30 January 2022


I have blogged about "Singing Together" and "Rhythm and Melody" before. It was a nationwide music education  project delivered via the good old BBC. In primary school classrooms up and down the land, children gathered to sing along to the radio. I still remember many of those songs and  one I have been thinking about recently is "The Minstrel Boy".

It was written in the early years of the nineteenth century by an Irish songwriter called Thomas Moore. It was first published in 1813 - featuring in Moore's "Irish Melodies" project. The roots of this song are probably much older.

It is a wistful and evocative song that speaks of  war, of bravery and of loss. It is a plea for liberty as much as anything and it comes as no surprise to learn that Moore visited America's southern states in 1806. In dreams I may sometimes see myself as that minstrel boy with my wild harp slung behind me.The song has been with me since 1963. Please listen:-

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,
"Tho' 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 that proud soul under;
The harp he lov'd ne'er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said, "No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery
Thy songs were made for the pure and free,
They shall never sound in slavery!


  1. It is a very evocative song, charcteristically Irish.

    You inspired me to take a little nostagia trip about our ABC schools music program. It was a wonderful way to introduce kids to music and to singing and there are still many songs I remember from the program

    1. In my primary school, the emphasis was always upon enjoyment and I loved singing... still do!

  2. Martha Wainright I have never seen: she was born to sing The Minstrel Boy.

    I did not know Thomas Moore visited the USA; strange that he went to the South.
    James Joyce never went Stateside though his story *The Dead* was taken from one of Moore's Irish Melodies, composed between 1807-34.

    Moore's song *O Ye Dead, O Ye Dead* haunted Joyce, who finished his story in Rome in 1907.
    It closes The Dubliners, which remained unpublished for years because the foolish printers considered it scandalous.

    Joyce's narrative takes place in north Dublin probably between January 2 (Saturday) and January 6 (Wednesday) the Feast of the Epiphany: Joyce planted epiphanies all through his writings.

    His characters attend a festive dinner and speak of Irish nationalism and the encyclical of Pope Pius X. The story was filmed by John Huston.
    I saw it in the Glasgow Film Theatre on a summer's afternoon; and came out into the sunshine, still seeing the snow falling across Ireland in 1907.

    Joyce never ceased being Catholic though he did not die in communion with the church.
    He never left Ireland in his imagination though he is buried in Zurich.
    The Minstrel Boy resonates with Ireland's travail and England's brutality which Joyce knew only too well.

    1. I do not like the term "England's brutality". My ancestors were never brutal to anyone. They laboured to put food on the table. And what about Scotland's brutality? They were part of the world domination project too.

    2. My love of England is such that I dread the dissolution of the Union:
      Jimmy Reid and Willie McIlvanney joined the Nationalist camp, while I remain in Gordon Brown's Better Together campaign, now in pieces.

      England's ruling class from Elizabethan times to Cromwell, subjected Ireland to systematic brutality.

      The Famine of 1846-51 in which over a million Irish Britons starved, is now regarded as the worst European catastrophe of the 19th Century.
      Another million Irish people emigrated to the USA.

      Charles Stewart Parnell's treatment in the London press was deplorable:
      Joyce mourned Parnell's passing in *Portrait of an Artist*.
      Gladstone had a humane and workable policy for Ireland but it did not come to pass.

  3. 1963 may be about when I heard it. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were on tour and I wound up committing many of their songs to memory. The Minstrel Boy was an especial one, and many nights driving home I would prove to myself I still recalled every verse.

    1. So pleased to learn that this song rang memory bells in your head Joanne.

  4. A favorite song of mine since I first heard it performed by the Roger Wagner Chorale when I was in junior high school. (I'm 76 now.) Martha Wainwright's performance is indeed evocative, and I thank you for your post.

    1. Thanks for calling by Ken. I am pleased that you enjoyed Martha Wainwright's version.

  5. We had "singing" lessons in primary school, but we had to sing Greensleeves and sing it in rounds. And many other songs, also in rounds. The there was a time when all girls from each grade were taken to another room and as we all sang together, the teacher would walk up and down the rows and if she tapped your shoulder you stopped singing and went outside. I thought we shoulder-tapped ones were the chosen ones and was quite happy, then I learned we were the rejects and the ones still in the room were to become part of the school choir.

  6. Interesting. I've never heard this song. We used to sing traditional stuff like "Dixie" and "Way Down Upon the Suwannee River" -- and also Carpenters songs and "Free To Be, You and Me"! Quite a spectrum!

    1. Given your recent teaching experiences with the eighth grade, Dave ought to invite you in to one of his lessons to lead some choral singing. Quiet everybody!...
      Way down upon de Swanee Ribber,
      Far, far away,
      Dere's wha my heart is turning ebber,
      Dere's wha de old folks stay.

  7. For as long as I can remember, I have always loved music and singing. We sang at school, too, and my sister and I were members of the school choir. We particularly loved gospels and spirituals, Go Down Moses and Swing Low Sweet Chariot being firm favourites of mine to this day.
    This Minstrel song I had never heard before. I am not sure what to think of it, and of Martha Wainwright's performance.

    1. You can find many different versions of "The Minstrel Boy" on YouTube.

      "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" has become the anthem of England rugby supporters but recently some politically correct numbskulls have argued that we should stop singing it because of sensitivities re. slavery and racism.

  8. You know, I've loved Martha's father's music since I was very, very young and of course I know the music of his son, Rufus, but I don't think I've ever knowingly listened to Martha. She's amazing. What a beautiful rendition of that song.

    1. I agree -very plaintive. She has a very characterful voice. In that sense, rather like her father who I first saw in concert here in Sheffield in 1971. It was my very first visit to this city.

    2. '71 is probably about the year I discovered the music of LW III. But I didn't see him play until many years later in St. Augustine, FL.

  9. Never heard of the BBC project, or the singer. If I've heard the song before it hasn't remained in my memory. I have to admit to turning the video off after the first couple of lines - I didn't like Martha Wainwright's voice, so read the lyrics as a poem.
    Music was part of the school curriculum, and I was in the choir through most of my years at school, so grew up singing.
    Did you know that singing is proven to be a very good way to lift depression, though hopefully the songs are more cheerful than The Minstrel Boy!

    1. Perhaps your primary school did not sign up for "Singing Together" and "Rhythm and Melody". Subscription was not obligatory.

      I think that some of the best songs are laments and I am sorry that neither "The Minstrel Boy" nor Martha Wainwright were to your taste Carol.

    2. Each to their own YP - it wouldn't do for us all to be, or like, the same.

  10. "We are marching to Pretoria". That's the only song I can remember singing in music class in elementary school.


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