Irish Ballads

> Happy St. Patrick’s Day! In honor of the day, I offer here a short history of Irish ballads, taken from various sources. We have almost 1,100 of these in the Potter & Williams Irish collection, and I’m digitizing them when I find the time.

Street singers were known all over Europe. For centuries in Germany, Italy, France, and other countries they sold broadsheets dealing with the same topics popular today—love, crime, geniuses and freaks, disasters, famous outlaws, and politics. The trade flourished in England since the sixteenth century, and it was imported to the English-speaking eastern towns of Ireland in the late seventeenth century. Before printing their own ballads, the Anglo-Irish sang British ones. In the early part of the nineteenth century the broadside ballads became popular in the Irish countryside. In the poorest houses they might be pasted on the walls, under the effigy of a saint or a portrait of Napoleon or some national hero.

Keep in mind that these badly printed ballads are only the physical remnant of a verbal and musical art form. A ballad in paper is a rather sad, flat thing. It can assume unexpected dimensions when sung by a genuine Irish singer in the right surroundings.

Who wrote them? Some of the best ballads were taken from a traditional fund of anonymous ballads, often modified to address the moment. The topical songs were generally written by a staffer (some would say a hack poet) in the print shop, for pay. Some of the better writers like Oliver Goldsmith apparently wrote ballads in their youth anonymously. Some ballads were simply contributed by people who had something to say—rather like a blog is used today—a short burst from a personal platforrm, widely circulated and often soon forgotten. A number of them were written by teachers in small towns and villages, sometimes called “hedge schoolmasters,” in memory of the Penal Days when Catholic schools were forbidden, and had to be kept secretly in remote places. Often these teachers were, next to the landlord and the priest, the most important people in the parish.

Other writers of ballads were amateur poets, who like today’s vanity or self-publishers, would pay to have their own texts printed and circulated. They could easily afford copies of their own work—the average ballad went for 10 pence per dozen in the 1860s, or a halfpenny apiece. In fact, it was a lucrative source of revenue for printers, and some of them lived entirely on ballad production in cities like Dublin, Cork, and Belfast. Most of the ballads in our collection were gathered in Cork & Belfast in the mid-1860s, and sent to the donor of the collection, Alfred Williams, in 1879.

The ballads circulating were often the only form of protest in song accessible to the bulk of the peasantry, who practised unorganized opposition without clear social or political aims. Apart from short periods of relative prosperity, Irish peasants lived mostly on the edge of famine and misery. They were either laborers or tenant farmers who held their land on short leases. Landlords would often leave their estates in the hands of agents, who would extort as much as possible from the peasants. According to one 1830 street ballad:

Our absentee landlords have left us,
In London they cut a great dash,
While their tenants at home in poor Ireland
Must pay them the rent in hard cash.

When a tenant was evicted, either because he could not pay or because the lanlord wanted to consolidate his estate, the only choice was starvation or emigration.

Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish were never less than a third of all immigrants to the U.S. In 1845, the great potato rot touched off a mass migration. The disaster eliminated the sole subsistence of millions of peasants, thrusting them over the edge of starvation. For five weary years, the crops remained undependable, and famine swept through the land. Untold thousands perished, and the survivors, destitute of hope, wished only to get away. Altogether, almost 3.5 million Irishmen entered the U.S. between 1820 and 1880. By 1950, the Irish consisted of one fifth of all foreign born in New England.

The Irish left behind could hardly do anything more than survive, and the ballads they sang for entertainment or protest were a way to cope. During the Great Famine of the later 1840s, over 3 million people lived on charity, and death and emigration reduced the population by one third in 10 years.

There were many instances of Catholic/Protestant conflict. In some parts of Ulster, for instance, Protestant and Catholic tenants were mixed and contended for land, thus dividing the peasantry into two camps, each with their own associations, which led to a sort of religious war. At the end of the 18th century the Catholic Defenders were opposed to the Protestant Orangemen (an example of this is the ballad circulating entitled “Banished Defender”).

As soon as the broadsides were printed, they were taken over and retailed by ballad singers. The announcement of a fair, a race, or an election would call them to the roads, with a sheaf of ballads rolled in their hat or in the tail of their coat. They were a common sight everywhere, and struck foreign travellers with wonder. In 1842, a German arrived in Kilkenny one evening and found a place crammed with people who had come to see the horse races. Here is the sight in his own words:

“On these and similar occasions of popular excitement in Ireland the most remarkable objects are the ballad-singers, who are in no country so numerous as here. In Kilkenny there were literally twice as many ballad-singers as lamp posts standing in the street. Their usual stand is in the gutter which separates the footpath on which the foot passengers walk from the carriage way; and in this kennel they are perpetually strolling up and down. They are generally provided with a number of printed copies of the ballads which they sing, and their principal employment consists of in the sale of these songs, which they are continually waving in the air, with a peculiar and stereotyped motion of the hand. Crowds of poor people, beggars and rabble, perserveringly swarm arounnd them, follow them step by step, and listen to them with a degree of eagerness which may partly be attributed to the fact that the singers proclaim their own misfortune, which they have turned into verse, but still more to the great delight which the Irish take in music and singing, and in every new thing that passes in the streets.”

The ballad-singers remained very active until the 1880s, but saw a rapid decline as literacy and the production of newspapers rose. By the 19-teens they were becoming very few, and were all but extinct in the aftermath of WWI.


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