It was early, early all in the spring,
The small birds whistling did sweetly sing,
Changing their notes from tree to tree,
And the song they sang was “Old Ireland’s free.”*
It was early, early last Tuesday night,
The Yeoman Cavalry gave me a fright;
The Yeoman Cavalry was my downfall,
When I was taken before Lord Cornwall.
It was in his guard house I did lay,
And in his parlor they swore my life away;
My sentence passed and with courage low,
Unto Dungannon I was forced to go.
And when I was marching through Wexford street,
My cousin Nancy I chanced to meet;
My own first cousin did me betray,
And for one guinea swore my life away.
When I was passing my father’s door,
My brother William stood on the floor;
My aged father stood at the door,
And my tender mother her gray hair she tore.
My sister Mary in great distress,
She rushed down stairs in her mourning dress;
Five thousand guineas she would lay down
For to see me liberated in Wexford town.
And when we were marching up Wexford hill,
Who would blame me were I to cry my fill;
With a guard behind and a guard before,
But my tender mother I’ll see no more.
And when I was standing on the gallows high,
My aged father was standing nigh;
My aged father did me deny,
And the name he gave me was the Croppy Boy.
I chose the dark and I chose the blue,
I chose the pink and the orange, too;
I forsook them all and did them deny,
I wore the green and for it I’ll die.
It was in Dungannon this young man died,
And in Dungannon his body lies;
And all good people that this way pass by,
Say, “May the Lord have mercy on the Croppy Boy!”
In late 18th century Europe, to wear one’s hair cropped short could be seen as a show of support for the anti-aristocrat (anti-powdered wig) French revolutionaries of that period. In Ireland, “Croppy” became the term for Irish rebels who allied themselves with revolutionary France and launched the Irish Rebellion of 1798 in hopes of winning independence from Britain. “The Croppy Boy” is a well-travelled ballad of that period that references key places and people important to the history of the 1798 Rising.
The above text was sung and printed by Minnesota singer Michael C. Dean in the 1920s. We don’t know what melody Dean used as he does not seem to have sung it for either of the song collectors who visited him.
To mark the opening of the new Eoin McKiernan Library at the Celtic Junction Arts Center on April 22nd, I sourced the above “Croppy Boy” melody from one of the rare and wonderful books that is part of the new library’s collection: Old Irish Folk Music and Songs by Patrick Weston Joyce (published 1909). P. W. Joyce (1827-1914), along with his contemporary Chief Francis O’Neill, was one of the first Irish music collectors to have actually grown up within a community where traditional music was part of daily life. Joyce hailed from southeast county Limerick and was immersed in Irish traditional music from a young age. His 1909 book is a treasure trove of 842 “Irish Airs and Songs” and a digital copy is available online thanks to the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin.
*Dean’s text reads “Old Ireland’s is Free”—probably a typo.