The Croppy Boy

The Croppy Boy

In Brief

One of the signature songs of Sirens is "The Croppy Boy," a melodramatic 1840s ballad about the Rebellion of 1798. It focuses on a poor Catholic boy whose ambition to join the fight against tyranny is cut short by a British army captain who dons the disguise of a priest to hear the boy's confession. "Croppies" were rebels who wore their hair cropped short.

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Many of the leaders of the United Irishmen uprising of 1798 were Protestant gentry, but most of the poorly armed men who fought in the ranks were Catholics. Imitating the French revolutionaries who cut their hair short to distinguish themselves from the powdered wigs of their aristocratic enemies, many Irish commoners began cutting their hair short in the 1790s. Even before the advent of armed struggle, the authorities, alarmed at the prospect of revolution spreading to Britain and Ireland, treated these sympathizers with savage brutality. Among their inventive tortures was the practice of "pitchcapping": pouring hot tar into a linen cone, placing it on a croppy's head, allowing it to cool, and then ripping it off along with the victim's hair and scalp.

Nestor alludes to a contemporary loyalist song called Croppies Lie Down, which taunts the rebels as cowards who lie down in terror whenever real soldiers come on the scene, and who will lie down in mass graves when the fighting is done. In 1845 William McBurney, under the pseudonym Caroll Malone, published a contrary ballad about the Rebellion in the newspaper The Nation, appealing to republican sympathizers. Instead of aggressively taunting the losers, the Malone song pulls on listeners' heartstrings, making the tragedy of a lost cause poignantly personal:

"Good men and true in this house who dwell
To a stranger buachaill I pray you tell            [boy]
Is the priest at home? or may he be seen?
I would speak a word with Father Green."

"The priests's at home, boy, and may be seen:
'Tis easy speaking with Father Green;
But you must wait, till I go and see
If the holy father alone may be."

The youth has entered an empty hall—
What a lonely sound has his light footfall!
And the gloomy chamber's cold and bare
With a vested priest in a lonely chair.

The youth has knelt to tell his sins;
"Nomine Dei," the youth begins;                 [in God's name]
At "mea culpa," he beats his breast,            [I have sinned]
And in broken murmurs he speaks the rest.

"At the siege of Ross did my father fall
And at Gorey my loving brothers all;
I alone am left to my name and race;
I will go to Wexford to take their place."

"I cursed three times since last Easter day—
And at mass-time once I went to play;
I passed the churchyard one day in haste
And forgot to pray for my mother's rest."

"I bear no hate against living thing
But I love my country above the King.
Now Father, bless me and let me go
To die, if God has ordained it so."

The priest said naught, but a rustling noise
Made the youth look up in wild surprise;
The robes were off, and in scarlet there
Sat a yeoman captain with fiery glare.

With fiery glare and with fury hoarse,
Instead of a blessing he breathed a curse:
"'Twas a good thought, boy, to come here and shrive,
For one short hour is your time to live.

"Upon yon river three tenders float
The priest's in one, if he isn't shot—
We hold this house for our Lord and King,
And Amen! say I, may all traitors swing!"

At Geneva Barracks that young man died,
And at Passage they have his body laid.
Good people who live in peace and joy
Breathe a prayer, shed a tear for the Croppy Boy.
"At the siege of Ross did my father fall," which Tom Kernan recalls in Wandering Rocks, refers to an early military action in the conflict. On June 5, a force of about 10,000 County Wexford rebels who had recently taken the town of Wexford attacked the town of New Ross, which was defended by a garrison of about 2,000 regular British army troops. The attackers were armed mostly with pikes while the defenders had muskets, cannons, and cavalry. Although the rebels succeeding in capturing a large portion of the town, British reinforcements drove them back and finally routed them. Between casualties in the battle and massacres afterward, the attackers lost a quarter to a third of their men—the bloodiest action of the 1798 Rebellion and a great demoralization for the rebel cause.

Kernan mistakenly attributes the line about the Ross battle to a different 1845 song about the Rebellion, but he remembers Ben Dollard's "Masterly rendition" of The Croppy Boy. (In Hades, the funeralgoers mock the flossy language Kernan uses to describe "Ben Dollard's singing of The Croppy Boy": "His singing of that simple ballad, Martin, is the most trenchant rendering I ever heard in the whole course of my experience.") Dollard performs the piece in Sirens, and many other lines of the ballad float through on his deep bass voice. The overture features only a few words of the boy ("Naminedamine. All gone. All fallen") and the captain ("Amen! He gnashed in fury"). But the body of the chapter repeats or echoes nearly every verse of the song, beginning with Simon Dedalus' reminder of the opening words, "Good men and true," and continuing for about four pages in most print editions.

For the convenience of the reader who wants to chart the progress of the song through the chapter, these echoes are highlighted in purple in my online edition of the novel. And for anyone listening to the Kevin McDermott recording of the song attached here, boldfaced lyrics show which details surface in the chapter. Joyce echoes every stanza, in order, filling the spaces between these heard details with his protagonist's thoughts. Bloom disdains the song's easy manipulation of patriotism and piety—"
They know it all by heart. The thrill they itch for"—and he resolves to get out of the bar before the rush of congratulations and the inevitable round of drinks "to wash it down." But the song reaches its conclusion as he shuffles out, and all the other listeners are "deepmoved."

A postscript: in 1966 Seamus Heaney composed a Requiem for the Croppies utterly devoid of melodrama or sentimentality:
The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley—
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp—
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people, hardly marching—on the hike—
We found new tactics happening each day:
We'd cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until, on Vinegar Hill, the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August the barley grew up out of the grave.

The battle on Vinegar Hill on June 21 reversed the New Ross positions of June 5, with British forces now attacking Wexford pikemen massed on the hill. But the Irishmen's crude fortifications offered little protection from British artillery firing shrapnel-producing rounds and grapeshot, and croppies again died in huge numbers. In Lestrygonians, Bloom thinks of young protesters yelling "Vinegar hill," in actions as futile as the historical event they celebrate.

JH 2020
2019 photograph of the lifesize model of a croppy rebel held in the Collins Barracks division of the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. Source: John Hunt.
"Valentines Series" poster, date unknown, of a scene from The Croppy Boy, with artwork by "S.H.Y." Source: www.whytes.ie.
George Cruikshank's 1845 illustration of the Battle of Ross in William Hamilton Maxwell's History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798, held in the British Library. The mocking caption reads, "Come on Boys her mouth's stopt." Source: Wikimedia Commons.
2005 photograph by Kglavin of Croppy Boy, Pikeman 1798, a memorial in Tralee, County Kerry. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Éamonn O'Doherty's bronze monument commemorating the Wexford pikemen of the 1798 Rebellion, installed in 1998 along the N25 between the towns of Wexford and New Ross by the Wexford County Council, in a 2015 photograph by Osioni. Source: Wikimedia Commons.