Dark and evil days

Dark and evil days

In Brief

In Wandering Rocks, Tom Kernan thinks of the Rebellion of 1798 led by United Irishmen like Lord Edward Fitzgerald: "They rose in dark and evil days. Fine poem that is: Ingram. They were gentlemen." The phrase "dark and evil days" appears in a poem from the 1840s by the Irish mathematician, economist, and poet John Kells Ingram, whose Protestant background, shared with many of the United Irishmen, appeals to Kernan.

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Gifford notes that Kernan's "They were gentlemen" (following his image of Fitzgerald as a "Fine dashing young nobleman. Good stock, of course") is "A typical 'west Briton' phrase used to exonerate Anglo-Irish Protestant revolutionaries (such as Fitzgerald, Wolfe Tone, Emmet—and even Parnell) from the sort of blame due the croppies." The United Irishmen movement of the late 18th century was truly ecumenical, supported by patriots both Catholic and Protestant, though the latter were mostly Presbyterians and Methodists, not members of the Ascendancy class's official Church of Ireland.

Ingram was born in 1823 to an Ulster Scots (hence Protestant) family living in the southeastern corner of County Donegal, near Lower Lough Erne. Although he considered Ireland unready for independence he abhorred tyranny and his poem, The Memory of the Dead, celebrates the sacrifices of the men killed in '98:
Who fears to speak of Ninety-Eight?
Who blushes at the name?
When cowards mock the patriots' fate,
Who hangs his head for shame?
He’s all a knave or half a slave
Who slights his country thus;
But a true man, like you, man,
Will fill your glass with us.

We drink the memory of the brave,
The faithful and the few:
Some lie far off beyond the wave
Some sleep in Ireland, too;
All, all are gone—but still lives on
The fame of those who died:
All true men, like you, men,
Remember them with pride.

Some on the shores of distant lands
Their weary hearts have laid,
And by the stranger's heedless hands
Their lonely graves were made;
But, though their clay be far away
Beyond the Atlantic foam,
In true men, like you, men,
Their spirit's still at home.

The dust of some is Irish earth;
Among their own they rest;
And the same land that gave them birth
Has caught them to her breast;
And we will pray that from their clay
Full many a race may start
Of true men, like you, men,
To act as brave a part.

They rose in dark and evil days
To right their native land:
They kindled here a living blaze
That nothing shall withstand.
Alas, that Might can vanquish Right!
They fell, and pass'd away;
But true men, like you, men,
Are plenty here today.

Then here's their memory—may it be
For us a guiding light,
To cheer our strife for liberty
And teach us to unite!
Through good and ill, be Ireland's still,
Though sad as theirs your fate;
And true men be you, men,
Like those of Ninety-Eight.
Ingram wrote this, his most famous poem, in March 1843 while a student at Trinity College, Dublin. It was published anonymously on 1 April 1843 in The Nation, a newspaper dedicated to repealing the Act of Union, and in 1845 John Edward Pigot set it to music for voice and piano. Despite Ingram's distrust of republican nationalism the ballad entered the pantheon of republican songs, and its tune has often been piped at the funerals of fighters. Douglas Hyde translated the text into Irish.

Tom Kernan confuses the musical version of Ingram's poem with The Croppy Boy: "Ben Dollard does sing that ballad touchingly. Masterly rendition. / At the siege of Ross did my father fall." Although the croppy boy is Catholic and the rebels of Ingram's Memory were Protestant, Kernan's slip is understandable because both ballads tell stories of patriots who lost their lives in the Rebellion of '98. And, as Ruth Wüst points out in a personal communication, both were published in the same paper. The Croppy Boy appeared in The Nation in 1845, two years after the publication of Ingram's poem and the same year in which the poem was set to music. The two compositions remain linked in Sirens: as Bloom projects his own feeling of being the "Last of my race" onto the croppy boy, he thinks, "Who fears to speak of nineteen four?"

JH 2020
Image of John Kells Ingram in sheet music for Dear Ireland When You're Free, published as a supplement to the Sunday World on 13 March 1898, held in the digital collection of the New York Public Library. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
1890 colored drawing of John Kells Ingram by Sarah Henrietta Purser, held in the National Museums of Northern Ireland. Source: www.mediastorehouse.com.
Purser's oil portrait of Ingram made for his 1892-1896 term as president of the Royal Irish Academy, held in the RIA, Dublin. Source: artsandculture.google.com.