No fife did hum nor battle drum
Did sound its dread tattoo
But the Angelus bell o'er the Liffey swell
Rang out through the foggy dew
Aftermath of Easter Rising, c 1916 Dublin
The relationship between Britain and Ireland might be more frequently and fervently chronicled in poetry and song than any other international relationship in world history. With the proud tradition of the Celtic bard in their heritage, and the blood of warrior-scholars seemingly flowing in their veins, the Irish have transmuted their memories, frustrations, and sufferings into a heartrendingly beautiful line of artistic expression. Into that long line fits "Foggy Dew," a song originally penned by parish priest Canon Charles O'Neill sometime after 1919, and best known today through its performance by the Dubliners.
"Foggy Dew" recounts the Irish Easter Rising, which occurred in 1916 in Ireland. Tensions between some Irish nationalists and the British had been steadily rising since the Acts of Union 1800, which got rid of the Irish Parliament and, to some, represented a marked increase in Britain's control over the nation.
What's left of the G.P.O. on Sackville Street, Dublin, c May 1916
Tensions were also mounting between sects of the Irish themselves. An estimated 210,000 Irish had joined the British to fight in WWI. The problem was that many Irish nationalists saw it as an insult, because their countrymen would be fighting side by side with their oppressors to defend the rights of other nations. Frustrations increased further during the Conscription Crisis of 1918 when the British voted to forcefully draft Irish citizens to fight the war. No one was ever actually drafted in this manner, but the very passing of the law was an affront to the Irish sense of independence.
So, on April 24, 1916, James Connolly, Patrick Pearse, and 200 members of the paramilitary women's organization known as Cumann na mBan executed attacks on strategic locations in Ireland. The battle went on for six days. By the end, 116 British soldiers were dead and nearly 400 were wounded, and 318 Irish rebels and civilians were killed, and over 2,000 wounded.
The majority of the dead and wounded were civilians caught by indirect fire from the machine guns and incendiary shells used by the British. In other cases, their deaths were not accidental at all, as was the case in the Portobello Barracks where soldiers executed 15 civilians in cold blood. However, the Irish rebels were not innocent of their own misguided violence, and are known to have beaten and killed civilians that resisted or disobeyed them.
Adding to the general chaos of the scene was the fact that the Dublin Metropolitan Police Commissioner pulled his men off the street after three of their number were killed on the Rising's opening day. The lack of a law enforcement presence allowed mass looting to occur throughout the city. After the Rising was over, 425 people were arrested for the thefts.
By the end of the six day conflict, the Provisional Government established by the rebel forces surrendered. Shortly after, 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested. They were met with a largely negative response by the rest of the Irish citizenry, being spit on, cursed, and pelted with garbage. Citizens from South Dublin Union and Jacob's Factory were particularly scornful, as the rebels had shot and beaten many of their number in an attempt to take over the locations.
Over time, the general reaction to the events changed. The transformation was at least partially due to the reaction to the executions that followed. Of the people arrested, 90 were sentenced to death. Out of that 90, 15 were confirmed and carried out. The anger towards these executions fed into the growing Irish nationalist movement, convincing many that political methods alone would never achieve the desired goal of sovereignty. This growing discontent eventually helped lift the Sinn Féin political party to new power. Sinn Féin would then become a powerful shaping force in Irish history.
Sackville Street, Dublin, after Easter Rising c 1916
The Dubliners, as their name suggests, came from Dublin. They were all born many years after the Easter Rising, but the battle for Irish independence was still strong as they grew up, and the events of "Foggy Dew" almost certainly sounded very pertinent to their modern day. It was relevant enough that, when violence in Ireland began to increase again in the '60s, they stopped singing "Foggy Dew" at live performances. Sinead O'Connor also picked up the gauntlet, performing the song in a gorgeous version with the Chieftans, another Irish band hailing from Dublin.
Today, Dublin is the capital and the largest city in Ireland. It was originally founded as a Viking settlement and derives its name for the Irish word for "black pool." It stands where the mouth of the River Liffey enters the Irish Sea. The city has a robust, globally competitive economy.
Yet, underneath all the modern trappings of the city, Dublin has a very deep memory, one fed by great poets like Seamus Heaney, and great musicians like the Dubliners. The haunting lyrics of "Foggy Dew" will serve for a long time to remind its listeners of the long and bloody history behind modern Ireland.Jeff Suwak
February 19, 2016