“The Minstrel Boy”
Listen (John McDermott has a wonderful voice!) as if you’d never heard this song before. It isn’t just about Ireland: it’s about not surrendering your values.
Busts of Thomas Moore, who wrote the lyrics to “The Minstrel Boy,” stand in Central Park and Prospect Park. Both were dedicated in 1879, on the centennial of Moore’s birth.
Below is a slightly revised version of my narration for the episode on Thomas Moore in the Guides Who Know app on Central Park (in progress).
As Robert Burns is Scotland’s most beloved poet, Thomas Moore (1779-1852) is Ireland’s. Moore set foot on the road to fame and a regular income in 1808, with the publication of the first of ten volumes of Irish Melodies. Among the hundred-odd lyrics that Moore set to Irish folksongs is a tribute to a dying young warrior who rips the strings off his harp, because he refuses to let it be used to glorify his nation’s conquerors. “The Minstrel Boy” appeared barely ten years after Moore’s college friend Robert Emmett was executed for treason following an abortive Irish Catholic uprising against the British. Other well-known poems from the Irish Melodies include “Tis the Last Rose of Summer” and “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms.”
Moore also composed satirical verse that’s still a pleasure to read. After an unsatisfying visit to President Thomas Jefferson in the rowdy, uncouth city of Washington in 1804, he wrote to a friend:
O’er lake and marsh, through fevers and through fogs,
Midst bears and yankies, democrats and frogs,
Thy foot shall follow me, thy heart and eyes
With me shall wonder, and with me despise!
–“Epistle VII to Thomas Hume” (pp. 101-2)
Thomas Moore went on to write a biography of the dashing young revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzgerald and a two-volume history of Ireland before the British occupation. When he died in 1852, he was acclaimed as an Irish poet and patriot.
By that time, the Great Famine had driven hundreds of thousands of his countrymen to America. More than three-quarters of New York’s domestic servants were Irish. So were three-quarters of the laborers, including many of those who smashed the rocks, hauled the dirt, laid the drains, and performed the other back-breaking tasks that transformed Central Park from a stinking swamp to a pastoral retreat. The Irish were usually fervent supporters of Tammany Hall leaders such as Boss Tweed, who promised them jobs on public construction projects.
Like most immigrants under a free political system, the Irish soon rose from lower to middle class. In New York, they gravitated to the police and fire departments, which are still heavily Irish. That’s why, if you pass by St. Patrick’s Cathedral when the funeral of a fireman or policeman is in progress, you’ll often hear the mournful strains of “The Minstrel Boy.”
- If you can stand it, here’s “The Minstrel Boy” with clips from the movie Black Hawk Down. I find it very difficult to watch.
- I can’t resist including (although I’ve done it elsewhere) Lord Byron’s tribute to Thomas Moore.
- Want more art like this delivered weekly to your inbox? Check out my Patreon page.