Irishmen Stick-fighting for Freedom on Christmas Morning.
Some versions of the Irish ballad “Arthur McBride” take place on December 25th, so today being Christmas makes it an apt time to share a bit of information about this traditional song. Of key interest here is the use of a shillelagh by two Irishmen to defend themselves from recruiters for the British Army.
Background on “Arthur McBride”
The song has no known author, but the earliest published version can be found in Old Irish Folk Music and Songs: A Collection of 842 Irish Airs and Song Hitherto Unpublished, Part II (1909). Noted historian, linguist, and music collector Patrick Weston Joyce (1827–1914) transcribed both the words and melody from his memory of hearing the ballad as a boy in County Limerick.
A combination of the work of song collectors and the content with the lyrics give us a time and place for “Arthur McBride.” Joyce notes that phraseology, as well as the work of another noted music collector named George Petrie (1790–1866), suggest the song originated in County Donegal. The lyrics reference not wanting to die in France, which would seem to place the time period during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815).
The Story in “Arthur McBride”
The narrator in the tune is out for a stroll along a beach on Christmas morning with his cousin Arthur McBride (sometimes rendered as MacBride). Two British soldiers and a little drummer boy accost the cousins, trying to recruit them for the army with offers of money, food, and nice clothing. The cousins decline, saying they’d rather be free—especially because they don’t want to be sent to die in France. The soldiers become angry and start to draw their swords, but the two cousins swiftly defend themselves with their shillelaghs to win the day.
Why Anti-recruiting Shillelaghs Win the Day
There are two features of this story that strike me. The first is a strong anti-recruitment sentiment, which is clearly shown not to be anti-violence by the vigorous application of shillelaghs. Ireland was occupied by Britain in the time period of “Arthur McBride.” Most Catholic Irish were poor, downtrodden, and oppressed, so joining the army was a career opportunity that many took. The narrator and his cousin, however, see not only the danger of a soldier’s life, but I would argue they also resent the idea of fighting for their oppressors.
The second aspect of “Arthur McBride” that interests me is the use of shillelaghs to beat down the British soldiers. The idea of a simple stick in the hands of a skilled fighter being able to defeat trained military personnel armed with swords is remarkable. There were uprisings and rebellions before and after the time period of “Arthur McBride,” but the early 19th century was the height of Irish bataireacht (stick-fighting). The shillelagh thus functions as symbol of the smouldering, unbreakable, Irish fighting spirit and longing for freedom for British rule.
Features and Versions of “Arthur McBride”
While there is lyrical and melodic variation between different versions of “Arthur McBride,” some features remain fairly constant. The sixteen-bar form is strophic, with a repeating pair of eight-bar melodic lines that are close variations of each other. The tempo is rather slow and the rhythm is set in 6/8 time.
The modern revival of the tune begins with the band Planxty’s 1973 recording, but the most famous version probably belongs to former Planxty member Paul Brady. Below, I’ve posted the short film Christmas Morning (1978) by pioneering Irish film-maker Tiernan MacBride.
There is some interesting language in the various versions of the song. For example, a common term going back to Joyce’s transcription glosses the little soldier boy’s drum as a “row da dow dow.” This sounds like onomatopoeia, although it may also be a way of belittling the power of the army to command action through martial sound, because McBride and his cousin kick the drum around like a football. In the version Paul Brady sings for Christmas Morning, the recruiter calls McBride a “spalpeen,” which comes from the Irish spailpín, meaning an itinerant labourer and/or a scalawag.
Brady’s version for Christmas Morning omits the most violent verse, which is present in other versions (such as Bob Dylan’s):
“And we havin’ no money, paid them off in cracks
We paid no respect to their two bloody backs
And we lathered them there like a pair of wet sacks
And left them for dead in the morning”
Now, Merry Christmas and enjoy the music video!