30 Jun

The Heights of Alma

It was in September, the eighteenth day
In spite of the salt sea’s dashing spray,
We landed safe on the Crimea,
Upon our route to Alma.

That night we lay on the cold, cold ground,
No peace or comfort could be found,
And by the rain were nearly drowned,
To cheer our hearts for Alma.

Next morning when we did arise,
Beneath those gloomy Russian skies,
Lord Ragalan, our Chieftain cries,
“Prepare to march for Alma.”

And when the heights they hove in view,
The strongest hearts they would subdue,
To see that motley Russian crew
Upon the heights of Alma.

They were so strongly fortified,
With batteries on each mountain side,
Lord Ragalan viewed their works and cried,
“We’ll have tough work in Alma.”

The Scotch Greys were the first that came,
And turned their fire in like rain,
But many a Highland lass will mauirn,
For that day’s work at Alma.

The Twenty-second Fusileers,
They gained the heights and gave three cheers,
With joy each Briton’s heart did cheer,
Hibernia’s sons at Alma.

Back to Sebastapool the Russians fled,
They left their dying and their dead,
The rivers that day did run red
With the blood that flowed at Alma.

This is one of four songs referencing the Crimean War (1853-1856) that were printed by Minnesota singer
Michael C. Dean in his songster The Flying Cloud. See earlier Northwoods Songs columns for the other
three: “Patrick Sheehan,” “The Tidy Irish Lad” and “As I Rode Down Through Irishtown.”

The song describes some accurate details of the Battle of Alma, which took place on September 20, 1854.
Lord Raglan was the English commander and his men had no tents their first night after landing. The
“Scottish Greys” were the Royal Scots Greys – a famed Scottish regiment in the British Army. I have not
found any historical reference to a 22nd regiment at Alma (exact numbers don’t always survive the folk
process!) but what little glory there is in Dean’s version clearly goes to “Hibernia’s sons” on the
battlefield. Irish soldiers made up a third of the British Army in the Crimea, resulting in much heartbreak
and many songs back in Ireland.

Other versions of this song use the well-known and cheery-sounding “Rakes of Mallow” melody. The duo of Irish fiddle player Michael Coleman and flute player Tom Morrison recorded that tune as “The Heights of Alma” on a 78rpm record. Dean’s more mournful melody resembles versions found in New England collections. An especially nice variant was sung by Newfoundland singer Cyril O’Brien and recorded by MacEdward Leach. My duo, The Lost Forty, used the O’Brien melody for our arrangement of this song.

28 Jun

The Town Passage

The Town Passage is large and spacious and situated upon the say,
It is nate and dacent and quiet, adjacent to the cove of Cork on a summer day;
There you can slip in to take a dipping forninst the shipping that at anchor ride
Or in a wherry cross o’er the ferry to Caregoloe on the other side.

Mud cabins swarm in this place so charming with sailors’ garments hung out to dry,
And each abode is snug and commodious with pigs melodious in their straw-built sty;
Oh, the pigs are sleek and well contented, their odor fragrant it scents the air
Oh, the beef and biskie, the pork and whisky, it would make you frisky if you were there.

It’s there the turf is and lots of Murphies; Dead Spratts and Herring and Oyster Shells,
Nor any lack of good tobacco, but what is smuggled by far excels;
It’s there you’d see Peg Murphy’s daughter peeling praties forninst the dure,
With me aunt Delaney and Bridget Haney, all blood relations to Lord Donoughmore.

There is ships from Cadiz and from the Barbadoes, but the lading trade is in whiskey punch,
Or you can go in to where one Molly Bowen kapes a nate hotel for a quiet lunch;
But land or deck on you can safely reckon, whatever country that you came from
On an invitation to a jollification by a parish priest called Father Tom.

Of ships there is one fixed for lodging convicts, a floating stone jug of amazing bulk,
And the hake and salmon playing at back Gamon swim for diversion all around her hulk;
There English peelers keep brave repalers who soon with sailors must anchor weigh,
From the Emerald Island ne’er to see dry land until they spy land in Botany Bay.

“The Town Passage” (aka “The Town of Passage”) is one of a tight-knit family of songs, all sharing the same melody and poetic style, that came out of eastern County Cork in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first song in the chain seems to have been one written by a forgotten poet in praise of the famous Castlehyde in Fermoy which was composed by a local poet in the late 1700s when the building was newly built. (Castlehyde was the seat of the Hyde family that would later produce Ireland’s first president Douglas Hyde. It is also currently owned by famed Irish-American dancer Michael Flatley!)

Another Cork poet, Richard Alfred Millikin (b. 1767) is believed to have taken “Castlehyde” as a model for his song “The Groves of Blarney” which he composed around 1798 in honor of that town located southwest of Castlehyde and just northwest of Cork City. Millikin’s song became a sensation among the singing classes of Ireland and crossed the ocean to North America where it was printed on song sheets. Thomas Moore (b. 1779) took the melody from “The Groves of Blarney” for his hit “The Last Rose of Summer” around 1805. Moore’s song is not related to Cork aside from taking this melody.

Father Prout

A third Cork poet, Francis Sylvester Mahony (aka Father Prout, b. 1804) used the melody and style of “The Groves of Blarney” in 1834 to create “The Bells of Shandon” – the only song in the bunch to celebrate an icon within Cork City itself. “The Bells” is also more earnest in tone with less of the tongue-in-cheek faux-praise present in “Castlehyde” and “The Groves of Blarney.”

Interestingly, poet Mahony/Father Prout returned to the more light-hearted approach when he created yet another song “The Town of Passage” to the same melody and form. Passage (now called Passage West) is just southeast of Cork City on the way to Cobh. This song was printed by Thomas Crofton Croker in 1839

“The Town of Passage” has not been found often in tradition. It does, however, turn up in Michael Dean’s 1922 songster printed here in Minnesota! Above I have married Dean’s text to the melody used for an oral tradition version of “The Groves of Blarney” collected in Newfoundland in 1975 by Aidan O’Hara from the singing of Ellen Emma Power which you can hear via the Irish Traditional Music Archive online.

28 Jun

Patrick Sheehan

My name is Patrick Sheehan, my years are thirty-four,
I was born in Tipperary, not far from Galtimore;
I came of honest parents, but now they are lying low,
And it’s many the happy days I spent in the glens of Aherloe.

My father died, I closed his eyes outside our cabin door,
The landlord and the sheriff, too, were there the day before;
It was then my poor old mother and sisters, two, also,
With broken hearts were forced to leave the glens of Aherloe.

Then for three months in search of work I rambled far and near,
Then I went unto the poor house to see my mother dear;
The news I heard nigh broke my heart, but yet in all my woe,
I blest the friends that made their graves in the glens of Aherloe.

Bereft of home, of kith and kin, and plenty all around,
I starved within my cabin and slept upon the ground;
But cruel as my lot it was, I ne’er did hardships know,
Until I joined the English army far away from Aherloe.

“Get up, you lazy Irish dog,” the corporal he came around,
“Don’t you hear the bugle, the called to arms, sound?”
Alas, I had been dreaming of days long, long ago,
And I woke before Sebastapool, and not in Aherloe.

I groped for my musket, how dark I thought the night!
Oh, blessed God, it was not dark, it was the broad daylight;
And when I found that I was blind, the tears they down did flow,
And I longed for even a pauper’s grave in the glens of Aherloe.

Now a poor, forlorn mendicant, I wander through the streets,
My nine months’ pension being out, I beg from all I meet;
But since I joined my country’s tyrants my face I ne’er will show,
To the kind and loving neighbors in the glens of Aherloe.

Oh, Blessed Virgin Mary, mine is a mournful tale,
A poor blind prisoner here I lie in Dublin’s dreary jail;
Struck blind within the trenches where I never feared the foe,
But now I never more will see my own sweet Aherloe.

Now, youths and fellow countrymen, take heed to what I say.
Don’t ever join the English ranks or you’ll surely rue the day;
And if ever you are tempted a-soldiering to go,
Remember poor blind Sheehan and the glens of Aherloe.

We have another of Michael Dean’s songs with literary connections this month. The text of “Patrick Sheehan” aka “The Glens of Aherlow” is known to be the work of Irish revolutionary, novelist and poet Charles Kickham (1828-82). Kickham was inspired to write the song by a real life Patrick Sheehan – a blind veteran of the Crimean War (1853-56) arrested for begging on Grafton Street in Dublin in 1857. Kickham published his text that year under the pseudonym “Darby Ryan Junior” (a reference to an earlier Irish balladeer who composed “The Peeler and the Goat”). Song historians have since discerned that the real Patrick Sheehan was likely not from Tipperary but Tipp was Kickham’s home county and probably not the only poetic license taken in the composition.

Charles Kickham
photo from the Library of Trinity College Dublin Digital Collections

The song was printed as a broadside and sung widely in Ireland. Helen Hartness Flanders found at least four versions among her New England singers. “Yankee” John Galusha (1859-1950) of Minerva, New York was recorded singing the song in 1949 and it’s the Galusha melody that I have married to Dean’s text above. Dean himself was born in 1858 in Madrid, NY on the opposite side of the Adirondacks from Galusha.

Woodcut and title of a broadside from Rare Books & Special Collections, Hesburgh Libraries, University of Notre Dame