Sinead O’Connor has called Paddy’s Lament the “best anti-war song ever made”. Along with the 2002 blockbuster Gangs of New York, this evocative and powerful ballad has arguably had more influence on popular perceptions of Irish involvement in the American Civil War than anything else in recent decades. As someone who works on Irish participation in the Civil War, barely a week passes without the song or the sentiments expressed within it being shared with me–a mark of its almost unique position as an influencer of opinion on this topic. But just how true and widespread were those sentiments? And what direct connection does Paddy’s Lament have with the American Civil War? In order to find out, I decided to see could I find out more about the origins and history of this compelling song.

Sinead O’Connor sings her 2002 version of Paddy’s Lament

Paddy’s Lament/Paddy’s Lamentation/By the Hush, Me Boys tells the story of an Irishman who, having emigrated to the United States to make his fortune, is forced into the Union army and service with Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade. In the battles which follow, the song’s hero/victim Paddy loses his leg, an experience which causes him to curse America and warn his fellow Irishmen off travelling there. The picture the song paints is of a poor emigrant forced to leave his homeland, before being at best duped, at worst forced into Federal service. Though there are often subtle lyrical differences between modern versions of the song, most follow the format of the version sung by Sinead O’Connor, reproduced below:

PADDY’S LAMENT

Well it’s by the hush, me boys
And that’s to mind your noise
And listen to poor Paddy’s sad narration
I was by hunger stressed
And in poverty distressed
So I took a thought I’d leave
The Irish nation

Well I sold me horse and cow
My little pigs and sow
My father’s farm of land
I then departed
And me sweetheart Bid McGee
I’m afraid I’ll never see
For I left her there that morning
Broken-hearted

Here ye boys
Now take my advice
To America I’ll have ye
Not be coming
There is nothing here but war
Where the murderin’ cannons roar
And I wish I was at home
In dear old Dublin

Well meself and a hundred more
To America sailed o’er
Our fortunes to be making
We were thinkin’
When we got to yankee land
They put guns into our hands
Saying “Paddy, you must go
And fight for Lincoln”

Here ye boys
Now take my advice
To America I’ll have ye
Not be coming
There is nothing here but war
Where the murderin’ cannons roar
And I wish I was at home
In dear old Dublin

General Meagher to us he said
If you get shot or lose your head
Every mother’s son of youse
Will get a pension
Well in the war I lost me leg
And all I’ve now’s a wooden peg
And by soul it is the truth
To you I mention

Here ye boys
Now take my advice
To America I’ll have ye
Not be coming
There is nothing here but war
Where the murderin’ cannons roar
And I wish I was at home
In dear old Dublin

Well I think meself in luck
If I get fed on Indian buck
And old Ireland is the country
I delight in
To the devil I would say
God curse Americay
For in truth I’ve had enough
Of your hard fightin’

Here ye boys
Now take my advice
To America I’ll have ye
Not be going
There is nothing here but war
Where the murderin’ cannons roar
And I wish I was at home
In dear old Dublin

The growth in the song’s popularity in recent decades has been marked, with versions of it widely recorded by a multitude of artists. When she spoke about the song in 2002, Sinead O’Connor recounted that she had first heard it while she was living in Los Angeles in 1990, during the First Gulf War. It was being recorded by other groups in the years before that, such as De Dannan (below) who did their version during the 1980s.

De Dannan’s 1985 version of Paddy’s Lamentation

The message about the war Paddy’s Lament delivers was reinforced in the popular imagination by Martin Scorcese’s 2002 epic Gangs of New York. The movie depicts the scene that Paddy narrates, appropriately setting it to the strains of a Linda Thompson version of Paddy’s Lamentation (below). Numerous articles on the site have explored the veracity of this image of Irish recruitment into the Union military, but suffice is to say here that the majority experience did not match that of Paddy. Very few men left Ireland for America during the Civil War without a very good idea of what was occurring there, and while some were coerced and duped into service, it was far more common for them to arrive with the specific intention of enlisting–keen to reap the benefits of the once-in-a-lifetime sums on offer. While Paddy’s Lament victimises Paddy as a largely helpless individual swept along by circumstance, this majority experience was one where men excerised their own agency, making a concious choice both to leave Ireland and to enlist. The song also leaves the impression that the conflict was a foreign struggle of little interest to the Irish, while simultaneously placing Paddy in the early war Irish Brigade led by Thomas Francis Meagher. While that formation had its share of economic recruits, in reality many of them were extremely invested in fighting to preserve the American Union. Given the song’s influence on perceptions of the conflict and the somewhat misleading impression it leaves (combined with the fact that I am a big fan of the tune), I was keen to find out more about its origins, and to discover if it had any direct connections with the men who fought for the United States during the Civil War.

The scene from Gangs of New York (2002) that depicts Irish recruitment “straight off the boat”, set to the strains of Paddy’s Lamentation

Songs and poems entitled Paddy’s Lament and Paddy’s Lamentation can be found dating back to the 18th century. Some, such as the 1798 example reproduced below also espouse the cost of war, though in this case it was for political purposes, as it sought to demonstrate the perceived folly of the United Irishmen. Others share no similarities with the Paddy’s Lament we know today beyond their title, which was used for a variety of 19th century poems and ballads focused on everything from difficult relationships to the outcome of the 1860 U.S. Presidential election.

A 1798 ballad “Paddy’s Lamentation” published in 1798, intended to demonstrate the cost of supporting the United Irishmen (Evening Mail)

The first ballad entitled Paddy’s Lament that appears to have taken the American Civil War as its theme was published in 1864 by John Ross Dix, an English writer and poet who was living in the United States. It is a very different version to that which we now know. While the general premise of the song is familiar–featuring a wounded Irish Union soldier pining for Ireland–that is where the similarities end. For starters, Dix’s Paddy was from Killybegs, Co. Donegal, not Dublin. But more importantly, the message imparted by the lyrics is not one dominated by anti-war sentiment. In Dix’s version, Paddy talks of having supported Daniel O’Connell in his efforts to repeal the Act of Union in Ireland, and how he now found himself fighting to preserve a different Union. In Dix’s version, Paddy places the blame for his wounds at the door of the “savage” Confederates, not the men who put a gun into his hands when he arrived in America.

Paddy’s Lament by John Ross Dix, published in 1864 (Library of Congress)

Whether Dix’s version is the root song for today’s Paddy’s Lament is open to debate. The Library of Congress holds a number of other 19th century ballads that bear the title, including a number that post-date the Dix version, but while these take emigration as their central theme, none focus specifically on the war itself. But what is certain is that the lyrics as we know them were set down in the 19th century. As folk singer Andy Turner notes, the evidence for this is preserved within the English-printed ballad sheet collection at the University of Oxford’s Bodleain Library, available via Broadside Ballads Online. Two copies of the song can be found there, under the title “Pat in America”. One of them was printed in London’s Spitalfields by Taylor Printers sometime between the Civil War and 1899, though unfortunately neither version is precisely dated beyond that. It seems most probable that they post-date both the conflict and Dix’s version, though likely not by much.

Pat in America, the earliest version of the lyrics to Paddy’s Lament that we know today (BOD21649, Roud Number V7332, Bodleian Libraries)

After the Bodelian sheets, the trail of Paddy’s Lament as an American Civil War song runs cold for more than half a century. When it re-emerged, it was once again not in the United States, but Canada. In 1957 noted Canadian folklorist Edith Fowke travelled to Ottawa, where she met with 85-year-old Oliver John (O.J.) Abbott. O.J. had been born in Enfield, England, but had emigrated to Canada when he was 12-years-old. There he and his brother had spent some years working among Irish farms in the Ottawa Valley in South March and Marchhurst, as well as in the lumber camps of northern Ontario. During that time he had learned a range of Irish folk-songs. He seems to have picked up most of them during the 1880s and 1890s, many from a farmer’s wife called “Mrs. O’Malley”, whose parents had emigrated from Ireland. One of the songs that O.J. sung for Edith in that summer of 1957 was a ballad he called By the Hush, Me Boys.

The noted Canadian folklorist Edith Fowke (Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame)

Edith’s time with O.J. led to the 1961 album Irish and British Songs from the Ottawa Valley. This contains the earliest known recording of the song we today know as Paddy’s Lament (below). In her analysis of the song, Edith noted that “this unusual ballad seems to be unknown in the United States”. Its combination of two themes common to Irish songs–emigration and becoming involved in other countries’ wars–recalled for her the song known as The Kerry Recruit, which tells the tale of an Irish boy who enlisted in the British Army and ends up in the Crimea.

O.J. Abbott sings By the Hush, Me Boys in 1957, the first known recording of the song today commonly known as Paddy’s Lament/Paddy’s Lamentation

It seems clear that this recording represents the main origin point for today’s song. But the trajectory of Paddy’s Lament also raises interesting questions. The earliest version of the lyrics thus far identified are from Britain, not North America, while the first recording occured in Canada, not the United States. Indeed, Edith Fowke could not find it in the oral tradition of the U.S. at all. This raises the possiblity that the song was taken to Canada from Ireland or Britain. Indeed, this would make significantly more sense than if had arisen from amongst the Irish American community.

Ronnie Drew sings The Kerry Recruit, the song that Edith Fowke felt was related to By the Hush, Me Boys.

How then might we seek to understand its potential origin? If it came from within the Irish community in Ireland or Britain, we might view it in the context of the anguish they felt about losing so many loved ones during the conflict, just as they had during the Crimean War. They had suffered this loss at a remove from Irish America, and at a remove from the opinion–widely held among Irish Americans–that the Civil War was a just fight, and one whose positive outcome was vital for the Irish people. Like many other Irish songs, it may have been developed from a nationalist perspective, bemoaning the loss of more men to a foreign war, when there was fighting to be done at home. But based on the current evidence, it is possible to offer another potential origin. Might it have been developed in Britain or Ireland during the war years in an effort to supress the numbers of Irishmen leaving to cross the Atlantic and serve in the United States military? In such a context, the potential benefits of its message for those with Confederate sympathies are self-evident.

Paddy’s Lament has become a staple of the Irish folk circuit. Here Lumiere perform it at the Cork Folk Festival in An Spailpín Fánach in 2013

While many American ballads of the Civil War originated in the United States, as Edith Fowke established, Paddy’s Lament does not appear to be one of them. When we consider the story it tells, this is hardly surprising. There were undoubtedly those within Irish America for whom Paddy’s Lament represented an accurate portrayal of Civil War service, but the number who held a contrary opinion would surely have stifled any potential popularity the song may have developed in the 19th century United States. Neither was Paddy’s Lament an image of Irish American service that was particularly useful for that community in the decades that followed the war, when their efforts were centred around highlighting the sacrifice they had made for their adopted country. In the United States, as with most of Britain and Ireland, the time for this evocative piece of music would come a century and more into the future, when Paddy’s Lament took up its position as the pre-eminent ballad of remembrance to recall the cost the American Civil War exacted on Irish emigrants.

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References

Evening Mail 16 April 1798.

Irish Independent 22 September 2002.

Bodleain Library.

Library of Congress.

Irish and British Songs of the Ottawa Valley Sung by O.J. Abbott, Recorded by Edith Fowkes. Sleeve Notes.

Edith Fowke. “American Civil War Songs in Canada” in Midwest Folklore, 1963 13:1.

Andy Turner. A Folk Song a Week. Week 254: By the Hush.