Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

“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.

The Minstrel-boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him;
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him.
“Land of song!” said the warrior-bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

 The Minstrel fell! But the foeman’s chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its cords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the brave and free,
They shall never sound in slavery!”

“The Minstrel Boy,” from an 1846 edition of Irish Melodies by Thomas Moore.

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.

Thomas Moore by D.B. Sheahan, dedicated 1879. Central Park, just west of the East Drive near 61st Street. Photo copyright © 2017 Dianne L. Durante

Thomas Moore by John G. Draddy, dedicated 1879. Concert Ground, Prospect Park. Photo copyright © 2017 Dianne L. Durante

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).

Thomas Moore

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.”

More

  • If you can stand it, here’s “The Minstrel Boy” with clips from the movie Black Hawk DownI find it very difficult to watch.
  • I can’t resist including (although I’ve done it elsewhere) Lord Byron’s tribute to Thomas Moore.

My boat is on the shore,
And my bark is on the sea;
But before I go, Tom Moore,
Here’s a double health to thee!

Here’s a sigh to those who love me,
And a smile to those who hate;
And, whatever sky’s above me,
Here’s a heart for every fate!

Though the ocean roar around me,
Yet it still shall bear me on;
Though a desert should surround me,
It hath springs that may be won.

Were ‘t the last drop in the well,
As I gasped upon the brink
Ere my fainting spirit fell,
‘T is to thee that I would drink.

With that water, as this wine,
The libation I would pour
Should be, – Peace with thine and mine,
And a health to thee, Tom Moore.

About Dianne L. Durante

I’m an independent scholar and freelance writer /lecturer on art and art history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are *Innovators in Sculpture¸* a survey of 5,000 years of art in two hours, and *Monuments of Manhattan,* a videoguide app by Guides Who Know that’s based on my book *Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide.*

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