In 1798, during the United Irishmen uprising, wearing green was seen as an act of rebellion against the British government. At best a man wearing green could be imprisoned, at worst hanged.
From these incidences spawned “The Wearing of the Green;” the street ballad which proclaimed: “They’re hanging men and women for the wearing of the green.” The song became an anthem of the rebellion and furthermore, a symbol of Irish identity.
Following “The Wearing of the Green” takes you down the trail of Irish independence, beginning with the arrival of St. Patrick leading through numerous failed rebellions and into independence and The Troubles.
In 1791, the Society of United Irishmen formed with the aim to address the problems of national sovereignty for the island of Ireland. At the direction of Theobald Wolfe Tone, they issued a declaration with three resolutions; to eradicate “the weight of English influence” on the Irish government; to reform the Irish parliament to properly serve the people of Ireland; and the last “called for a union of religious faiths in Ireland to ‘abolish the differences that had long divided Irishmen’ and sought to give Catholics political rights.”
The Society of United Irishmen wore green uniforms and flew green flags bearing the image of a harp, which was long used as a symbol in the Irish coat of arms, and occasionally bearing the Irish phrase Éire go Brách, meaning “Ireland Forever.”
Ireland had been under British control since 1173 when King of England Henry II declared himself Lord of Ireland. This self-crowning led to the 1494 Declaration of Poyning’s Law that was issued by Henry VII’s Lord Deputy to Ireland Edward Poyning. The declaration stated “No Parliament be Holden in this Land until the Acts be certified into England.” In layman’s terms, all Irish laws were subject to English authorization.
The authority England held over Ireland led to unsuccessful rebellions in the years of 1534, 1569, 1579, 1594, 1608, 1641, 1642, and 1689. In the year of 1798, the recently formed Society of United Irishman planned for another rebellion. By 1797, the Society of United Irishman had 200,000 members nationwide, including both Catholics and Protestants. As the American’s had done a few years prior in their revolution, the Irish sought the assistance of the French, but bad weather and bad planning prevented their army from landing and they returned to France. By March 1798, the rebellions leaders had been arrested in the capital city of Dublin. In June, Sir Edward Crosbie became the first United Irishman to be executed for treason, by hanging.
Rebellions broke out around the country and from May to October in 1798, battles
took place across Ireland, finally ending in a victory for Britain. It was fraught with massacres on both sides, namely the burning of prisoners alive. The British Armed forces took to the practice of half-hanging as a means of interrogation and torture. Irish prisoners that survived the conflict were treated not as prisoners, but as traitors to the British crown and executed, primarily by the rope.
On May 26, 1798, 36 people were executed by firing squad in the County Wicklow. The event is documented in the Irish Ballad “Dunlavin Green.”
In the year one thousand seven hundred and ninety eight
A sorrowful tale the truth unto you I’ll relate
of thirty-six heroes to the world were left to be seen
By a false information were shot on Dunlavin Green.
Several other notable songs to come out of the rebellion included “The Croppy Boy,” and “Croppies Lie Down.”
As a result of the conflict, wearing green itself was seen as an act of sedition by the British Government. An Irish newspaper article entitled “Orangemen versus United Irishman” dated November 25, 1797 details the consequences.
while a green ribbon, or a green handkerchief even accidentally worn, being suspected as an emblem of affection to Ireland – subjects a man to imprisonment – transportation – the rope or the bayonet – and exposes women to the brutal insults of the common soldiery.
Around the same time a street ballad, called “The Wearing of the Green,” started to appear describing the atrocities.
Paddy dear, did you hear the news that’s going round.
The Shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground.
St. Patrick’s Day no more we’ll keep, his colors can’t be seen.
There’s a bloody law against the wearing of the green.
The ballad goes on.
I met with Napper Tandy, he took me by the hand.
He said how’s dear old Ireland and how does she stand.
She’s the most distressful country that you have ever seen.
For they’re hanging men and women for the wearing of the green.
“The Wearing of the Green” is a song that was emblematic, not only the rebellion of 1798, but of Irish identity itself. In the tune “Has Anybody Here seen Kelly,” it’s the titular character’s favorite song. In the Dubliner’s “Monto,” the Czar of Rrussia and the King of Prussia ask the Police Band to play the song (but the buggers at the depot didn’t know the tune). The Pogue’s “Boat Train” kicks off with the parodied couplet:
I met with Napper Tandy and he shook me by the hand
Said “Hold me up for christsakes, for I can hardly stand”
“Boat Train” also borrows its melody from “The Wearing of the Green,” as do a number of other songs including the rebel song “The Rising of the Moon” and the comical “The Orange and the Green.”
“The Orange and the Green,” also known as “The Biggest Mix Up,” tells the story of a marriage between a Protestant man and a Catholic woman, Orange being the color of the Protestants, and Green being the color of Catholics. The narrator of the song is a child of the couple and describes the troubles of being the result of a mixed-faith marriage, including a disagreement over his own name. Despite being christened David Anthony, the narrators Protestant father calls him William, for William of Orange, King of England, while his Catholic mother calls him Pat, after St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland.
The legend of St. Patrick tells that he came to Pagan Ireland around the year 430 from Roman controlled Britain. He was kidnapped and enslave upon a pirate ship at the age of 16. Patrick escaped enslavement and fled back to Britain, but would return years later to Ireland as a Christian Missionary. Legend holds Patrick responsible for converting the people of Ireland to Christianity by using the shamrock to explain the Christian theological concept that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit could be 3 separate parts while still being one. It is by this legend that the shamrock became a symbol of Ireland.
Following the Rebellion of 1798, the fight for independence continued. In 1803, Robert Emmet led the United Irishmen in a failed taking of Dublin Castle, the seat of the British government in Ireland.
Robert Emmet was tried for high treason and sentenced to death by hanging on September 19, 1803. At his sentencing, amidst a lengthy speech Emmet stated “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written.”
More uprisings followed in 1804, and in 1848. “The Wearing of the Green” followed with them.
In 1864, John Keegan Casey published a collection of poems titled “A Wreath of Shamrocks.” Included was the ballad “The Rising of the Moon,” a song recounting the Rebellion of 1798 and borrowing its melody from the “Wearing of the Green.”
Also in 1864 came Dion Boucialt’s play, “Arrah-na-pogue” [Irish for “Arrah of the kiss”] Set during the 1798 rebellion, the play details a tragic situation where an Irish Rebel, Beamish McCoul, puts his friends Arrah and Shaun in trouble with British Officers on the day of their wedding. Shaun sings “The Wearing of the Green” in the following scene, but only after noting that it was likely to get the lot of them hanged:
Arrah: Come, Shaun, for want of a betther, we’ll take a song from yourself.
All: Hurroo. Rise it, Shaun, avich.
Shaun: Will, ladies, its for you to choose the time of it. What shall it be?
Regan: The “Wearing of the green.”
All: Hurroo! The “Wearing of the green.”
Shaun: Whist, boys, are ye mad; is it sing that song and the soldiers widin gunshot? Sure there’s sudden death in every note of it.
Oiny: Niver fear; we’ll put a watch outside and sing it quiet.
Shaun: It is the “Twistin’ of the rope” ye are axin’ for.
Regan: Divil an informer is to the fore—so out wid it.
Shaun~: Is it all right, outside there?
Oiny: (advancing). Not a sowl can hear ye, barrin’ ourselves.
Shaun: Murdher alive! kape lookin’ out.
Boucicalt’s play came at a time of growing Irish Nationalism and coincided with the Fenian movement. Fenianism was an Irish nationalist movement. One of their goals was to “capture Canada and hold it hostage until England surrendered Ireland.”
One Fenian song detailed:
We are the Fenian Brotherhood skilled in the art of war.
And we’re going to fight for Ireland, the land that we adore.
Many battles we have won along with the boys in blue
And we’ll go capture Canada, for we’ve nothing else to do.
Mark Goldman outlines in his book High Hopes, “Because of its location, as well as the strength of the local Fenian brotherhood, Buffalo was chosen as the launching place for the invasion of Canada.” The description goes on:
For several weeks prior to the secretly planned invasion of June 2, 1866, hundreds of Fenian brethren, including contingents from virtually every city in the northern United States, descended on Buffalo. By the end of June over one thousand of them were billeted in homes, taverns, and boarding houses in Irish South Buffalo…the newspapers were filled with items referring to the fact that “the groggeries and rum shops were thronged” in South Buffalo, and that “throughout the worst quarters of the city the presence of a new element is unmistakeable.”
The invasion of Canada had several early victories for the Fenian army, but led to a defeat by the Canadian volunteers.
The 1867 Fenian Rising in Ireland was another failed attempt at Irish Independence that was followed by the Dynamite Campaign, a series of Fenian attacks on British infrastructure lasting from 1881-85.
The next major uprising came during Easter 1916. The insurrection was led by seven members of the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Lasting six days, the Irish seized key locations in Dublin, hoisting the green flag above the Dublin Post Office and proclaiming the Irish Republic. Outnumbering the Irish in numbers and arms the British Army suppressed the uprising.
Following the uprising, leaders of the insurgency were arrested and executed – some by firing squad, others by hanging. Though the uprising had been put down, it was followed by the Irish War of Independence that finally instituted the Republic of Ireland as a free state.
The Irish War of Independence marked the formation of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Over the years 1919-1921 the IRA fought a guerrilla war against the British Army. The song “Off to Dublin in the Green” came out of the conflict.
Some men fight for silver, and some men fight for gold
The IRA is fighting for the land the Saxons stole.
“Bloody Sunday” was one of the biggest atrocities to take place. On November 21, 1920, after the IRA assassinated 14 British intelligence officers and soldiers, the British retaliated by firing indiscriminately into a crowd at a football game, killing 14 civilians.
A truce came in the summer of 1921, and a treaty would be signed by the end of the year. The Treaty established the Irish Free State for the lower 26 counties, while the six counties in the North remained under British rule. This created animosity between the North and South that persists to this day.
It also created a split in the IRA. Against the treaty, they refused to recognize either Northern Ireland or the Irish Free State, and continued to campaign for a united Ireland.
In 1939, the IRA began it’s Sabotage Campaign, a series of attacks against the infrastructure of the United Kingdom reminiscent of the Fenian’s Dynamite campaign. The subject is approached The Old Alarm Clock, a song written by Phil Kelly and recorded in 1957 by Dominic Behan. The narrator arrives in London in 1939 and is arrested for being in possession of an alarm clock. The second verse employs an allusion to “The Wearing of the Green.”
Next morning down by Marylebone, I caused no little stir.
The IRP were busy and the telephones did burr.
Says the judge I’m going to charge you, with the possession of this machine.
And I’m also going to charge you, with the Wearing of the Green.
The IRA led more campaigns against the British in Northern Ireland from 1942-44, and 1956-62.
In 1969, following riots in Northern Ireland, the IRA split leading to the creation of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Along with a civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland to combat Catholic discrimination, this marked the start of a period known as The Troubles.
The Troubles was a period of conflict between Northern Protestants, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain British and Catholics who called for the unity of Ireland. The violence of the period was carried between the Provisional IRA and the British government, often bearing casualties amongst civilians.
On January 30 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland, British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians during a protest, and 14 were killed. The March was in protest of British imprisonment of 342 people, without trial, of being involved in the IRA.
As with all conflicts the Irish were quick to memorialize the event in song. Paul McCartney wrote and recorded “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” by February 1 of that year, and had it released as a 7″ single on February 25.
Co-former-Beatle, John Lenon, released “Some Time in New York” in June of 1972. Included were two songs, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and “The Luck of the Irish” focusing on the hardships in Northern Ireland.
Other songs about the incident include Christie Moore’s “Minds Locked Shut,” Stiff Little Fingers’ “Bloody Sunday,” and U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which was written to be about both the events of 1972 as well as calling back the Bloody Sunday of 1920.
On November 21 1974 two pubs in Birmingham, England were bombed. 21 died. 182 were injured. The attack was the most disastrous act of terrorism on British soil since World War II.
In a rush to make an arrest, six men were arrested, tortured, and coerced into signing false confessions. After two decades in prison they successfully appealed their convictions and were released in 1991.
The Pogue’s song “Birmingham Six,” released in 1988, describes the miscarriage of justice. The first verse echoes the first verse line of “Dunlavin Green,” “By a false information were shot on Dunlavin Green”.
There’s six men in Birmingham, In Guildford there’s four
that were picked up and tortured and framed by the law
and the filth get promotions, but they’re still doing time
for being Irish in the wrong place and at the wrong time.
Pogues writer and singer, Shane MacGowan said of the song “”It’s about anybody in that situation, getting locked away without any real evidence… Basically it’s a prison song about someone pacing round his cell or round the yard wondering what the fuck it’s all about… It’s a depressing song – it’s not a song that I enjoyed writing or find much pleasure in singing.”
On November 8 1987 The IRA bombed a Remembrance Day Parade in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. 11 died. 63 were injured.
Performing that night in Denver, Colorado, Bono, lead singer of U2, addressed the incident onstage during a performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
I’ve had enough of Irish Americans who haven’t been back to their country in twenty or thirty years come up to me and talk about the resistance, the revolution back home…and the glory of the revolution…and the glory of dying for the revolution. Fuck the revolution! They don’t talk about the glory of killing for the revolution. What’s the glory in taking a man from his bed and gunning him down in front of his wife and his children? Where’s the glory in that? Where’s the glory in bombing a Remembrance Day parade of old age pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day. Where’s the glory in that? To leave them dying or crippled for life or dead under the rubble of a revolution that the majority of the people in my country don’t want. No more!
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This sentiment of the detachment of Irish American’s from the realities of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is echoed in Stiff Little Fingers’ “Each Dollar a Bullet” again, calling back “The Wearing of the Green”
Oh it must be so romantic When the fighting’s over there
And they’re passing round the shamrock and you’re all filled up with tears
“For the love of dear old Ireland” that you’ve never even seen
You throw in twenty dollars and sing “Wearing of the Green”
The 1991 song asserts that Americans, Irish, and English are all complicit in the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland whether by supporting it financially or maintaining the hatred between all sides.
In 1997 the Provisional IRA called a cease fire, followed in 2005 by a formal end to their armed campaign, but violence continues in spite of this coming from former members acting on their own or by the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA, who split from the Provisional IRA in 1986 and 1997 respectively.