Rolling Home to Kevin Barry

At the start of February in 1932, a soloist with a name that ‘rarely belongs to a Protestant’ (according to the Belfast Telegraph on 8/2/1932) got up to sing at a function at an Orange Hall in County Antrim. In the Tele’s view, the hall was “…tastefully decorated with Union Jacks, while, in addition, the usual Orange pictures and the lodge banner, depicting King William crossing the Boyne, were in their accustomed places.” The soloist proceeded to sing, as the paper put it, ‘with the greatest feeling ‘Kevin Barry’ a red-hot Sinn Fein song’. To the huge surprise of the reporter, “…the audience was held spellbound – not from amazement but because they failed to grasp the import of the song – and at the finish there was not only thunderous applause, but a general demand for an encore.” The artiste neglected to provide a second song and, as the Belfast Telegraph states, ‘All’s well that ends well.’

That Orange Hall rendition of Kevin Barry serves as a useful illustration of the sort of emotional pull of music and songs and performance. And the role of ballads and poetry in political formation and messaging has been significant throughout Irish history. The song Kevin Barry is such a well-known ballad that it has been sung not just by the Wolfe Tones and the Clancy Brothers but many others like Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson (below), Lonnie Donegan and Leonard Cohen (you can hear their versions by clicking the links).

Sean Prendergast, in a Witness Statement describes the role the song had in building the subsequent political impact of Barry’s execution in 1920: “Around his heroic sacrifice the songster and the ballad singer weaved the story of his life, of his service as a Volunteer and his glorious death. Ballad sheets were printed in laudation of ‘Kevin Barry’ and sold in the tens of thousands – not merely sold, but sung at all times and in all places. The young people, particularly, fell prey to the strain of the ballad…”. Prendergast recounted that the likes of Joe Stanley’s ‘Gaelic Press’ and his printing establishment in Proby’s Lane printed and distributed song sheets.

Public singing of republican ballads was clearly part of the routine of political street theatre in the 1920s (indeed, to this day, many people’s most public political act is to join in when some well-known ‘rebel song’ is being played). The song about Barry quickly caught on in 1921. By July 1921, according to the Belfast Telegraph, youths outside the Anglo-Irish Peace Conference in the Mansion House reportedly sang a song “…having reference to the late Kevin Barry” (8/7/1921). This is presumably the same song, although there were a glut of songs written about Barry (you can see some more here in the Kevin Barry Papers at UCD). Another Kevin Barry ballad was the subject of a court case by Fred Cogley (the composer) in the Circuit Court in 1925, trying to restrain the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs from permitting gramophone recordings of his song entitled “To Kevin Barry”. The Northumberland Fusiliers regimental magazine St George’s Gazette (of 30/9/1921) also recorded that “In addition to the curious and inquiring glances and the gestures of dislike and defiance to which we are subject by the riff-raff which support Sinn Féin we have ‘Kevin Barry’ sung after us.”

[By the way – there is a whole TG4 series – Ceol Chogadh na Saoirse – looking at the impact of songs during the war for independence.]

Sometimes also referred to as ‘In Mountjoy Jail One Monday Morning’ the original author of ‘Kevin Barry’ is unknown. According to a story related by Seamus de Burca in 1961, “During Christmas 1920, an Irishman living in Glasgow was on holidays in Dublin. He came into the dairy shop, 8 Fleet Street, and presented the manuscript of a song he had just written to Kathleen Barry, one of Kevin Barry’s sisters. Miss Barry showed the song to her mother and her brothers and sisters and returned the song to the author, informing him that the Barry family had no objection to its publication. The song appeared in ballad sheet form and was an instantaneous success, even amongst us schoolboys. The melody, like the words, belongs to the man who wrote it, who gave both to the Irish Nation without any reward.” A later letter by De Burca (in the Evening Herald, 2/12/1992) repeats the same story and he also notes that his father was a first cousin of Barry’s mother.

A handwritten copy of the lyrics in the Kevin Barry papers in UCD contains basically the same story noting the author likely worked with a ‘Paddy M’ in Glasgow and was given £20 for it. It states that the air was ‘Roaming Home to Bonnie Scotland’.

Katherine Barry and Constance Markiewicz on a publicity tour.

Barry’s sister Katherine was a prominent member of Cumann na mBan (long predating her brother’s political activism). She was to continue to have a high profile at many events in Ireland and abroad in leveraging the political power of the Irish diaspora. The song was to become an integral part of the Kevin Barry legend. It was to become so well known that it appears in Carl Sandburgs famous American Songbag from 1929, where he states he learned it from ‘Irish Boys and Girls in Chicago’.

And people were very protective of the Kevin Barry song (and legend). De Burca’s story had appeared in a letter he sent to the Dublin Evening Mail (on 5/8/1961) criticising the appropriation of the melody for ‘The Irish Patrol’ a song written by Dick O’Donovan to honour Irish soldiers who had served in the Congo. Five days later O’Donovan pointed out in reply to De Burca, in the same paper, that ‘Kevin Barry’ was set to the air of a sea-shanty, and an English one no less, ‘Rolling Home to Merry England’ also known in the United States as ‘Rolling Home to Old New England’. It had also been used in a song about Terence McSwiney (‘Shall My Soul Pass Through Old Ireland’). Lonnie Donegan’s 1959 recording of the song had also attracted criticism in the media as disrespectful.

The song regularly caused confusion too, particularly when just the tune was played by a band. The tune had often been played to accompany British Army regiments embarking in colonical ports to sail back to Britain, with variations on the ‘Rolling Home…’ lyrics such as ‘Sailing Home to Merrie England’ and ‘Roaming Home to Bonnie Scotland’. According to ‘Trumpeter’ (in the Dublin Evening Mail of 29/31/1959) when British soldiers evacuated Dublin in 1922 the regimental band played ‘Sailing Home to Merrie England’ as the boat sailed out along the Liffey while people on the quays thought it was playing ‘Kevin Barry’.

The handwritten lyrics in the Kevin Barry Papers state that the tune is ‘Roaming Home to Bonnie Scotland’, which may be referencing a song that features in at least one late nineteenth songbook by ‘Claribel’ (the English poet and composer Charlotte Alington Barnard). But the air was indeed familiar in other settings too. James Connolly had written a song to the same air, ‘The Call of Erin’ which was used to close Dublin Labour meetings from before 1916 and well into the 1920s. Later songs about Erskine Childers and the Blueshirts reused the same tune too.

It may be tempting to think that the song ensured that Barry’s name became inextricably linked to Irish republicanism and kept him constantly in the public eye. But as early as 1929, a columnist in the Derry Journal (4/11/1929) was scathing about official attitudes to Barry barely nine years after his execution:

“It is bad form to mention Kevin Barry’s name in the circles of the new aristocracy. The cult of the all embracing Imperialism with its dances and its dinners and its garden parties, patronised by “the best people” from the remnant of the old garrison party, and carried out according to the most approved standards of English etiquette, looks disdainfully on the principles for which Kevin Barry and so many like him, sincere as they believed all their leaders to be sincere, gladly and heroically laid down their young lives. The hands-across-the-Irish-Sea policy has no place for the martyrs of the Anglo-Irish war. To remember them would be to cast a doubt on the blueness of the blood from which “high society” in the Saorstat loves to make the world believe it has sprung.”

Litter Press has just published two books covering different unit of the IRA from the war for independence, With the Sixth Battalion by James Brady (about south Dublin) and The Fourth Northerners by Greg Knipe (about the Fourth Northern Division). You can read more on those here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: