeed having been awarded battle decorations. Just as inclined to brutality and indiscipline in some respects, they gained a fearful reputation for their counter-guerrilla aptitude; though their commanding officer, Frank Crozier, sacked 21 of them in January 1921 because of their brutal raids in Trim, Co. Meath and murder of two Republicans in Drumcondra, Dublin, Chief of Police Henry Hugh Tudor reinstated them, so that Crozier resigned. One IRA officer commented that if the Tans were ambushed they would hide behind cover to return fire, whereas the Auxies would quickly be seeking to outflank their opposition and counter-attack.
The Auxies could carry out operations against the IRA and the civilian population with impunity, it seemed. The Kilmichael Ambush was planned specifically to take on the Auxiliaries and smash the myth of their invincibility.
THE LEADER AND THE COLUMN
The operation was led by a 23 year-old ex-British soldier: Tom Barry, Commandant of the West Cork Flying Brigade was at the time only 23 years of age and only a little over three months active in the IRA. When news of the 1916 Easter Rising reached him and other British troops fighting the Ottoman Empire in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), he “had not a nationalist thought in my head”, he confessed in his book Guerrilla Days in Ireland (1949). Barry was discharged at the end of the War but did not join the IRA until the capture and torture of Republicans Tom Hales and Pat Harte by Arthur Percival of the Essex Rifles in July 19202 so appalled him that he joined the IRA’s 3rd Cork Brigade, operating in the West Cork area. Barry’s highest rank in the British Army had been Corporal, in which role the limit of his command would usually have been of seven to 14 men. By the end of 1920, Barry had quickly risen to command 310 men in the IRA, operating over large areas of West Cork and occasionally further afield.
One of the many innovations of the IRA at that time was the flying column, designed to maximise the effective striking force of a guerrilla army in rural Ireland. This had been advocated by Seán McLoughlin while organising in South Tipperary. McLoughlin had been a member of the Irish Volunteers during the 1916 Rising, employed on reconnaisance and communication work by Commandant James Connolly in Dublin. He was only 20 years of age when, impressed by his conduct up to that point and during the evacuation from the GPO to Moore Street, James Connolly3 promoted him to Dublin Commander. Later, McLoughlin had proposed the flying column tactic in discussion with guerrilla leaders from Tipperary, Limerick and North Cork4 and recommended it to IRA HQ in Dublin, where the idea found favour and was soon disseminated. In West Cork the flying column organisation reached perhaps its apogee.
Younger and mature men in a rural community are likely to be engaged in agriculture or servicing that economy. In the first they are needed intensively at particular times of the year and families may depend on their work. Servicing work is usually more evened out throughout the year but is also less likely to have long periods when those employed in it are not needed. This is one reason why maintaining a medium-sized permanent guerrilla force in the field was difficult.
Another restricting factor was the shortage of armament – the guerrilla movement was dependent on firearms and ammunition captured from the opposing armed forces, confiscated from loyalists or purchased in small amounts at home or abroad. Some explosive material could be home-made but was sometimes of unreliable effectiveness, especially so in the case of hand-grenades.
Supposing sufficient armament could be found, a force of around 50 fit men could be maintained in a flying column, trained in the field, flexible, able to travel fairly long distances, carry out an attack and then travel far enough out of the area to avoid enemy encirclement. They had to carry their equipment and their own food or be fed by civilians in the localities through which they passed.
But this arrangement left a larger potential force of men mostly untrained and inactive. Barry solved that problem by the rotation of men to the flying column in his brigade area. For a period of a number of weeks, a force of perhaps up to 100, fully armed, would be engaged in a training program in the field, in the course of which at least one attack operation would be planned and carried out. A small core of permanent officers and guards would be maintained to ensure continuity of command, intelligence, armament supply and security. After their training period, the majority of the column would be demobilised, leaving the command core and at some point a new batch taken on. The arms carried by the previous trainees would be distributed to the next batch. Smaller groups could be rotated in and out of the column too.
The highest number fielded by Barry at any one time was a little over 100 when, on the 19th March 1921, four motorised columns totaling 1,200 British Army and Auxiliaries, supported by spotter planes, set out to encircle the column at Crossbarry5, Co.Cork. In a fighting retreat, the column killed at least ten of the enemy but lost only two men (a third, senior officer Charlie Hurley, had been surprised by the encircling British just prior to the engagement at a local house some distance from the main body and shot dead).
This development of the flying column proved effective and made the West Cork area a particular problem to the British occupation forces and it was not long before Cork was declared a “martial law area”, along with Limerick, Kerry and Tipperary (December 6th 1920). The military in these areas were empowered to execute anyone found carrying arms or ammunition and intern people without trial, also to carry hostages on their trucks to discourage attacks.
In November 1920 local IRA intelligence had noted the regular travelling on Sundays of two British Army lorries, Crossley Tenders, from the Auxies’ base at Macroom Castle to Dunmanway and it was decided to attack them. The Crossleys normally carried up to three men in front and eight in the rear so the maximum force with which the IRA would need to contend would be 22, well-trained and armed. The flying column had only recently been given permanent status and three days’ training with only three rounds for firing practice (due to shortage of ammunition). Barry mobilised a force of 37 for the operation, barely sufficient to take on two lorries, no more.
On the 28th Day of November,the Auxies came out of Macroom;
They were seated in two Crossley Tendersthat were taking them straight to their doom.They were on the road to Kilmichael and never intending to stop .....
The spot chosen for the ambush was at Dus a’Bharraigh, on a stretch of the road between the village of Kilmichael and Gleann but it was remarkable in IRA ambush sites in having no obvious escape route for the attackers to use in case the operation were unsuccessful or only partially so.
The start of the ambush is fairly well represented in a scene from the Ken Loach-directed film The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). Barry, dressed in Irish Volunteer uniform on the assumption that most British soldiers had never seen one and would take it as being of an officer in some branch of their own armed services, flagged down the leading lorry, threw one of two Mills grenades at the driver, fired a pistol and the attack began (Loach has the ambush organiser in British officer uniform, standing by an apparently malfunctioning motorbike and shooting the driver when he slowed down).
The earliest full account of the ambush is Tom Barry’s (in Guerrilla Days etc) and that should be read but Conor Kostik put together an even fuller account, drawing on material that would not have been available to Barry in 1949.6
Those Auxies not killed outright quickly took cover and fought back. They were pinned down and surrounded and their position was hopeless without reinforcements, of which there was no reason to expect any soon. The Auxies called out they wanted to surrender and two IRA men stood up, whereupon the Auxies immediately shot them dead. Barry had signalled to cease firing but had also issued orders that none of the ambushing party were to reveal themselves until he gave the order to do so but the two Volunteers, flushed with the battle and success, had forgotten the order and left their cover.
Raging at the treachery of the Auxies and at the unnecessary loss of two of his men, Barry ordered the battle to continue, ignoring all further cries of “we surrender” until every single Auxie appeared dead or seriously injured. The ambush party then, with the exception of the lookouts, came down into the road, collected the enemy’s arms and, removing the bodies from the vicinity of the Crossley tenders, set fire to the vehicles. Two men of the Flying Column were dead and a third was seriously wounded: Vice-Commandant Michael McCarthy in the fighting and Volunteer James O’Sullivan and 15-years-old Signals Lieutenant Pat Deasy7 by the false surrender, the former dead and the teenager dying.
Then Barry did a truly remarkable thing. Amidst the bodies of the Auxies, near the burning lorries, he took his men suffering from reaction through parade drill, then in front of the rock where the bodies of Michael McCarthy and Jim O’Sullivan lay, they presented arms as a tribute to the dead Volunteers. It was half an hour after the opening of the ambush when Barry called down the lookouts and the column moved away southwards, intending to cross the Bandon River upstream from the British-held Manch Bridge. Eighteen men carried the captured enemy rifles8 slung across their backs. It started to rain again and the men were soon drenched. The rain continued as the IRA marched through Shanacashel, Coolnagow, Balteenbrack and arrived in the vicinity of dangerous Manch Bridge. The Bandon River was crossed without incident and Granure, eight miles south of Kilmichael, was reached by 11pm.
One severely wounded Auxie had survived and was rescued when the British arrived at the scene. The driver of the second lorry somehow got away and made it to a house when two local IRA sympathisers took him prisoner — he was executed the next day and his corpse hidden.
The lorries were ours before twilightAnd high over Dunmanway town
Our banner in triumph was waving
For the Auxies were beaten right down.So we gathered our rifles and bayonets
And soon left the glen so secure
And we never drew rein till we halted
At the faraway camp at Granure
In the first planned attack on the Auxiliaries, the IRA had defeated a platoon of 18 (the lorries were not travelling full to capacity), of which they had killed 16. The guerrillas’ casualties were two dead, one of whom had been victim of the false surrender and the second victim severely wounded; these were removed to safe houses by horse and cart. The column had all the weapons and remaining ammunition of the Auxies and had burned the two lorries. It was a hard slog after the battle and carrying all that equipment to their billet in an empty house at Granure, eight miles away, which they reached at eleven. There the wounded were treated, they were fed by local people and the Column’s support structure, with men and Cumann na mBan standing guard over them while they slept.
Pat Deasy died during the night and temporary graves had to be found for his and the other two bodies until the area had calmed down.and high over Dunmanway town
Pat Deasy died during the night and temporary graves had to be found for his and the other two bodies until the area had calmed down.
The topography along the Auxies’ route had made the choice of a good ambush site far enough away from quick enemy reinforcements impossible, which was what dictated the eventual choice of the site by Barry and Vice-Commandant McCarthy. Available cover for the ambush was in short supply and even more so along any possible route of evacuation; which would mean heavy casualties for the guerrillas in any retreat from an undefeated enemy at that site. This in turn meant that the battle had to be fought to a successful conclusion – the complete defeat of the Auxie column. In this respect the planning of the engagement violated the general practice of the IRA at that time as well as the general rules of guerrilla warfare, which are of heavily outnumbering the enemy at the point of attack9 and at least being able to withdraw quickly and safely from enemy reaction. Barry and McCarthy no doubt knew this and were opting for daring rather than caution, taking a calculated risk (which is not the same as being reckless).
For a maximum enemy number of 22, Barry had mobilised a force of 37 but three of those and perhaps more would have to be scouts, to alert of the approaching Auxie lorries and to guard against being surprised by British reinforcements. Eventually, 34 including Barry were appointed to the actual fighting, his command post with three riflemen, another two sections of ten and a third section of twelve — but six of those would have to be prepared to hold off a third lorry if one appeared. The ratio of attackers to the target force was therefore just under two to one, which is far from ideal for an attacking force and less so when taking the topography into account. It would indeed have been wonderful for the Column had they the 100 in the ambush party group later claimed by the British!
The enemy could be expected to have the latest in Lee Enfield rifles, firing two clips of five bullets before needing to reload and also quickly re-loadable. In addition, they carried holstered revolvers. They would probably have some grenades and might well have at least one Lewis machine gun. Against that impressive potential and even certain firepower, the IRA column had a mix of rifles, shotguns, a few revolvers and two grenades10.
These considerations dictated the order of battle for the guerrilla force and plan of action: the battle could not be a long one and many of the enemy had to be eliminated at short range and in the first few minutes of the battle. This meant that after throwing one of their two British Army-issue Mills grenades, to disable the first lorry and front occupants, the attack on those in the rear of the lorry would have to be savage and almost hand-to-hand after discharge of shotguns at close range, followed by bayonet and rifle-butt.
Apart from Barry who had experience of combat in the British Army, few of the guerrillas had any military experience other than guerrilla training periods during earlier months and most had no combat experience whatsoever. The force they were intending to attack however were all ex-military, probably every single one with combat experience at least in WW1, which had ended only two years previously.
In terms of leadership, all of the Auxies had held officer rank and, if in the field, had commanded a minimum of 30 soldiers if at the rank of lieutenant and 120 if a captain. Barry would hardly have commanded more than 14 at a stretch and no more than seven normally. All the British officers other than those who had been appointed in the field during wartime perhaps, would have received training in officer school whereas Barry had had to train himself while also training their fighting force.
One hundred years ago this force of guerrillas in West Cork carried out a courageous and successful attack on a merciless enemy, in conditions both physically and emotionally difficult. The result was a huge boost in morale for the forces of Irish resistance at a time when it was needed, in particular in rural Ireland, while other responses were being developed to meet the changing tactics of the enemy in the cities, for example seven days earlier in Dublin with the wiping out of the “Cairo Gang” of British Intelligence. Both events shook the British occupation authorities but did not deter them and the war thereafter intensified further.
As was becoming standard behaviour of the British armed forces after an attack on them, they retaliated against the civilian population. All the houses near the ambush site were burned but they also went on to burn houses, shops and barns in Kilmichael, Johnstown and Inchigeelagh. And four days later, on 3rd December, three IRA Volunteers were arrested in Bandon, Cork County by soldiers of the Essex Rifles; after beating them, their dead bodies were dumped on the roadside.11
Barry wrote that some of the British media printed lies about the Kilmichael ambush, claiming that the dead Auxies had been mutilated but of course that could have been on the basis of information supplied by the British occupation forces; certainly there had been close quarter fighting which included bayonets and rifle-butts. He also recorded that after that War, the British State had written to him asking him to confirm details of the Auxies’ deaths for the sake of pensions to relatives and that he had declined to reply. However the body of Gutteridge, the driver of the second lorry, who had been killed after escaping the ambush site, was disinterred in 1926 by the IRA at the request of relations and buried in the Church of Ireland graveyard in Macroom.
The false surrender of the Auxies was an important issue to explain the wiping out of the column which otherwise might have been seen as execution of prisoners after the battle. The incident was described in a number of recorded accounts, of which the earliest was in 1937 by participant Stephen O’Neill. Tom Barry’s, although years later (1949), remains the fullest published account of the battle by a participant. The false surrender was mentioned in a number of British sources, including by the Auxies’ former commander, Crozier, who quoted an unnamed source in the area in his Ireland Forever (1932).
In The IRA And Its Enemies Professor Peter Hart (1963–22 July 2010) took issue with the false surrender account, focussing on Tom Barry’s recall in his book. Mistakenly believing Crozier’s to have been the first published account (and a concoction), Hart asserted that the false surrender claim was invented to conceal the killing of surviving Auxiliary officers after surrendering.
Most of Hart’s claimed sources in interviews in 1988 have been disproved in research by a number of historians, including Meda Ryan, Brian Murphy and Niall Meehan, among others (including by some of his supporters): one participant was already dead when supposedly interviewed by Hart, another was considered by his son incapable due to ravages of age and a stroke (he would have been 97 years of age) and some utterances quoted were matched to recorded interviews, including Fr. John Chisholm’s in 1970, taken long before Hart’s alleged interviews (and to which only Hart had been given access for over a decade).
It would seem that the issue has been long settled but the controversy continues albeit without any real substance. Hart was one of those people active around Irish history who have been called “revisionists” which, in the Irish context, means historians who wish to present an alternative discourse to the popular one of anti-colonialist Irish forces fighting a courageous war of resistance against a powerful and ruthless military occupying power.12 History is not just about the past but also about the present and the future, in which we all have a stake, which no doubt influences what some historians would like to believe (and to make others believe). Understandable though all that may be, to plagiarise and to falsify in order to achieve the desired result is inexcusable.
After the 28th of November 1920 the myth of Auxiliary invincibility had been well and truly shattered and there would be many further engagements between the IRA and the Auxies, with varying results. A figure of 12,500 British Army troops stationed in County Cork during the conflict has been quoted but it is not clear whether this includes the ‘Tans, Auxies and the regular RIC. The war would continue with assassinations by both sides, ambushes and attacks on barracks by the guerrillas, burning of homesteads and towns by Crown forces along with raids including murders, detentions, torture and executions. Barry stated that the West Cork Flying Column had suffered 34 fatalities but that his 310 men had killed over 100 enemy combatants and wounded another 93 during that conflict.
The Truce of 11th July 1921 was followed by the Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed in London by Michael Collins and the Irish negotiating party against the advice of their English adviser Erskine Childers13 and ratifed by a slim enough majority in the First Dáil, the separatist Irish Parliament. Its limited provisions would lead to a vicious Civil War in which the majority of the guerrilla fighters and their close support structures were opposed to the new Free State Government; the latter however had the support of British armament and transport and a hastily-recruited regular army of native personnel.
During the Truce, Tom Barry married Lesley Mary Price, a 1916 Rising veteran (and later Director of Cumann na mBan, the Republican women’s auxiliary military organisation) and survived the War of Independence. He took the Anti-Treaty side and was appointed to the IRA Executive (although he later wrote that the considered the struggle unwinnable once Dublin was lost to the Free State forces – he believed a decisive blow should have been struck at the outset against the Free State and to challenge the British). Barry was taken prisoner with most of the Republican garrison of the Four Courts in the Battle for Dublin in July 1922 and imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail, later transferred to the internment concentration camp at Gormanstown in Co. Meath.
In September Barry escaped from the concentration camp and headed south, where he was appointed to command the Southern Division of the Republican forces, which eventually defeated, ended their resistance in May 1923. However, Republicans continued to be liable to arrest (and murder) by Free State forces and had to remain on the run (or emigrate) at least until the Amnesty of November 1924.
Narrowly outnumbered in a leadership vote on whether to end the Civil War, Barry had resigned from the IRA leadership as the Republican resistance limped on for a short period before the order to cease hostilities. However he returned to the leadership in 1927 and during the 1930s, like Republicans elsewhere in the territory of the State and the Republican Congress in Dublin, he was engaged in fighting the “Blueshirts”, the Irish fascist movement led by former IRA officer and comrade Eoin O’Duffy.14 And in May 1934, under the De Valera government, Barry was convicted of arms possession and jailed until December of that year. In March 1936 Vice-Admiral Henry Somerville was shot dead in his home in Castletownshend, Cork for attempting to recruit men to join the Royal Navy and Barry, though not tried for the act was believed to have been involved. When Sean McBride resigned as IRA Chief of Staff, Barry was elected to the position but resigned in 1938 over a tactical dispute.
Otherwise Barry settled down to a civilian post as Superintendent of Cork Harbour Commission from 1927-1965, during which he published his book but was much in demand for interviews and led Cork Republicans in commemorations of the War of Independence and of the Civil War. In the 1970s he publicly declared his support for the Provisional IRA (while disagreeing with some of their actions).
Tom Barry died on 2nd July 1980 — despite a number of questions regarding his political trajectory,15 perhaps Ireland’s foremost guerrilla leader, certainly in modern times. He had led many engagements against the British enemy and had lost not one; although in those engagements his force suffered some casualties they were always relatively very low. There are monuments to two of those battles at the site of the initial engagements, the Kilmichael Ambush and the Crossbarry Retreat, and to him personally at Fitzgerald Park in Cork City, near the bank of the river Lee (which also holds a monument to fellow Corkman and Barry’s opponent during the Civil War, Michael Collins).
In admittedly light research, I have been unable to find the date of the composition or publication of the Boys of Kilmichael ballad (which I presume to have been around the mid-1960s) and only a little about the author? (listed on a couple of sites), Declan Hunt himself, who played with groups Battering Ram and Marks Men. The musicians received enthusiastic reviews for the quality of their singing and playing, as well as for commitment impact of their lyrics.
From a historical point of view the Kilmichael song contained a surprisingly inaccurate theme in its depiction of the ‘Tans as being the targets of the ambush and perhaps this is a reflection of the also inaccurate description of that conflict as “the Tan War”. I amended the lyrics to figure the Auxies instead of the Tans and, in order to maintain the rhythm, had to change one line completely (see footnotes to lyrics).
The song has a number of slightly different versions both published and in the vernacular16 and has been recorded by a number of artists. The structure and even some of the lyrics are strongly based on an earlier song, Men of the West, by Michael Rooney (1873-1901)) and the air to which it is sung is the same as the other’s. Men of the West is about the 1798 United Irishmen rising in Mayo with some French military assistance and Conchúr Mag Uidhir won a prize for the translation of the lyrics into Irish as Fir and Iarthair at the 1903 Feis Ceoil (a traditional music convention held in different areas annually) in Mayo.
The video below (reproduced with kind permission of Anti-Imperialist Action) includes near the beginning a clip of the ballad being sung in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin at the end of last month. There are of course better renditions musically but this is the only one publicly available to date in which the lyrics record that it was the Auxiliaries who were defeated there.
LYRICS OF THE BALLAD (amended by me for historical accuracy)
BOYS OF KILMICHAEL
By Declan Hunt?
While we honor in song and story The memory of Pearse and McBride17 Whose names are illumined in glory With martyrs who long have since died; Forget not the boys of Kilmichael Who feared not the might of the foe: The day that they marched into battle They laid the Auxilliaries low.
So here’s to the boys of Kilmichael Those brave lads so gallant and true — They fought ‘neath the green flag of Erin And conquered the red white and blue.18
On the 28th day of November The Auxies came out of Macroom; They were seated in two Crossley Tenders That were bringing them straight to their doom. They were all on the road to Kilmichael And never expecting to stop, They there met the boys from the Column Who made a clean sweep of the lot.
So here’s to the boys of Kilmichael …
The sun in the west it was sinking ‘Twas the eve of a cold winter’s day When the Auxies we were eagerly waiting Sailed into the spot where we lay And over the hill came the echo The peal of the rifle and gun And the flames from the lorries brought tidings That the boys of Kilmichael had won.
So here’s to the boys of Kilmichael …
The lorries were ours before twilight And high over Dunmanway town Our banners in triumph were waving For the Auxies were beaten right down19. So we gathered our rifles and bayonets And soon left the glen so secure And we never drew rein till we halted At the faraway camp at Granure.20
So here’s to the boys of Kilmichael …
1At its height the Auxiliary Division RIC numbered 1,900.
2For whose capture Percival was awarded the Order of the British Empire.
3James Connolly, born to Irish migrants and reared in Edinburgh, developed into a revolutionary socialist and was Dublin Commandant of the Easter Rising but could not have known that McLoughlin would later himself become a communist.
4McLoughlin proposed the formation of bands of around 40 in which those for whom there were not enough firearms would be employed in roles such as first aid and demolition (scouting would have been another obvious role). Of course, as arms were seized those men could be armed. Interestingly, Liam Lynch had proposed the inclusion of Cumann na mBan and McLoughin had agreed; given the attitudes of the time one assumes their role would have been in an auxiliary one to that of the fighters.
5The location’s name is not directly related to Tom Barry but rather to the Norman family De Barry or, in Irish, De Barra; or possibly in West Cork of Ó Báire, an ancient Irish family name.
6I came across that account while searching for images for this article which by then was nearly completely written; had I come across it much earlier I doubt I would have written on the event at all but I hope I have added an additional something to the account, even if no more than about the ballad and about Barry himself.
7He had not been enlisted for the ambush party but followed them at a distance, his presence being discovered when nearing the site. He had begged to be allowed to stay and, unfortunately for him, had convinced them to do so.
8The Auxie who ran away had left his rifle behind so the Column had gained 18 modern rifles.
9Obviously this does not include the sniper or bomb attack.
10A number of accounts state that each of the attacking party had a rifle with 35 rounds which, if accurate, since accounts agree that shotguns were used, must mean some men carried a rifle in addition to a shotgun, which hardly makes sense. It is more likely that there were insufficient rifles for all and that some had shotguns, those in particular being assigned close-quarter fighting.
11Barry wrote that apart from the Auxies and Tans, who soon gained no mercy from the IRA, generally those who surrendered to the IRA were deprived of their weapons, told not to take up arms against the Irish people again and set free. Because of their treatment of civilians on raids and prisoners, an exception was made of soldiers of the Essex Regiment – but not until a note from Barry to their Commanding Officer warning him to have his men – and in particular his Intelligence Officer Arthur Percival — desist from torture and murder, was ignored. During WW2, to the disgust of many British, Dominion and Empire troops under his command, and civilians on the island, Lieut-General Percival surrendered Singapore to the Japanese Imperial Army along with 80,000 of his command, most of whom had not fired a shot. More than half of those POWs never returned home.
12Peter Hart rejected the term “revisionist historian”, saying it was pejorative, which in terms of Irish history it generally has been. In some other historical contexts however, for example the USA, revisionist historians have gone against the historical canon and have been concerned to tell the stories of the working class, women, indigenous people, slaves and ethnic minorities. Something similar has occurred in Britain. In Europe some revisionist historians have questioned the dominance of the post-Nazi discourse of a generally resisting population and researched the degree of collaboration among the occupied populations.
13Erskine Childers was an English sailor and author of the best-seller The Riddle of the Sands. He had brought his yacht The Aud, crewed by his wife and others, to Howth in 1914 to deliver Mauser rifles for the Irish Volunteers; these were in particular use during the 1916 Rising. He enlisted in the British Army for the duration of WW1 but, returning to Ireland, joined the reorganised Volunteers/ IRA, where he directed the insurrectionary war’s publicity department. Siding with the majority of the resistance military against the Anglo-Irish Treaty, he was captured during the Civil War, condemned to death by Free State military tribunal and executed. His son became fourth President of the Irish State.
14These were later incorporated into the Fine Gael political party, for generations one of the two main political parties in Governmentwhich, at the time of writing, is in coalition government with the Fianna Fáil and Green parties.
15He had advocated joining forces with Fianna Fáil during the 1930s and had also opened relations with Nazi Germany which he maintained up to 1939 while during WW2 he worked for the Irish State’s Army intelligence for the Southern Command with the rank of Commander and even wrote for its publication An Cosantóir.
16As for example in the lines
"For the boys of the Column were waiting
With hand grenades primed on the spot
And the Irish Republican Army
Made shit of the whole bloody lot."
17Two of the 14 executed by the British in Dublin after the 1916 Rising; Patrick Pearse was Commander-in-Chief and stationed at HQ (GPO and Moore Street) while Major John McBride joined the garrison at Jacobs at the last minute (he had his rank from the Irish Transvaal Brigade, in which he had fought the British in the 2nd Boer War).
18The Tricolour, not the green flag was the generally-accepted national flag at this time. The “red, white and blue” are the colours of the “Union Jack” the flag of the United Kingdom. The name of Ireland is “Éire” and “Erin”, although often used, does not exist (probably originally taken in error from the Genitive “na h-Éireann” or the dative, “in Éirinn”).
19My substituted line for “to show that the Tans had gone down”.
20The song lyrics I saw list “Glenure”; there are two places listed as “Glenure” in Cork County, both a long distance from Kilmichael, even without having fought a battle and being loaded down with captured equipment. However, in the military pension statement of Stephen O’Neill, one of the participants, I found the place listed as Granure which, at just over 8 miles away from the ambush site, was more reasonable, though still a heavy slog. They reached it about an hour before midnight.
Diarmuid Breatnach (Traducido al castellano al fondo)
(Reading time: 5 minutes)
” We made it! We made it! Safe for another year!”
“Shut up, you idiot! The day’s not over yet!”
Meanwhile, not far away ….
THE WREN-BOY TRADITION IN IRELAND
In England it is called “Boxing Day” but in Ireland the 26th of December is “St. Stephen’s Day”. Despite the Christian designation it has long been the occasion in Ireland for customs much closer to paganism.
It was common for a group of boys (usually) to gather and hunt down a wren. The wren can fly but tends to do so in short bursts from bush to bush and so can be hunted down by determined boys. The bird might be killed or kept alive, tied to a staff or in a miniature bower constructed for the occasion.
The Wren Boys would then parade it from house to house while they themselves appeared dressed in costume and/or with painted faces. In some areas they might only carry staff or wands decorated with colourful ribbons and metallic paper while they might in other areas dress in elaborate costumes, some of them made of straw (Straw Boys) and these were sometimes also known as Mummers although a distinction should be drawn between these two groups. The Mummers in particular would have involved acting repertoires with traditional character roles and costumes, music and dance routines while the simpler Wren Boys might each just contribute a short dance, piece of music or song. In all cases traditional phrases were used upon arrival, the Mummers having the largest repertoire for in fact they were producing a kind of mini-play.
The origins of the customs are the subject of debate but a number of Irish folk tales surround the wren. The bird is said in one story to have betrayed the Gaels to the Vikings, leading to the defeat of the former. There is a Traveller tradition that accuses the wren of betraying Jesus Christ to soldiers while another tradition has the bird supplying the nails (its claws) for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Yet another tradition has the wren as King of the Birds, having used its cunning in a competition to determine who would be the avian King, hiding itself under the Eagle’s wind and flying out above the exhausted bird when it seemed to have won, having left all others behind and could fly no higher.
By the 1960s the Wren Boy custom was beginning to die out even in areas where it had held fast but it slowly began to be revived by some enthusiasts. Nowadays fake wrens are used. Christmas Day in Ireland was traditionally a day to go to religious service and to spend at home with family or to go visiting neighbours. It was not a day of presents or of lights or Christmas Trees, customs brought in by the English colonizers in particular from Prince Albert, the British Queen Victoria’s royal consort, who was German. St. Stephen’s Day may have celebrated the Winter Solstice (the wren being a bird that on occasion sings even in winter) but moved to a Christian feast day; in any case it produced colour and excitement at a time which did not have the religious and commercial Christmas season to which, in decades, we have become accustomed.
The lovely song The Boys of Barr na Sráide from a poem by Sigerson Clifford takes as its binding thread the boys in his childhood with whom Sigurson went “hunting the wren”. It is sung here by Muhammed Al-Hussaini (currently resident in London and part of the singing circle of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí na hÉireann, meeting in the Camden Irish Centre). There are recordings of others performing this song well but the unusual origin of this one as well as its quality persuaded me to choose this one. In addition, I had the pleasure of participating in a singing circle with this lovely and modest singer in London in October this year (see The London Visit on the blog), who greeted me in Irish. Muhammed also plays the violin on this, accompanied by Mark Patterson on mandolin and Paul Sims on guitar.
LA TRADICIÓN DE “CHICOS DEL REYEZUELO” EN IRLANDA
En Inglaterra se llama “Boxing Day”, pero en Irlanda el 26 de diciembre es “la fiesta de San Esteban“. A pesar de la designación cristiana, ha sido durante mucho tiempo la ocasión en Irlanda de costumbres mucho más cercanas al paganismo.
Para eso era común que un grupo de niños(generalmente) o chavales se reuniera y cazara a un reyezuelo. Esepájaroes capaz de volar pero tiende a hacerlo en ráfagas cortas de arbusto a arbusto y, por lo tanto, puede ser cazado por niños determinados. El pájaro podía ser asesinado o mantenido vivo, atado a un bastón o en una glorieta en miniatura construida para la ocasión.
Los “Wren Boys” (Chicos del Reyezuelo) lo desfilarían de casa en casa mientras ellos mismos aparecían vestidos con disfraces y / o con caras pintadas. En algunas áreas, solo pueden llevar bastos o varitas decoradas con cintas de colores y papel metálico, mientras que en otras áreas pueden vestirse con trajes elaborados, algunos de ellos hechos de paja (Straw Boys/ Buachaillí TuI = Chicos de la Paja) y a veces también se los conoce como Mummers, aunque se debe hacer una distinción entre estos dos grupos. Los Mummers en particular tenían repertorios involucrados de actuación con roles y disfraces de personajes tradicionales, música y rutinas de baile, mientras que los Wren Boys más simples podrían contribuir con un baile corto, una pieza musical o una canción. En todos los casos se usaron frases tradicionales a la llegada, los Mummers tenían el mayor repertorio porque de hecho estaban produciendo una especie de pequeño teatro. Se les daba dinero , pastel o caramelos.
Los orígenes de las costumbres son objeto de debate, pero una serie de cuentos populares irlandeses rodean al reyezuelo. En una historia se dice que el pájaro traicionó a los Gaels a los Vikingos, lo que llevó a la derrota de los primeros. Hay una tradición de los Travellers (gente étnica nómada de Irlanda) que acusa al reyezuelo de traicionar a Jesucristo a los soldados, mientras que otra tradición dice que el pájaro suministra los tornillos (sus garras) para la crucifixión de Jesucristo. Sin embargo, otra tradición le tiene al reyezuelo como el Rey de los Pájaros, después de haber usado su astucia en una competencia para determinar quién sería el Rey de las aves, escondiéndose bajo el viento del Águila y volando por encima del pájaro agotado cuando parecía haber ganado, todos los demás detrás y no poder volar más alto.
En la década de 1960, la costumbre de Wren Boy comenzaba a desaparecer incluso en áreas donde se había mantenido firme, pero algunos entusiastas comenzaron a revivirla lentamente. Hoy en día se usan reyezuelos falsos. El día de Navidad en Irlanda era tradicionalmente un día para ir al servicio religioso y para pasarlo en casa con la familia o para visitar a los vecinos. No fue un día de regalos ni de luces ni de árboles de Navidad, costumbres traídas por los colonizadores ingleses en particular del alemán Príncipe Alberto, el consorte real de la Reina Victoria británica. El día de San Esteban puede haber celebrado el solsticio de invierno (el reyezuelo es un pájaro que en ocasiones canta incluso en invierno) pero se mudó a una fiesta cristiana; en cualquier caso, produjo color y emoción en un momento que no tenía la temporada de Navidad religiosa ni entonces la comercial a la que, en décadas, nos hemos acostumbrado.
La encantadora canción The Boys of Barr na Sráide (mezcla del inglés con el gaélico: “Los Chicos de la Altura de la Calle” [toponómico de puebo en el Condado de Kerry]) de un poema por Sigerson Clifford toma como hilo conductor a los chicos de su infancia con quienes Sigurson fue “cazando al reyezuelo”. Aquí lo canta Muhammed Al-Hussaini (actualmente residente en Londres y parte del círculo de canto de Comhaltas Ceoltóirí na hÉireann, reunido en el Centro Irlandés de Camden). Hay grabaciones de otros interpretando bien esta canción, pero el origen inusual de esta, así como su calidad, me convenció para elegir esta. Además, tuve el placer de participar en un círculo de canto con este encantador y modesto cantante en Londres en octubre de este año (ver The London Visit en el blog), que me recibió en irlandés. Muhammed también toca el violín en esto, acompañado por Mark Patterson con mandolina y Paul Sims con guitarra.