“Erin go Bragh”: migration, nationalism and resistance in a nineteenth-century street song, by I. J. Corfe

I. J. Corfe is based at the National University of Ireland, Galway, where she is currently working on a project titled “‘Sing England for Ever! And Erin-go-Bragh!’: Irishness in the Nineteenth-Century English Broadside Ballad” which analyses representations of Ireland in nineteenth-century, English-printed street song. This thesis explores the reception of Irish-themed songs in English popular culture, and the potential impact of these receptions on English and British national identities. Lyrics are analysed as text, as well as from within various cultural contexts through exploration of, for example, contemporary biographical anecdotes of individual songs and performance contexts, and periodical articles about the trade. Corfe has contributed chapters to collections on nineteenth-century street balladry and on Victorian reading patterns. She participated in the “Song in the City” symposium organised as part of the ERC-funded “Music in London, 1800-1851” project, and has spoken at conferences organized by BARS, BAVS and the EFDSS. She has taught seminars on popular song of the Romantic period, academic writing to undergraduate and MA students, and teaches creative writing as part of NUIG’s Youth Academy programme.

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“Erin go Bragh” was one of a number of street-songs printed under this title in the first half of the nineteenth century. The version explored here was first printed for street sale in the 1830s and was to become the most popular – still sung and recorded in the twentieth century by, for example, Dick Gaughan on his 1981 album Handful of Earth. In the 1790s, the phrase “Erin go Bragh” was closely associated with the political campaign of the United Irishmen. However, in the first decades after the failed Irish rebellion of 1798, and in the same years that street-ballad printing in Britain increased exponentially, the phrase came to be associated on English streets with a more wistful type of Irish nationalism. This changed again in the 1830s with the printing of this song and its narrative of defiance against oppression, known either as “Duncan Campbell” or titled using the phrase itself – “Erin go Bragh”.

The song’s narrative suggests a Scottish origin, and in the first street-ballad printings it is given the suitably Scottish name of “Duncan Campbell”. This original narrative makes a comment on the shared experience of oppression felt by Scottish Highlanders and the Irish in the Scottish-lowlands. It begins “My name is Duncan Campbell from the shire of Argyll,” and it tracks Duncan’s story in Edinburgh or “Auld Reekie”. Here, he is mistaken for a “Pat” by a “saucy policeman” who declares “we are seizing all strangers from Erin go Bragh”. Unwilling to surrender to arbitrary arrest, Campbell fights back with his “switch of blackthorn” resulting in the policeman’s death. An angry crowd gather round him “like a flock of wild geese” causing “very tight times” for the protagonist. Presumably a fight ensues, but he escapes before finding a “wee boatie” and steering “for the north”. In the final stanza, the protagonist declares his Highland identity as well as his solidarity with the similarly oppressed Irish: “… I ne’er took it ill when called Erin-go-Bragh”.

However, as the song was disseminated south by street-ballad sellers and reproduced by printers in England, its narrative of cross-national solidarity was lost as the protagonist’s nationality changed. For many nineteenth-century hearers of street-ballads in the south of England, the regional reference to a shared Gaelic cultural heritage between the Highlands and Ireland was likely obscure; it was perhaps in an effort to give the song local relevance that the narrative was changed to one about Irish discrimination in England rather than Scotland. The change occurs gradually along the song’s journey south; in Liverpool, two printings begin confusingly with “My name is Pat Murphy, from the shire of Argyle,” but when the song emerges in London, it is titled “Erin go Bragh” and the first line becomes a decisive “My name is Pat Murphy, I’ll never deny”.

Yet, in the face of impending persecution Murphy is compelled to deny his name (“It’s I am no Paddy” below, or “it’s true I’m no Paddy”) and as a result, what begins in Scotland as a case of mistaken identity and solidarity, becomes in the London printings a more subversive denial of actual Irishness and an expression of a more nationalised resistance against violent persecution. Murphy’s suppression of identity occurs alongside a strengthening of Irish imagery in this version: Campbell’s “switch of blackthorn” becomes Murphy’s “lump of shillelagh” that comes from “Erin go Bragh”, and when the crowd gather round Murphy they say “where’s the wild Irishman that’s killed our police.” When Murphy escapes the crowd by playing them “a tune they call Erin go Bragh”, he captures and subverts England’s paradoxical image of Ireland as both highly Romantic and violent; playing the “tune” as a means of escape, he uses the Romantic Irish stereotype as a form of resistance while simultaneously re-appropriating physical resistance in his use of “tune” as metaphor for fight.

This equation of “tune” with “fight” or “game” is seen in the original Scottish version, in Campbell’s declaration: “If it were not for that baton you have in your paw, I would show you a game played in Erin go Bragh”. And this emphasis is also found in one of the rare Irish-printed versions of the song titled “The Game Played in Erin-go-bragh” that was published in Ancient Irish Music in 1873 (Joyce, 1873: 86). The date of the song’s collection in Ireland suggests that the song was disseminated quite rapidly south to England, and just as rapidly to Ireland where it was collected from a thirteen-year-old girl in County Limerick in c.1854 (Joyce, 1873: 85 & 16). Further geographical dissemination is evidenced in the collection of a version beginning “My name it is Clay Morgan from the town of Hogyle” by Cecil Sharp in North Carolina in 1918.

“The Game Played in Erin-go-bragh” published in Ancient Irish Music in 1873″. Courtesy of the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

When the novelist Sidney Owenson commented in 1807 that she “never listened to the air of Erin go Brach … without a thrill of emotion which was sweet, though mournful, to the soul,” she summarized the Romantic view of Ireland that prevailed in Irish-themed street song in the decades after the rebellion and 1801 Act of Union (Owenson, 1807: 11). By the time we reach the 1840s however, the phrase was increasingly associated in street balladry with this more immediate and everyday sense of resistance.

Song Transcripts

Version extant in University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections:
Printer imprint: “Printed and Sold by James Lindsay, Stationer, &c., 9, King Street, Glasgow. Upwards of 5000 different sorts always on hand; also a great variety of Song-Books, &c. Shops and Travellers supplied on the most reasonable terms.”
Date: According to the British Book Trade Index, James Lindsay was at this address between 1853 and 1854.
Image available via Glasgow Broadside Ballads: http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/teach/ballads/index.html

“Duncan Campbell”:
My name is Duncan Campbell, from the shire of Argyle
I have travelled this country for many a long mile,
I have travelled through England, through Ireland an’ a’,
And the name I go under is bold Erin go Bragh.

One night in auld Reekie, as I walked down the Street,
A saucy policeman I chanced for to meet;
He glowered in my face, and he gave me some jaw,
Saying, when came you over from Erin go Bragh?

I am not a Paddy, though Ireland I have seen,
Nor am I a Paddy though in Ireland I have been;
But, though I were a Paddy, that’s naething ava,
There’s many a bold hero from Erin go Bragh.

I know you are a Pat by the cut of your hair,
But you all turn Scotchmen as soon as you come here;
You have left your own country for breaking the law,
We are seizing all strangers from Erin go Bragh.

Well, though I were a Paddy, and knew it to be true,
O were I the devil, pray what’s that to you?
If it were not for that baton you have in your paw,
I would show you a game played in Erin go Bragh.

Then a switch of blackthorn I held in my fist,
Across his big body I made it to twist;
And the blood from his napper I quickly did draw,
I paid stock and interest for Erin go Bragh.

The people came around me like a flock of wild geese,
Saying, stop that d —– d rascal he’s killed our police.
And for one friend I had I’m sure he had twa—
It was very tight times with Erin go Bragh.

But I came to a wee boatie that sails on the Forth,
I packed up my all, and steered for the north;
Farewell to Auld Reekie, the police an’ a’
May the devil be with them says Erin go Bragh.

Come all you brave fellows that hear of this song—
I don’t care a farthing to where you belong—
For I’m from Argyllshire in the Highlands so braw,
But I ne’er took it ill when called Erin-go-Bragh.

Version extant in An Album of Street Lit in University of California Libraries:
Printer imprint: “BIRT Printer, 39, Great St. Andrew Street, Seven Dials, London.”
Date: The Birt family of printers were active from the 1820s until c.1850.
Available via the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/analbumofstreetl00arylrich/page/n269

“Erin go Bragh”:
My name is Pat Murphy, I’ll never deny,
I’ve travelled the country for many a long day,
Through England, through Ireland, and Scotland, and a’,
And the name that I go by is Erin go Bragh.

As I was walking up White Chapel Street,
A saucy policeman I chanced for to meet,
He look’d and he star’d, and he gave me some jaw,
Says he, when came you over from Erin go Bragh.

It’s I am no Paddy tho’ to Ireland I’ve been,
Fath [sic] I am no Paddy tho’ Ireland I’ve seen,
And if a Paddy faith what’s that to you,
There is many a hero from Erin go Bragh.

I know your [sic] a Pat by the twist of your hair,
But you always turn Scotchman when you come here,
You have left your own country for breaking the law
I am seizing all stragglers from Erin go Bragh.

With a lump of black thorn that I held at my fist,
All round his big body I made it to twist,
The blood from his napper I quickly did draw,
With a lump of shillelagh from Erin go Bragh.

The folks they flocked round me like a lot of young geese,
Saying where’s the wild Irishman that’s killed our police,
Where I had got one friend I’m sure he’d got two,
But I played them a tune they call Erin go Bragh.

There is a little packet sails off to the North,
I’ll pack up my bones and I’ll shortly be off,
Bad luck to all racketty policemen and a’,
To the devil I’ll pitch them, said Erin go Bragh.

Primary Sources

Broadside Ballads Online. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, 2014, http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk

“Clay Morgan” can be found in Cecil J. Sharp’s manuscripts in the Vaughan Williams Library. The archive record can be found online on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website: https://www.vwml.org/record/RoudFS/S231345

“Duncan Campbell”, the source of this transcript can be found in the University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections, available online via Glasgow Broadside Ballads: http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/teach/ballads/index.html

“Erin go Bragh”, the source of this transcript can be found in An Album of Street Literature, p. 270, in University of California Libraries available via Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/analbumofstreetl00arylrich/page/n269

Bibliography

Joyce, Patrick Weston. Ancient Irish Music, Comprising, One Hundred Airs Hitherto Unpublished Many of the Old Popular Songs, and Several New Songs Collected and Edited. Dublin : McGlashan and Gill ; London : Marshall Simpkin ; Edinburgh : John Menzies, 1873, p. 85. https://www.itma.ie/digital-library/text/ancient-irish-music-joyce

O’Brien, Ellen. “Irish Voices in Nineteenth-Century English Street Ballads.” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 28/29, Vol. 28, no. 2, no. 1 (Fall, 2002 – Spring, 2003), pp. 154-167.

Owenson, Sydney. The Lay of an Irish Harp; or, Metrical Fragments, 1807, available via Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/layofirishharpor00morg_0/page/n5

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