It was early, early all in the spring,
The small birds whistling did sweetly sing.
Changing their notes from tree to tree,
And the song they sang was “Old Ireland’s free.”*
It was early, early last Tuesday night,
The Yeoman Cavalry gave me a fright;
The Yeoman Cavalry was my downfall,
When I was taken before Lord Cornwall.
It was in his guard house I did lay,
And in his parlor they swore my life away;
My sentence passed and with courage low
Unto Dungannon I was forced to go.
And when I was marched through Wexford street,
My cousin Nancy I chanced to meet;
My own first cousin did me betray,
And for one guinea swore my life away.
When I was passing my father’s door,
My brother William stood on the floor;
My aged father stood at the door,
And my aged mother her gray hair she tore.
My sister Mary in great distress,
She rushed downstairs in her mourning dress;
Five thousand guineas she would lay down
For to see me liberated in Wexford town.
And when we were marching up Wexford hill,
Who would blame me were I to cry my fill,
With a guard behind and a guard before,
But my tender mother I’ll see no more.
And when I was standing on the gallows high,
My aged father was standing nigh.
My aged father did me deny,
And the name he gave me was the Croppy Boy.
I chose the dark and I chose the blue,
I chose the pink and the orange, too.
I forsook them all and I did deny,
I wore the green and for it I’ll die.
It was in Dungannon this young man died,
And in Dungannon his body lies;
And all good people that this way pass by,
Say, “May the Lord have mercy on the Croppy Boy!”
* Dean reads “Old Ireland’s is free” (sic).
There is a lot more going on in this song than meets the typical American ear. It is a song of rebellion, from the Irish rising of 1798.
The Irish rebels of this time were often known as “Croppies.” There are a number of explanations offered for this term, some more convincing than others. The likeliest, to my mind, is that the Irish rebels — inspired by the hair styles of the French revolutions — wore their hair very short, as a way to recognize each other, and so were known as the cropped boys, or Croppies.
Wearing green was never actually a crime in Ireland, but green was the nationalist color (one of the most famous of all Irish rebel songs is “The Wearing of the Green”), and in times of trouble, wearing it might cause a judge or a soldier to execute first and ask questions later. This probably explains the croppy’s arrest by the Yeoman Cavalry. The Yeomen were a sort of Irish National Guard of loyalists (many were descended from English or Scottish settlers, and many were Protestant in a largely Catholic land). Their training was poor, and so was their equipment; as a result, they were particularly hasty in dealing with suspected rebels.
But this raises the real question: What exactly did the Croppy Boy do? Was he an actual rebel, or merely a sympathizer? We don’t know.
There are three interesting points here: One is that the Croppy’s brother was named William — the name of William of Orange, the despised English king who had won the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and tightened the restrictions on Catholic Ireland. The second is that the Croppy’s family had an upper floor to their home, and his sister had multiple dresses. By the standards of Ireland in 1798, this puts them well above the average in income — and the rich in Ireland were far less likely to be Catholic than the peasants. The final point is that it was a close relative who betrayed him — in this version, a first cousin, but in many others, it was his sister. Could the Croppy have come from a Protestant family, which he was betraying? Again, we don’t know.
Before we rush to condemn the girl who betrayed the young man, it should be remembered that Ireland in 1798 was a very tense place. The British knew something was in the wind, and were disarming the population as best they could (the Irish rebels would mostly be armed with pikes — stabbing weapons, against a British army with muskets and artillery!). Informants were everywhere. If the girl had come under suspicion herself, she would have been under extreme pressure to name names. It was a dreadful time for innocent and guilty alike.
“Lord Cornwall” is the famous Lord Cornwallis, the man who surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown. In the aftermath of the 1798 Rising, he was appointed to calm Ireland down. Contrary to what you might think from the song, he did not suppress the country with fire and sword; he was generally kinder and more just than those who had gone before — indeed, he resigned his post when the government of George III refused to give the Irish Catholics increased rights.
The 1798 rebellion was supposed to include all Ireland, and indeed there were local risings in many part of the country, but the only place where it approached success was in Wexford; the fact that the young man seems to have come from there (or nearby) may be significant.
There was a certain amount of emigration to America after the 1798. This, like “Skibbereen,” is a song that (indirectly) celebrates the events that brought many of our ancestors here.
The deep irony is that, in 1782, the English had granted the Irish a much greater level of independence, creating a new, freer parliament (known as “Grattan’s Parliament”). It was not a truly independent parliament; the Crown still had much influence. Still, if left alone, it would surely have become a more effective body in time. But it was not given time. It was by law a Protestant legislature, and corrupt enough that eventually revolutionary societies started to rise. The 1798 rebellion was the result. The British responded by clamping down and passing the Act of Union, making Ireland officially part of Great Britain. The effect of that was a century and a quarter of Anglo-Irish tension, eventually resulting in most of Ireland breaking away from Britain in the early twentieth century. It was a story students of American history would find familiar.
There is, incidentally, a substantial similarity between the story here and that of one of the leaders of the 1798 rebellion in the North, Henry Joy McCracken. After McCracken’s forces collapsed, he went into hiding, but was captured by a yeoman who recognized him. Quickly placed on trial, his aged father and sister Mary were present. The prosecutor offered to spare McCracken if he would turn informer. McCracken’s father (to whom the prosecutor also appealed), denied any knowledge of Henry’s behavior but urged him to do what was right. McCracken refused to give any information, and was quickly tried and hung that very same day, July 17, 1798. However, the McCracken case took place in Ulster, not Wexford, and he was Protestant.
Source: The text is Dean’s, with the correction noted and some changes in punctuation. The tune is one of those I’ve soaked up over the years. I’d imagine there is some Clancy Brothers in there, and also the variants on “Lord Franklin.” That tune and this are very closely related — one, presumably “The Croppy Boy,” is the original, though they have diverged somewhat over the years.