This is an extract from a paper given by Andrew Scott to the 23rd Irish Australasian conference in Adelaide in December 2016.
The use of folk songs to help teach Irish history has not been sufficiently developed in Australia. The evocative power of historical Irish ballads can spark people’s interest in that history and can encourage some to embark on a personal quest to find details of their Irish ancestors. The outcomes of this genealogical research often reveal a much more nuanced story than is anticipated at the outset. That personal quest can therefore bring about a much better knowledge of history.
One clear legacy of my father’s Irish heritage that came down to me was in the form of folk songs played on vinyl records and audio cassette tapes in our home and experienced live at Melbourne’s Dan O’Connell Hotel in Carlton, which we visited on many Saturday afternoons during my teenage years from the mid-1970s. These fostered in me an identification, and created a curiosity, which led me to search out my own genealogy.
The songs I heard featured many stories of Irish struggles against English or Saxon oppressors. One of those songs was ‘The Foggy Dew’, sung by The Dubliners. I liked that song and others like it, and I learned to play the tin whistle and join in the informal, participatory music sessions in the front section of ‘the Dan’.
‘The Foggy Dew’, like many other folk songs we heard, appealed to a sense of ancestral Celtic identity with which I, like many others, felt a need to connect. I did not, however, fully know the words of that particular song, nor did I really understand what it was about, until, by good fortune, I found myself studying history seriously at The University of Melbourne with a lecturer named David Philips when I was in my late twenties. David played an audio cassette tape of that same song, by that same band, at the start of one of several lectures which he gave on Ireland, as part of a modern British history subject.That lecture influenced me a great deal. It was a strikingly effective use of music in teaching, as well as exciting to hear that familiar song played, and then to have the events which it narrated fully explained, in such a dramatic fashion as he did.
The title of the lecture that David Philips gave that day was: ‘In bloody protest for a glorious thing’. Those words were from a poem by Pádraig Pearse, one of the leading 1916 rebels, written the night before his execution and describing the way he and his brother were about to die. David Philips also described how the Easter Rising gave new heart and hope to a previously disillusioned W B Yeats, who had written in his poem ‘September 1913‘, after the death of one national hero of the 1848 Irish rebellion in Tipperary, that: ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,/ It’s with O’Leary in the grave’, but who then, after witnessing these new martyred heroes of the Rising, wrote in his poem ‘Easter 1916’:
…MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
In his lecture David explained the role of those participants in the Easter Rising, and he conveyed the symbolic importance and immense historical effect of the hoisting of a flag of Irish republicanism above the General Post Office in Dublin for six days in 1916.
David Philips was part of The University of Melbourne’s History Department in that golden era in a Faculty that also included notable individuals like the proudly Irish-Australian Dinny O’Hearn. The subject was taught by another distinguished historian, Dr Ian Britain, together with Dr Philips. That was also an era of turmoil in Northern Ireland that began with the stirrings of the civil rights movements in the 1960s, then the long aftermath of retributions for the Bloody Sunday of 1972, the Irish Republican Army’s 1979 murder of Lord Louis Mountbatten, and the 1981 hunger strikes led by Bobby Sands resulting in his and seven other deaths. The fate of the hunger strikers engaged the sympathy of the notable Irish-Australian literary intellectual at the University of Melbourne, Vincent Buckley.
I grew up being very aware of these contemporary ‘Troubles’, but I did not fully understand their historical antecedents until David Philips’ lectures and his powerful combination of intellectual analysis with music. The words of ‘The Foggy Dew’ song mentions Fenians – and Fenians had featured in another notable ballad I had heard, while growing up, about the successful springing in 1876 from Fremantle jail of six Irish political prisoners and their escape to America. That ballad, which celebrates the Irish republican cause, is called ‘The Catalpa’ after the whaling ship on which the brazen escape was made from the hapless British colonial authorities. The Fremantle jail break occurred on Easter Sunday 1876, 40 years almost to the day before the 1916 Easter Rising.
Another phrase David Philips used to headline one of his earlier lectures on the condition of Ireland was ‘The most distressful country’. This is how Ireland was described in ‘The Wearing of the Green’, a song expressing the pain felt by the supporters of the defeated rebellion of 1798, centred on Wexford.
Dr Philips was a South African who left his homeland because of his total rejection of apartheid. He was himself an outsider, an opponent of injustice who empathised with oppressed peoples, be they black South Africans or Irish. At the very time David Philips gave the lecture which so affected me he was being a rebel himself against the neo-liberalisation of Australian universities which has had so many negative consequences. When apartheid fell in South Africa he was overjoyed to go back there under President Nelson Mandela to research and gather materials which he would use for many years at the University of Melbourne about the history of race relations in his homeland and the important role which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission played in post-apartheid South Africa.
David Philips’ rebellious nature as an academic is another tradition worth reflecting upon and recovering, as we remember the Easter Rising about which he educated me and many other students so eloquently, and with such lasting effect. David, in addition, outlined the circumstances leading up to the 1798 rebellion, and the more constitutional approach to Catholic emancipation which was pursued by Daniel O’Connell (thus reminding me of who the hotel in Carlton, Melbourne was named after, and why). He further explained how O’Connell came to dominate the Irish political scene from the 1820s until his death in 1847 and how he had considerable success in reducing religious discrimination.
In the series of Irish rebellions The 1798 Irish rebellion has produced the most folk songs regularly played in Australia. Indeed, the words for original Australian folk songs were often written, played and recorded to the tunes of those Irish songs. Those new songs express a strong sense of Celtic identification and they associate an Irish rebellious spirit with Australian historical events like the 1854 Eureka Stockade on the Ballarat goldfields and the life of bushranger Ned Kelly. The spread of these songs, in turn, owes much to a band called The Cobbers.
Of the two big folk bands in Melbourne during the 1970s that played on weeknights to crowds packed into the wide and long back section of the Dan O’Connell Hotel, The Bushwackers were the more prominent, and also the more polished, with their several studio albums. However, The Cobbers were the more explicitly political, particularly in relation to the Irish question in that period because they identified so strongly with ‘the Celts’. They expressed the continuing appeal of songs of oppression even in the new country to which many Irish had come.
The band’s members included one recently arrived Irish immigrant: Christy Cooney. He is pictured fourth from the left on the above album cover, in which all the band members are deliberately presented as ghost-like, only partly visible: befitting their role as musical intermediaries between the past white colonists in the bush and late 20th century audiences. On that album, Australia: From Celts to Cobbers, which was first released in 1976 and which was The Cobbers’ greatest musical success, there is a song about Ned Kelly’s gang, sung by Christy Cooney, to the tune of – and its words very much in keeping with the defiant spirit of – ‘The Wearing of the Green’. There is also a spirited rendition of ‘The Catalpa’, proclaiming how the imprisoned Fenians
For seven long years…had served here,
And seven long more had to stay,
For defending their country, old Ireland,
For that they were banished away
but, how following their escape,
Now they’re safe in America
At last they’re able to cry,
‘Hoist up the green flag and the shamrock,
Hurrah for old Ireland we’ll die’.
Christy Cooney also sings on that recording ‘The Cross of the South’, about the Eureka Stockade, extolling the role of Irish-born Peter Lalor. The words of that song have a very Irish – indeed, more particularly, I venture, a very Easter Rising – sentiment in the sense of rebelling for a just cause, even if the immediate effect is death and bloodshed. This is especially evident in the final words:
Bold Peter Lalor lay shot on the ground
Where the soldiers had left him for dead.
And the flag that he loved lay there by his side,
The white stars all stained with red…
Peter Lalor he rose on his knees in the dust,
These wild words poured from his mouth
You can murder us all in black tyranny’s name
But you can’t kill the cross of the south.
This is possibly an interpretation projected on to the events of the Eureka Stockade by the writer of the lyrics, Kenneth Cook, in a way that was influenced by his knowledge of the Easter Rising. Such a view is consistent with some historians’ interpretations of Eureka that emphasise the Irish presence, whereas others emphasise Eureka’s British Chartist democratic influences and implications: others emphasise the Ballarat gold miners’ claimed self-interest against paying licence fees. I can attest that an image of the Irish as the dynamic force in Australian political history was widely shared among members of the Melbourne folk music scene during the 1970s.
The Cobbers’ performance of the song ‘The Cross of the South’ also prominently features the Irish drum, the bodhrán, particularly at its climax. That is a positive and stirring song despite its considerable masculine emphasis and its valorisation of one individual male leader, limitations which are all the more glaring now that we have the benefit of Clare Wright’s recent feminist book We Are The Rebels, reclaiming the long-forgotten female rebels of Eureka. The drumming of the stick on the taut skin of the bodhrán, which persists long after the last words of the song, represents a portent of the winning of representative democracy, the right to vote, for adult males in Victoria within three years of the Eureka Stockade, before almost anywhere else in the world. In addition, the title song of the From Celts to Cobbers album, the lyrics of which were written by band member Chris Armstrong, brother of lead singer John, points out that the Irish emigrants to Australia
Were Celtic born and Celtic bred
They left their native land
But not through choice
To halt their voice,
The Crown had raised its hand.
This song is to the tune of ‘Roddy McCorley’ but is more hopeful and ends much more positively than that original song, which had lamented McCorley’s hanging in Toome, County Antrim, before he could be rescued by his fellow rebels. Roddy McCorley was believed to be an actual participant in the 1798 uprising by the United Irishmen. The song ‘Australia: From Celts to Cobbers, by contrast, goes on to tell the story of the achievements of Irish transportees and settlers in Australia and celebrates their ‘Celtic pride’ and how it helped them to overcome adversity: ‘from chains to liberty’.
The song ‘Moreton Bay’ was also performed by Christy Cooney on the From Celts to Cobbers record. It narrates, in the first person, the plight of an Irishman transported to a particularly brutal Queensland convict prison:
I am a native of Erin’s island,
And banished now from my native shore,
They tore me from my aged parents,
And from the maiden I do adore.
‘Moreton Bay’ is sung to the Irish folk tune ‘Boolavogue’, another of the 1798 rebellion songs. ‘Moreton Bay’ has been described as one of the strongly anti-authoritarian popular ballads along with those recounting the exploits of bushrangers which became a feature of the folk culture of Australia.
People such as myself, of partial Irish descent in Australia, from fragmented and mixed families in terms of religion and ethnicity, have pieced together a partial understanding of Irish history, including events such as the Easter Rising, through folk songs, genealogy and university education. Irish music has contributed to stoking the fires of interest by Australians to rediscover their Irish ancestries, which had in many cases been hidden or downplayed. The widespread fascination with family history is helping more people to uncover the various Irish components of their ‘Anglo-Celtic’ and other ancestries in Australia, as in other ‘new world’ societies. Recent developments of DNA tests purporting to identify the extent of people’s ‘Irish’ ethnicity, while needing to be interpreted cautiously, will also likely prove popular.
The words of the poet W B Yeats are the best-known about the Easter Rising. The song ‘The Foggy Dew’, penned by Canon Charles O’Neill after 1919, is the best-known musical rendition of the rebellion. The final words of ‘The Foggy Dew’ rival Yeats’ ‘Easter Sunday’ in conveying the powerful overall poignancy of the Easter Rising.
As down the glen one Easter morn
To a city fair rode I
There armed lines of marching men
In squadrons passed me by
No fife did hum nor battle drum
Did sound its dread tattoo
But the Angelus bells o’er the Liffey swell
Rang out through the foggy dew
Right proudly high over Dublin Town
They hung out the flag of war
Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky
Than at Suvla or Sud El Bar.
After several other verses, the song concludes with a haunting description:
But the bravest fell, and the requiem bell
Rang mournfully and clear
For those who died that Easter tide
In the springing of the year
And the world did gaze, in deep amaze
At those fearless men, but few
Who bore the fight that freedom’s light
Might shine through the foggy dew.
The phrase ‘The Foggy Dew’ describes the mist and the moistness of Dublin on that morning of 24 April 1916.
There remains a fog in the sense of a lack of clarity about the extent of Irish heritage in Australia which needs to be further cleared. Although some two million Australians have claimed some Irish ancestry at recent censuses, the real number that has such ancestry is likely to be closer to seven million.
As the Angelus Church bells o’er Dublin’s Liffey river rang out in April 1916, so the words of a dedicated university lecturer rang out with considerable meaning for me in Australia many decades later. The further effective use of folk songs in teaching can now encourage other Australians to explore, identify, express and reflect upon their own, complicated Irish heritages.
Andrew teaches Australian politics, international comparative politics, economic policy, social policy, and political history at Deakin University.