In the first in an exciting new series exploring fictional figures in Irish American Civil War Songs, Catherine explores the characters of Paddy O’Toole and Mister McFinnigan:

Back in June, I was lucky enough to be on a panel about ‘Race, Ethnicity and Memory in the Popular Music of the Civil War’ as part of the 2021 Society of Civil War Historians conference. As well as discussing the overwhelming power and importance of wartime music, commentary and questions on the panel papers turned to the way culture created, shaped and reinforced immigrant identities.

We are very familiar with real-life examples of Irish-born and descended soldiers and their families on this website, but there were other contemporary fictional Irish Americans who appeared in the public sphere during the 1860s. They have stories of their own that are worth telling. One of the primary outlets of the diaspora’s views in the middle of the war was through the words of Miles O’Reilly, the fictional soldier of the 47th Regiment, New York Volunteers. He was a creation of the County Meath native, writer and military aide Charles Graham Halpine. Depicted as a seasoned solider, Halpine used O’Reilly to detail the views of ordinary Union Army soldiers, often (though not exclusively) with an Irish background.

The fictional Private Miles O’Reilly composing on of his (Halpine’s) wartime opinion pieces (Image provided by Catherine V. Bateson)

Through the fictional persona of O’Reilly, Halpine “publicized the communal meanings of Irish American service” from 1863 onwards, when stories about his wartime adventures circulated the New York Herald and in two subsequent wartime publications – Life and Adventures of Private Miles O’Reilly (1864) and Baked Meats at the Funeral (1866). (1) So convincing were these fictional Irish American tales that many across the northern home-front “viewed Halpine’s writings as genuine expressions of soldier opinion”. (2) In particular, Halpine used O’Reilly to present pro-Lincoln administration wartime policy arguments in favour of emancipation and African American soldier service, and criticized those protesting the Union draft in the wake of the New York City Draft Riots in July 1863.

While Halpine’s creation received the most publicity at the time – and the most attention since in accounts of Irish American wartime views (even though Halpine wrote far more non-fictional pieces that reflected his own opinions rather that that of his fictional creation) – this more famed Irish American Civil War writer was not the only one using fiction to make salient points. Sparked by one of the comments relating to my conference paper back in June about the way standard stereotypes of Irishmen in 1860s America have a habit of coming to the fore in the popular imagination, this post marks the start of a series of blogs looking at the appearance and use of fictional figures in Irish American Civil War songs. The series will look at how they were presented, what their lyrical message was, and what we can learn about the Irish American wartime experience through contemporary fictional lenses. The use of personas and fictional characters to articulate viewpoints is something common in traditional Irish song culture – just think of how many lamenting immigrants and sweethearts there are in folk ballads. This trope was a familiar and effective one, and presents another viewpoint to aid our understanding of the wider impact the Civil War had on the Irish American diaspora.

To start the series off, I’m going to focus on one of my favourite wartime ballads, and favourite fictional figures – Paddy O’Toole and Mister McFinnigan – the stars of O’Toole & McFinnigan On The War, written first in 1861. Described as being “Two Irishmen out of employ”, they start the song sitting about, “smoking and taking it lazily” – the earmarks of the beginnings to a musical hall sketch about Irish immigrants. O’Toole – who goes by both stereotypical names of Paddy and Pat – is portrayed as a lively “broth of a boy”, who is the first conversational voice heard in the song. Turning to McFinnigan, O’Toole says:

I think of enlistin’…

Because, do you see what o’clock it is?

There’s nothing adoin’ at all. (3)

Initially this presents the idea of war service as reliving boredom and a form of some employment that will keep the young men occupied. The lack of employment for Irish migrants is a common theme in mid-nineteenth century Irish American history; indeed the 1864 ballad A Lamentation on the American War: Awful Battle at Vicksburg also observed that “employment has declined” for Irish migrant men in the United States. (4) However, O’Toole goes further to remind his companion that any “drinking at Mrs O’Docharty’s” to bide the time could also not be done “until after the war”, when “business times will begin again”. And if that was not convincing enough a reason to go fight, he stressed the point that “fighting’s the duty of all”. In other words, as a resident in the United States, it was his duty to enlist and fight for the Union cause and reunite the nation, a common utterance in the Civil War shared by soldiers of all nationalities. This spurs McFinnigan into the conversation to tell O’Toole: “you’re right”.

One version of O’Toole & McFinnigan On The War, printed with the differentiation between the two men sing-speaking shown (New York: H. De Maran, 1861)

Several versions of this ballad circulated throughout the war, with different copies printed in at least three of the major publishers of Irish American wartime ballads between 1861 and 1863 – New York’s H. De Marsan and Charles Magnus (who also published in Washington, D.C.), and Boston’s Horace Partridge. Each printing had slightly different verse structures and phrasing, but the song – set to the tune of Barnaby Finegan by an anonymous lyricist – appears to be written as a conversation for most of its verses. O’Toole drives the conversation, with McFinnigan only appearing at the end of five of its six verses mainly to tell O’Toole that he is right in his thoughts, that he “agree[s] with you there” on certain points, and to finally say that he “will go with them” and enlist with O’Toole at the ballad’s conclusion. (5)

For the rest of the song, Paddy O’Toole goes into detailed justification about why the war was being fought and why serving with the Union was the only way for fellow Irish American young men. In shorter song sheet versions of the ballad, O’Toole talks about rebel secessionists who are busy “practisin’ murder and robbery”, and not acting like gentlemen with their warring separation. There’s a hint – and possibly a hope if read in the light of Irish nationalist sympathies – that if Britain would send “her troops to Canada” and “mix in the war” south of the border, then “Ould Ireland would have such a chance…”, presumably at freedom the listener/reader is meant to assume (unlike Fenian American Civil War songs this example does not go into explicit views about Ireland’s independence – the “…” is left for the imagination). Finally, in the last two verses, there is praise for “bould Corcoran leading us right into the camp” of southern secessionists, a reference to the ever-present Colonel and later General Michael Corcoran who appeared in numerous wartime songs with reverence and praise from Irish soldiers. 1861 versions of the song sang of his leadership of the “bould 69th…’Tis Corcoran will lead ‘em, d’ye mind” before First Bull Run, while 1863 versions suggested a preference for his leadership of the Irish Brigade (whereas their actual commander General Thomas Francis Meagher is absent in the lyrics).

Moreover, the final verses stress pinning “the Stars and the Stripes here, at home” in America and “to Canada walls” – another hint at long-held views in some areas of diplomacy that Canada would unit with her brethren and become one North American country. The message is one of strong American Unionism:

Hurroo for the Union! my boys,

And divil take all who would bother it!

Secession was a stain on the nation and the Irish would fight to see it extinguished. Far from being lazy, unemployed Irishmen, O’Toole and McFinnigan appear as well-informed, well-intentioned, passionate enlistees to the war effort. In a longer 1862 version of the song, O’Toole also stresses the fact that fighting “will bring wages once more” to their pockets, but also infers that helping the “Union to win again” was an even greater price to gain.

One version of O’Toole & McFinnigan On The War, printed with the differentiation between the two men sing-speaking shown (New York: H. De Maran, 1861)

Given the conversational nature of this song, it’s very likely O’Toole & McFinnigan On the War started life as a comic stage show sketch song, something supported by one copy of a Charles Magnus print which has a stereotypical image of an Irish journeying migrant on the stage above the song. But that is not how the ballad’s figures actually appear. Certainly, the song is sung/spoken with a thick Irish brogue, and there is mocking impression behind the idea of lazy, unemployed, alcoholic young men sitting around instead of fighting for their new adopted country with their fellow American countrymen. On the other hand, they DO end up enlisting, through reasoned arguments and spurred on by repeated references to anti-secession and pro-Union rhetoric. If anything, this song pushes back against stereotypes to show a commitment that the real soldiers discussed on this website also demonstrated from the start, and throughout, the American Civil War.


(1) Christian G. Samito, Becoming American Under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship During the Civil War Era (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 112.

(2) Christian McWhirter, Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 92.

(3) Unknown lyricist, O’Toole & McFinnigan On The War (Boston: Horace Partridge, 1863) – all following quotes from the song come from this particular publication.

(4) Unknown lyricist, A Lamentation on the American War: Awful Battle at Vicksburg (Dublin, 1864).

(5) Recently I discovered another version of the song inside The Camp-Fire Songster; A Collection of Popular, Patriotic, National, Pathetic, and Jolly Songs, Suited for the Camp or March, Containing a Number of Songs Never Before Printed (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1862), pp. 53-56. This version is ten verses long – with verses not reproduced in previous or subsequent songsheet additions.