Recent travels took us to County Wexford, and we immediately immersed ourselves in the locality. For years I have played the tune usually known as Boolavogue, without fully understanding the significance of the piece – and its place – in Irish history. Firstly, here’s a masterful rendering of this most heartrending of airs by Davy Spillane and Aly Bain (from the Transatlantic Sessions) – enjoy the beauty:
That’s the instrumental but, according to the history books, the tune was originally called Eochaill (Youghal Harbour), used as the melody for a song written in 1898 by Patrick Joseph McCall to commemorate the centenary of the Irish Rebellion: the song was known as Fr Murphy of the County Wexford, and became ‘Boolavogue’ in more recent times. Here is Eochaill beautifully played by Paul Davies who I met on my first visit to Ireland back in the 1970s: he took me on a musical trail around County Clare where I met and heard some of the then ‘greats’ of Irish Traditional Music, including concertina player Paddy Murphy. Sadly, both Paddy and Paul have passed away now, but it’s good to keep their memories alive.
It may not be immediately obvious that Eochaill and what we now know as Boolavogue are the same melody, but comparison of the tunes is a good exercise in the study of evolution in musical traditions. What’s more important to our subject is the words of the song, and the reasons for the writing of it.
At Boolavogue as the sun was setting
O’er the bright May meadows of Shelmalier
A rebel hand set the heather blazing
and brought the neighbours from far and near
Then Father Murphy from old Kilcormack
Spurred up the rock with a warning cry:
“Arm! Arm!” he cried, “For I’ve come to lead you
for Ireland’s freedom we’ll fight or die!”
The header picture is a view from the top of Vinegar Hill, just outside the town of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. Above is a view of the summit of the hill: it’s peaceful in the wintry sunlight. In 1798, however, it was a scene of carnage, as the United Irishmen, led by Father John Murphy, gathered to meet the British forces. George Cruikshank, the British caricaturist, produced illustrations for a history of the Irish Rebellion written by William Maxwell in 1845: he was not kind to the Irish cause but his drawings are probably accurate in their depiction of mayhem, slaughter and atrocities which were reportedly committed by both sides.
Cruikshank’s first drawing shows the Irish encampment on the summit of Vinegar Hill: women and children are evident. The windmill, which became the rebel command centre, dates from the 1600s and can still be seen on the hill today (shown in the photograph above). Disused probably since the time of the Rebellion, it fell into serious disrepair in the 1960s and a notice was affixed to it:
“Vinegar Hill, scene of glorious battle in 1798 between Insurgents and British Crown Forces. Carefully maintained by British Government from 1803 to 1922. Abandoned by the Irish Office of Public Works when freedom obtained. Only historic monument in the care of Irish Government in Enniscorthy area. Thank God for it.”
In our travels we chanced upon the ruins of another old windmill not too far away from Enniscorthy – in Tagoat. Today it’s in poor shape (but surely worthy of conservation) – we were unable to get close to it, but Finola managed to take this view:
Cruikshank’s imagining of the Battle of Vinegar Hill (above) could be a fair depiction. The engagement took place on Midsummer’s Day in 1798 and saw a rebel army of up to 20,000 – mainly armed with pikes – pitched against military forces of 13,000. Further military forces attacked nearby Enniscorthy.
He lead us on against the coming soldiers
And the cowardly Yeomen we put to flight
‘Twas at the Harrow the boys of Wexford
Showed Bookey’s regiment how men could fight
Look out for hirelings, King George of England
Search every kingdom where breathes a slave
For Father Murphy of County Wexford
Sweeps o’er the land like a mighty wave
Father Murphy is remembered everywhere in Wexford. He has a fine memorial in Ferns (above), and a centre dedicated to him at his former home near Boolavogue. No lives were spared by the British at Vinegar Hill; rebels who escaped marched to the midlands but dissipated after failing to garner enough support to continue the uprising. Father Murphy and a companion were captured but not recognised. Even when mercilessly tortured neither man revealed their identity. Both were hanged in the market square in Tullow. The yeomen cut off Father Murphy’s head, put it on display on a spike and burned his body in a barrel of pitch.
At Vinegar Hill, O’er the pleasant Slaney
Our heroes vainly stood back to back
and the Yeos at Tullow took Father Murphy
and burnt his body upon a rack
God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy
And open Heaven to all your men
the cause that called you may call tomorrow
in another fight for the Green again
There’s a 1798 Centre in Enniscorthy, but it was closed on the day we visited. We also looked for the Father Murphy Centre at Boolavogue, but the fine iron gates leading down to it were locked up for the winter. This Irish Rebellion deserves more exposure in this Journal – something we will address in the not-too-distant future. But I am pleased to have gained a greater insight into one of my favourite Irish airs: Boolavogue. Here’s an interesting rendering of P J McCall’s version, by ‘Flying Column’ dating from 1972: it’s preceded by Seamus Heaney’s sonnet Requiem for the Croppies, inspired by these same events.