On the Unexpected Literary Merit in Folk Music

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d touch on an oft-neglected topic: the literary value of song lyrics.  Particularly, lyrics in traditional Irish folk songs.*

Exhibit A: “Roddy McCorley,” as performed by Tommy Makem.

O, see the fleet-foot host of men
Who speed with faces wan,
From farmstead and from fisher’s cot
Along the banks of the Ban.
They come with vengeance in their eyes:
Too late! too late are they,
For young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the Bridge of Toome today.

Up the narrow street he stepped,
Smiling, proud and young.
About the hemp-rope on his neck,
The golden ringlets clung.
There is never a tear in his blue eyes;
Both glad and bright are they,
And young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the Bridge of Toome today.

When he last stepped up that street,
His shining pike in hand,
Behind him marched in grim array,
A stalwart, earnest band.
For Antrim town! for Antrim town,
He led them to the fray!
And young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the Bridge of Toome today.

There is never one of all your dead,
More bravely fell in fray
Than he who marches to his fate
On the bridge of Toome today!
True to the last! true to the last,
He steps the upward way,
And young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the Bridge of Toome today.

This is one of my favorites.  I’m actually not super impressed by martyrs a lot of the time (especially when “martyrdom” is being hanged for trying to overthrow a government), but I really admire the way Roddy McCorley is described here, so you can actually envision him and the absolute vitality of this character, and then it contrasts so nicely with the actual theme of the song.

Exhibit B: “The Rising of the Moon,” as performed by The Dubliners.

“And come tell me, Seán O’Farrell, tell me why you hurry so?”
“Hush, a bhuachaill, hush and listen,” and his cheeks were all a-glow.
“I bear orders from the captain, get you ready quick and soon,
For the pikes must be together at the risin’ of the moon.”
At the risin’ of the moon, at the risin’ of the moon,
For the pikes must be together at the risin’ of the moon.

“And come tell me, Seán O’Farrell, where the gatherin’ is to be?”
“In the old spot by the river, right well known to you and me.
One more word—for signal token, whistle out the marchin’ tune,
With your pike upon your shoulder, at the risin’ of the moon.”
At the risin’ of the moon, at the risin’ of the moon,
With your pike upon your shoulder, at the risin’ of the moon.

Out from many a mudwall cabin, eyes were watching through the night,
Many a manly heart was beating for the blessed morning light.
Murmurs ran along the valley to the banshee’s lonely croon,
And a thousand pikes were flashing by the risin’ of the moon.
By the risin’ of the moon, by the risin’ of the moon,
And a thousand blades were flashing by the risin’ of the moon.

All along that singing river that black mass of men was seen,
High above their shining weapons flew their own beloved green.
“Death to ev’ry foe and traitor! Whistle out the marching tune,
and hurrah, me boys, for freedom! ‘Tis the risin’ of the moon.”
‘Tis the risin’ of the moon, ’tis the risin’ of the moon,
and hurrah my boys for freedom! ’tis the risin’ of the moon.

The third stanza is my favorite, because the imagery and syntax are just so perfect.

Exhibit C: “The Foggy Dew,” as performed by Luke Kelly.

As down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I.
Their 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 Sulva or Sud El Bar.
And from the plains of royal Meath strong men came hurrying through.
While Britannia’s Huns, with their long range guns
Sailed in by the foggy dew.

‘Twas Britannia bade our Wild Geese go
That small nations might be free.
But their lonely graves are by Silva’s waves
Or the shore of the Great North Sea.
Oh, had they died by Pearse’s side or fought with Cathal Brugh.
Their names we would keep where the fenians sleep
‘Neath the shroud of the foggy dew.

But the bravest fell, and the requiem bell
Rang mournfully and clear.
For those who died that Eastertide 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.

While opinions on the Easter Uprising may vary, this song portrays in beautifully.  That said, I think my favorite stanza is the one that Luke Kelly left out:

Back to the glen I rode again and my heart with grief was sore.
For I parted with those valiant men whom I never would see more.
And to and fro in my dreams I will go
And I’d kneel and I’d pray for you,
For slavery fled, O glorious dead,
When you fell in the foggy dew.

*Disclaimer:  Opinions and propaganda contained in lyrics may not necessarily—and, in fact, almost certainly do not—reflect the opinions of Cara Kennaway or the Word Nerds because terrorists everywhere are jerks, even if they have cool, well-written music.

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