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Singing Sedition: ballads and verse in the age of O’Connell

An exhibition of ballad sheets and political verses of the 1820s – 1830s from our Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers (CSORP), curated by archivist, Nigel Johnston.

The small collection of ballad sheets and political verses are amongst the most fascinating documents found in the Chief Secretary Office Registered Papers (CSORP). Fortunately, a good selection of original material survives due to the vigilant reporting of local authorities on the activities of ballad sheet vendors and singers. Submissions to Dublin Castle by magistrates and police officers generally included the original ballad sheet together with the written report or letter; this practice ensured we have access to the broader context of the transaction.1 Most ballads are printed with title and include a woodcut impression as a visual accompaniment to the text. They are usually printed on low-grade paper, single side, and formed in long narrow strips for easy circulation. Often distributed by travelling sellers or singers at fairs or markets, they offer an economically viable mode from which to communicate the ideas of revolution to a largely illiterate population.2 Almost all are compiled by anonymous authors, although a small, but significant, number include the printer’s name or place of publication. Production of ballad sheets in Ireland reached a peak in the nineteenth century with the earliest known example dating from 1626. The exhibits highlighted relate to the 1820s and 1830s, a period in which ’The Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), focused his energy on gaining religious and civil liberty for Roman Catholics and campaigning for a repeal of the political union with Great Britain.

Arising out of unofficial channels ballad sheets express the opinion and sentiment of the ordinary people of nineteenth century Ireland, often revealing their private attitudes to the great questions of society, politics and religion. As a medium of communication from an otherwise unrepresented class, such verses and songs provide a critical counterbalance to the views of the landed elite. It has been noted, for example, that a public performance by a ballad singer might exert a powerful influence on its listeners, guiding and shaping ‘belief, thought, action and attitude’.4 Certain types of ballads may not be readily accessible to the modern reader, since they can contain cryptic references to local persons or events.

Amongst the most common sentiments articulated by ballad authors are those connected with romantic ideas about Irish nationhood. Early impulses in favour of a separate and independent nation free from the influence of Great Britain are evident in a ballad like ‘A Lamentation on the State of Ireland’ (ref. CSO/RP/OR/1832/876/6) which is written entirely in the Gaelic language. A production like this certainly would have a strong resonance with people living in localities where English was little known.

Quite apart from the printed ballad sheets of the CSORP, the collection contains a narrow but rich seam of documentary evidence relating to the activities of song vendors and narrators alike. During the troubled early decades of the nineteenth century the authorities in Dublin Castle were especially keen to curtail the dissemination of subversive material as well as restrict anti-government propaganda. In practice, of course, the law was implemented by the local magistrates and the police constabulary, the men on the ground in the different county parishes and baronies. Legal advice was sought in many instances by the constabulary on the thorny question of dealing with travellers, itinerants and hawkers, men and women whose behaviour or motives might arouse suspicion. In July 1831 for example, Chief Constable William Kelly of Gorey in County Wexford requested guidance from the law officers of the crown on dealing with ‘strangers’ in the neighbourhood, or such as were suspected of circulating ‘inflammatory’ songs. Such individuals, if allowed to continue undisturbed, he warned, might incite the lower orders to violence (ref. CSO/RP/1831/1834).

Seeking to raise the alarm in his own jurisdiction, William MacDougall of the city of Belfast, County Antrim, voiced considerable concern to government at the reprinting of a ‘vile’ publication containing ‘nothing but the Revolutionary principles and Rebellious Songs of 1798’. He complains that ‘itinerant Hawkers’ are engaged in the circulation of such material and asks that steps be taken to secure their arrest (ref. CSO/RP/CA/1826/32). In fact, a compilation or chapbook of musical pieces from the radical composers of the late eighteenth century was still in circulating as late as 1832, written under the pseudonym of ‘Billy Bluff’ (ref. CSO/RP/OR/1832/809). As with ‘The Man of the Law’ such literary offerings contained a most abrupt political message, one that was at variance with the accepted order and established political union. In this composition ‘Granu’ (Gráinne), an allegorical representation of Ireland, is portrayed as representing the Irish nation now under siege by England (John Bull).

From the perspective of the authorities, involvement in the narration or promotion of subversive ballad sheets was synonymous with treason. For example, suspicion was aroused over a man named Browning, a native of County Fermanagh, by the postmaster of that county in November 1829. In the event, an investigation was made of Browning and in his possession was found a number of seditious songs and poems, both in printed and manuscript form. It was concluded that his home was used as meeting place for disaffected persons (ref. CSO/RP/OR/1829/880). On various occasions too, reports reached Dublin Castle of certain individuals whose attitude and behaviour had the appearance of disloyalty. One such example is referred to in a joint affidavit of Richard Anderson and Edward Sanns of County Sligo, sworn in May 1828. Anderson and Sanns identify nine people from Ballymote, whom they accuse of singing a treasonable song at the wake of the late Harry Gallagher (ref. CSO/RP/1828/655). A near parallel is an affidavit of Thomas Taylor, washer of ore at Kildrum Mines, County Donegal, accusing one James Kennedy of singing a subversive ballad in October 1828 (ref. CSO/RP/1828/1693).

Arrest and imprisonment were usually the immediate consequences of the public performance of such censored material. In mid-1831, a female singer named Anne Rooney was accused of disturbing the peace of the town of Carlow, County Carlow. She is described as a ‘notorious vagrant going about singing Ballads of an inflammatory nature’ and was detained on grounds her recitals were calculated to ‘excite the minds of the lower orders’ (ref. CSO/RP/1831/1409). Rooney made a strong objection to her arrest by the police, a plea also advanced by Edmond Barry who was likewise brought into custody for ballad singing at Listowel Fair, County Kerry, in May 1832 (ref. CSO/RP/1832/2435). Official resistance to the activities of ballad singers, might, as was the case in Toomevara, County Tipperary, bring the constabulary and members of the lower orders into direct conflict. On the occasion in question, a countryman of the name of Patrick Gleeson was shot by the police following an attack on the police station. The confrontation was the direct result of the removal of a ballad singer from the barrack door (ref. CSO/RP/OR/1828/585). At the other end of the scale, the full force of the law was brought against Denis Ring of County Cork, ‘a vagrant ballad singer’. His case was referred to in a letter, likely to Dublin Castle, by J Bayley in August 1827. Bayley remarks the culprit was tried and sentenced to seven years’ transportation in Botany Bay (New South Wales, Australia) for ‘vending and singing Ballads of the most mischievous and evil tendency’. In his communication, Bayley urges that no legal concession be made to Ring and insisting that no heed be paid to any ‘interference or application in his behalf from the Popish association in Dublin’ (ref. CSO/RP/1827/1465).

Footnotes

1Murphy, Maura, “The ballad singer and the role of the seditious ballad in nineteenth-century Ireland: Dublin Castle’s view” in Ulster folklife magazine vol. 25 (1979), p79.

2G.D. Zimmermann, Songs of Irish Rebellion: Political Street Ballads and Rebel Songs 1780-1900, (Dublin, 1967), p9.

3 ‘The Seller to the Fair’ at: https://www.itma.ie/blog/the-seller-to-the-fair  (accessed, 10 January 2020)

4 Neilands, Colin Watson, Irish broadside ballads in their social and historical contexts, thesis vol. 1: Queen’s University, Belfast, 1986, p.146.

5Comment contained in the Outrage Reports of 1833 (CSORP), likely a submission from Thomas Sloane of County Cork (papers for that year not listed yet); see https://www.itma.ie/blog/the-seller-to-the-fair

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'Young Bony's Freedom' ref. CSO/RP/1831/172

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'The Land of Shillelagh and O'Connell' ref. CSO/RP/OR/1831/172

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'O'Connell's New Song on Emancipation' ref. CSO/RP/OR/1830/679

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'O'Connell's Welcome to Parliament' ref. CSO/RP/OR/1830/679

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'A Pill for O'Brien' ref. CSO/RP/OR/1831/1095/3

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'Ennis's Repeal of the Union' ref. CSO/RP/OR/1831/417

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'A New Song on the Repeal of the Union' ref. CSO/RP/1831/542

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'O'Connell's Prayer and Steel's Amen' ref. CSO/RP/1831/542

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'Lord F[arnham]'s Converts' ref. CSO/RP/OR/1831/172

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'On Doctor Doyle' ref. CSO/RP/OR/1831/172

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'New Sheela na Guira' ref. CSO/RP/1821/1309

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'The Battle of Muff' ref. CSO/RP/OR/1830/221

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'The Downfall of the Tithes' ref. CSO/RP/1832/2928

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'Inhuman Massacre in Newtownbarry' ref. CSO/RP/OR/1831/172

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'Corn Meeting on Tithes' ref. CSO/RP/OR/1832/867

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'The Doneraile Conspiracy' ref. CSO/RP/OR/1830/177

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