A New Irish Song by Ian Newman

Ian Newman is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, and a fellow of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish studies. He specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British and Irish literature. He is the author of The Romantic Tavern: Literature and Politics in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2019), and co-editor of Charles Dibdin and Late Georgian Culture (Oxford University Press, 2018). He is also responsible for a digital project tracing the meeting places of the London Corresponding Society and is a contributing editor to the Keats Letters Project.

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Captain Charles Morris’s song, “A New Irish Song,” was written for the annual celebration of Charles James Fox’s first election victory in 1793. In it, Morris assumes the role of the stage Irishman in ways that I find particularly suggestive for thinking about the uses of caricature and character in political satire. “The New Irish Song” adopts the predictable crude stereotypes of the Irish, but the object of the satire is not the Irishman whose identity is being impersonated, but the Prime Minister, William Pitt.

Portrait of the Right Honourable William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806),by Joseph Hoppner (1758-1810). The original is considered to be that commissioned by Lord Mulgrave in 1804 and which is now at Cowdray Park.

Indeed, in the song, the stage Irishman becomes the object of sympathy as he suffers thanks to the economic hardships that resulted from Pitt’s War with France. The song provides an excellent case study for how the national identities of the “other” were appropriated, not to mock that otherness, but to provide an outsider perspective on English politics.

Throughout the romantic period there were countless songs that were published under the title “Irish Song,” and the various appearance of songs under that title reflect the complicated colonial politics of Ireland, as Leith Davis has pointed out (2012: 97). Davis traces the use of the title to the late seventeenth century, and identifies a series of types of Irish song, ranging from songs based on Gaelic traditional tunes, but repacked with English words, through Anglo-Irish political ballads such as ‘Lillibulero,’ to later eighteenth-century comic, often bawdy songs identifying the Irish with drinking and sexual appetite, including, for example, Charles Dibdin’s “Irish Drinking Song.” This consideration of types of “Irish Songs” might be extended by considering the song by Captain Morris, one of the most famous—certainly most notorious—song writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Morris’s own national identity is complex, and while his early biography remains elusive, the consensus seems to be that his father was Welsh, but he was himself born in Ireland near Cork, moving at an early age to Carlisle. He seems to have spent most of the rest of his life in England, apart from a stint in America during the American Wars, after which he returned briefly to Ireland where he joined the Irish Dragoons (Waddington, 2011). He then joined his Majesty’s Life Guards, enabling him to move to London, where became a close companion of the English elite, famously articulating his preference for London life in his song “Town and Country.” He seems to have identified primarily as English, but in ways that indicate the inadequacies of thinking about national identity in terms of simple “identification,” suggesting instead a much more complex form of national belonging, one that finds expression in songs such as “The New Irish Song.”

Morris’s early poetic reputation rested on a series of extremely smutty (even pornographic) songs, including “The Plenipotentiary” and “Jenny Sutton” that the historian Vic Gatrell has described as displaying “unabashed phallic narcissism” (Gatrell, 2006: 299). From these inauspicious beginnings Morris went on to become one of the most widely admired performers of Anacreontic song, singing songs in praise of wine’s magic ability to hold off old age and rejuvenate the weary spirit. Morris performed these songs around the punchbowl of The Sublime Society of Beefsteaks, for whom he acted as both songwriter and punch-maker-in-chief for around fifty years, from 1785 when he was first elected to the Society until the 1830s when he finally retired (see Wondrich, 2010: 109-110, 110-20). Among the other members of the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks, was Charles Howard, the 11th Duke of Norfolk, who became Morris’s close friend and patron, and the Prince of Wales – the future King George IV who Morris regularly entertained both at Carlton House and at meetings of the Prince’s own club the Je Ne Scai Quoi.

But during the 1780s and 1790s Morris was best known as an unparalleled writer of explicitly political song. He was catapulted to fame at the time of the 1784 Westminster Election when he wrote and performed a series of songs attacking William Pitt such as “The Virgin Minister” and “Billy’s Too Young to Drive Us.” These political, satirical songs formed an oral counterpoint to the graphic satire with which they were in frequent conversation. Morris’s early public reputation was defined by his relationship to Fox, for whom he performed at meetings of the Whig Club and at various celebratory convivial dinners.

At the 1793 celebration of the anniversary of Fox’s first election victory – an annual event that had become a fixture in the Foxite calendar, and one of the primary public occasions by which Fox could rally those who were united in opposition to Pitt’s war with France – Morris performed “A New Irish Song.” Morris performed the song in character, as a stage Irishman, as the idiomatic locutions of the opening lines indicate:

 

Be easy with War! here’s a fine piece of bother on’t,

Faith I can’t make either one thing or t’other on’t,

Devil may burn both the Father and Mother on’t,

Billy’s undone us by War.

Oh Lord! what will the damage be &c &c.

 

But the content of the song is more sophisticated than the use of dialect suggests. It does not employ the stage Irishman as a foil to skewer Pitt’s misguided war in a merely generalized way, rather it proceeds with pointed references to the deprivations of Irish soldiers, denunciations of Pitt’s economic policies, and specific criticisms of his military tactics, in a way that is clearly designed to demonstrate Morris’s sophisticated understanding of the complex political situation about which he wrote. Here’s a few sample stanzas which will provide some examples of what I mean:

 

For the poor out of bread, what a fine consolation too,

Winter at hand, and all trade in stagnation too;

Nothing to swallow, but lumps of taxation too.

Billy’s undone us by war.

Oh Lord! what will the damage be &c &c.

Then, what are our gains, for the millions he squanders now?

Plentiful loss of brave Troops and Commanders now,

Rotting like sheep, in the big bogs of Flanders now!

We’re murder’d by thousands, and pay for the slaughter too,

Nothing to drink, to the arse up in water too;

Dutch running off, and ourselves marching after too.

Our Fleets and our Gun-Boats won’t answer their uses too,

Horse of no service for ditches and sluices too,

Cannon too late, and all left as the duce is too.

We’re flux’d, till our life streams away from our bowels too,

Drench’d so with rain, ye might scrape us with trowels too,

Cattle all glander’d , and all full of rowels too… [1]

…Troth you’ve purchas’d at Touloon a slippery station too,

Laid out our cash in a wild speculation too;

And united all France, in a d—n’d indignation too.

 

These barbed comments on Pitt’s war were all the more effective as they were sung to the tune “Oh Dear What Can the Matter Be,” a relatively recent song dating from the 1770s, concerning whether Johnny will return from the fair with “a bunch of blue ribbons”. There are several early versions of this song, some containing a disturbing undercurrent of sexual violence (at least to my 21st century ears), but in general the song seems to have been regarded an expression of childlike pleasures and innocence. There were 16 verses of “The New Irish Song” altogether, and as with all lengthy strophic songs, the challenge of performance was to vary each verse sufficiently so that it never becomes dull. It seems reasonable to suppose then that Morris may have played up the simplicity of his Irish character in the early verses, his stage-Irish brogue associated with the innocence of the tune. As the song proceeded, however, and the sufferings of war enumerated, that innocence becomes increasingly ironic, the satire biting more deeply as the accusations mount against Pitt, and the audience recognizes that “Billy’s undone us by war” was not just a funny line, but a miserable cry of hopelessness.

Morris’s performance of this song at the 1793 Anniversary Dinner proved so popular that he was called upon to repeat it later in the evening. “It has much point and satire upon the present situation of public affairs” the Morning Chronicle reported, “the applause was very great.” The words to the song appeared in the same paper the next day, and it subsequently circulated in numerous song collections, including Paddy’s Resource, a collection of songs that was published by the United Irishmen, explicitly as political propaganda, suggesting that Morris’s song was taken seriously, not as a mockery of Irishness, but as speaking on behalf of the Irish, and as a political protest song. In the collection it appears alongside much more strident songs in the third person imperative voice, preaching abstract philosophical messages about “Freedom” “Liberty” “Unity” and “The Rights of Man.” In this context, the sophistication of Morris’s satirical method becomes markedly pronounced. Morris doesn’t appeal to abstract political ideals, as much political song of the period did, rather it reacted to and critiqued specific issue of policy, a technique that was enabled by assuming the Irish perspective.

Morris’s own Irish origins were perhaps a motivating factor in this sympathetic attitude towards the Irish, but cannot fully explain it, his attitude being much more complex than either straightforward mockery or simple identification. Morris’s assumption of the conventions of the stage Irishman was played for laughs – Morris was after all an entertainer at the political meetings at which he performed, he was successful to the extent that people found him funny – but the humour of his assumption of the Irish “character” was not that of cruel derision towards the persona he adopted, rather the “in character” performance enables the comedy of recognition, as we see pointed out in darkly vivid detail some of the consequences of Pitt’s attitude towards the Irish population implicit in his policies in the war with France.

This strategy was by no means unique to “The New Irish Song.” Indeed Morris used this strategy in several earlier songs including “The Treaty of Commerce” another “Irish Song” and “Billy Pitt and the Farmer” in which Morris adopts the persona of an American. In each case these are not highly refined characters that Morris develops, but fairly crude caricatures assumed for comic effect, that nevertheless take as the main satirical target something other than the persona being impersonated. In other words, this is not impersonation as an end in itself, but an enabling appropriation of the identity of the outsider. The humor of the satire then lies not in laughing at the character adopted, but in the uneasy relations between the performer, the character impersonated, the target of satirical attack, and the audience. This multifaceted dynamic is suggestive, I think, of the complexities of national affiliation in the period.

Notes

[1] Glanders is a life-threatening disease contracted by horses, causing fever, cough, lesions that can rupture and ulcerate, enlarged lymph nodes, and nasal discharge. It may be transmitted from infected animals to people.

Rowels were the spiked revolving discs that attached to the back of a spur. Tools of this shape were commonly used to treat diseased horses.

Reference list

Davis, Leith. (2012). “Charlotte Brooke’s Reliques of Irish Poetry” in United Islands? The Languages of Resistance ed. John Kirk, Andrew Noble and Michael Brown, London: Pickering and Chatto.

Gatrell, Vic. (2006). City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London. New York: Walker & Company.

Waddington, Patrick. (2011) “Morris, Charles (1745–1838), army officer and songwriter.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Accessed: 18 Mar. 2019. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/19300.

Wondrich, David. (2010). Punch: the Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl. Penguin: New York.

 

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