Based on truth and story: the Irish ballad tradition and its relevance to today.

by Mervyn Ennis

Benjamin Luxon Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye

The recent news of the death of Dunboyne, Co. Meath native Rory Mason, 23, who died as a Ukrainian armed forces serviceman fighting with the International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine near the Russian border; the death of Dublin native and cameraman for Fox News Pierre Zakrzewski, who was killed in April while covering fighting in Ukraine; and the shrapnel injury to Meath native Brian Meagher, reopens the catalogue on the Fighting Irish. 

Irish Fighting Abroad

Indeed from 1601 with the flight of the Wild Geese from our shores to the present day, Irish people have fought as soldiers on almost every European battlefield of consequence and in the Americas.  Initially, they were driven to do so by dispossession, religious persecution, political turmoil and restricted life chances.  Latterly the lure was for a sense of  adventure or as stated in Rory Mason’s case his ‘ deep sense of right and wrong and an inability to turn the other way in the case of injustice.’ However, running parallel with the stereotype of the fighting Irish and stretching back for just as long is the Irish conviction of the futility of war and its immediate impact on the individual and the family.  This is not found in the history books which are usually written by the victors, but in the poems and street ballads which are often times written by the vanquished.

Anti-war Ballads

I cite four different street ballads: ‘Johnny I hardly knew You’ which dates from the British Imperial Colonial tea war in Ceylon 1795-1818; ‘Mrs McGrath’,1776, from an English-Spanish conflict and ‘the Kerry recruit’ which is an account from the Crimean war 1864\6 and ‘Paddy’s Lament’ from the American Civil War 1863-65.

Ireland did not enjoy an industrial revolution on par with other parts of Europe; the Catholic population was confined to the poorer lands on mountains and bog. So it was difficult to sustain a family; consequently, many were impoverished.  Initially, they were debarred from joining the Army or Navy, so they emigrated to join the Catholic armies of Europe. When the British authorities realised the extent to which the Irish were being recruited into other European armies, they repealed the enlistment rules and gave Irish Catholics entry into the armed forces if they secured a recommendation of a protestant minister.

The Street Ballads speak of the enticement of the Recruiting sergeant, as he strides through the villages and towns with a fanfare and seduces stalwart peasant lads to take the Saxon shilling.  This meant money up front and included a uniform, and the promise of a pension and foreign travel. Similar enticements are used by enlistment agents and recruiting offices to this day

‘Oh Mrs McGrath’ the Sergeant said,

Would you like to make a soldier out of your son, Ted?

With a Scarlet coat and a big cocked hat,

Now Mrs McGrath, wouldn’t you like that’…

The Kerry Recruit, tired of footing turf around Tralee, falls under the spell of the recruiting sergeant who approaches him and asks him to enlist by placing a bob in his fist with the promise of getting a half score more when they got back to headquarters. Here too the hat and uniform get a mention.

‘the first thing they gave me it was a red coat
with a wide strap of leather to tie around my throat
they gave me a quare thing I asked what is that
they said it was a cockade for my hat.’

The next thing they gave me they called it a gun
with powder and shot and a place for me thumb
Well first she spat fire and then she spat smoke
she gave a great leap and me shoulder near broke

And Currently

Sevastopol, Ukraine (

With a minimum of training, the recruits were placed on a warship and taken to the Crimean peninsula where they landed at Balaklava in Sevastopol. The same land is now heavily contested once again by Russia Versus Ukraine. The song rings as true today with many similarities to when it was written 150 years ago. Another broadsheet of the period ‘The Battle of Alma ‘recounts

To Sebastopol the Russians fled,
And left their wounded and their dead;
The river, that day, I am sure ran red
With the blood that was spilt as Alma,

This accusation was also made about the Russians leaving their dead in the fields from the commencement of the present war in February 2022.

‘The Kerry Recruit’ records a fairly accurate account of the Crimean conflict and how it unfolded from the soldier’s point of view.

 ‘Next morning for action the bugle did call
and they gave us hot breakfast of powder and ball
the balls were so thick and the fire was so hot
I lay in the ditch for fear I’d be shot…

‘Twas there we lay bleeding stretched on the cold ground
both heads, legs and arms were all scattered around
I thought if me mam and me cleaveens were nigh
sure they’d bury me decent and raise a loud cry

The Kerry Recruit song was banned by the British forces in Ireland as they considered it an anti-recruiting song.

The other songs cut straight to the chase of the reality of war. Mrs McGrath and Johnny, I hardly knew you. They give a heartbreaking perspective on the horror and futility of war and although tinged with humour they give a firsthand account of the injuries and lifelong disabilities inflicted.

‘Johnny, I hardly knew you’ is a classic anti-war song.  It tells the story of a young man returning to Ireland from the Ceylon tea war.  He is greeted and welcomed home by his partner and child who barely recognise him.  She is shocked at his bedraggled appearance as he is blinded and has lost his arms and legs in the conflict.  She challenges him with a exasperated what the hell were you thinking off to go to war.  Originally it was sung to a slow air that drew out the pathos and pain of the young woman  ‘With your drums and guns and guns  and drums, hurroo, hurroo The enemy nearly slew ye Oh my darling dear, Ye look so queer Johnny I hardly knew ye.’

Shocked at his injuries and poor state of health she takes him into the fold of her arms and asks ‘Where are your eyes that were so mild when my heart you so beguiled, why did ye run from me and the child, Oh Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

Where are your legs that used to run, when you went for to carry a gun,  indeed your dancing days are done Oh Johnny, I hardly knew ye’.


Paddy’s Lament comes from the American Civil war where 200,000 Irish fought, and recounts the story of a number of friends packing up and selling what they had and leaving kit and kin to go seek their fortune in America only to realise the real wealth and love they left behind them.

‘Well I sold me ass and cow, my little pigs and sow
My little plot of land I soon did part with
And me sweetheart Bid McGee, I’m afraid I’ll never see
For I left her there that morning broken-hearted…..When we got to Yankee land, they shoved a gun into our hands

Saying “Paddy, you must go and fight for Lincoln”

General Meagher to us he said if you get shot or lose your head
Every murdered soul of you’se will get a pension
Well, me self I lost me leg, they gave me a wooden peg,
And by God, this is the truth to you I mention
Well I think me self in luck if I get fed on Indian buck’

The promises of Meagher were made to be broken.

The heartbreak experienced by those left behind as evidenced in those simple Street Ballads resonates all the way back to the departure of Sarsfield as the Wild Geese crowded on board the last sailing on 22 December 1691. The historian Macaulay penned the following, ’As the last boats pulled off there was a rush into the surf.  Some women caught hold of the ropes, were pulled out into the depth, clung till their fingers were cut through and perished in the waves.  The ships began to move. A wild and terrible wail arose from the shores that even the stern Cromwellian could not hear unmoved by the bitter cry.

Up to the run-up to the Great War 1914-18, the poetic themes tended to be about love, beauty, heroes, nature, life, and death.  They also tended to be written by poets with little or no direct experience of war.  As the war commenced poems tended to be ‘stirring war-like verses displaying triumphant idealism, fervent patriotism, and optimistic songs ‘singing of faiths and hope’ and a far cry from the realities experienced in the trenches. The Irish Ballad tradition based on truth and story was more honest and told it as it was as these ballads bear testament .

Eric Bogle

Mervyn Ennis has an MA from University College Dublin in Social Work. He retired as head social worker from the Irish Defence Forces after 21years service in the Personnel Support Services which he helped found in 1992.


We are reminded of Australian anti-war songs such as ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ about World War One, written and sung by Eric Bogle, and ‘Only Nineteen’ by Redgum about the Vietnam War. Significantly, Bogle’s anti-war song is now heard more and more on Anzac day.