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TERRY MOYLAN - The Indignant Muse: Poetry And Songs Of The Irish Revolution, 1887-1926

TERRY MOYLAN - The Indignant Muse: Poetry And Songs Of The Irish Revolution, 1887-1926
Lilliput Press ISBN: 9781843516644

This book is the result of an immense amount of dedication and very determined searching in a great variety of sources, in the course of which the editor - musician and widely acknowledged folklorist Terry Moylan - noted over a thousand poems and songs, distilling these down to 556 items over 700 pages, covering the period from Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee through to the aftermath of Independence and the Civil War.

I have no doubt that all readers, even those with a detailed knowledge of the period, will find that this book sheds fresh light on a very complex subject and, in many cases, it will surprise, inform and possibly change the attitudes we’ve had up to now. This is in part due to the fact that a good proportion of the material (perhaps most notably the Samuels Collection held at Trinity) comprises material that the RIC felt was seditious and which was suppressed at the time but, fortunately for us, not destroyed. Now it is once again seeing the light of day, and from the singer’s perspective, there is material here that is singable, but it’s the background and perspective that this book gives to the poetry and song of the period that is its chief value. And, of course, it fills in a lot of gaps, some of which we may not even have noticed were there before reading Terry Moylan’s magnum opus.

There are so many levels on which the subject matter can be appreciated; one of the most intriguing being to note the way the language changes from the subdued and relatively polite criticism of the verses “commemorating” Victoria’s jubilee through the strong and opinionated criticism of the Boer War to the invective and hatred of the Great War, the Easter Rising and the Civil War. (Incidentally, I was unaware of the degree to which Irish soldiers fought against the British alongside the Boers in those wars – just one of many pieces of information to be found in this book that don’t seem to have been much in public circulation.) Another aspect that makes this book so interesting is the even-handedness of the editor – he’s used poems and songs written from all sides and by all shades of opinion, and this balance undoubtedly enhances both its credibility and its comprehensive nature.

The sheer diversity of the subject matter of the poems and songs is in itself breathtaking – the different organisations, factions and individuals that are either praised, lampooned or derided; the tragedies that are variously predicted, bemoaned or celebrated; the visions of the future that are the subject of either dire warning or richly embellished prophesy – I could go on, for the list is almost endless, but I’m sure you must by now get the picture: the word that best describes this triumph of dedication and scholarship is “compelling”.

Another interesting aspect of this book is the number of different – and frequently distinguished – composers/authors who are featured: surprising appearances from the likes of Percy French (whose poem Am Tag catches a brief and fascinating historical moment), notable playwrights like Sean O’Casey, political figures from Casement to Connolly, and writers of the calibre of Patrick MacGill – several of whose powerful WW1 poems are used. Yeats makes more than one appearance, of course, and there are a lot of offerings from the prolific and acid-tipped pen of Maeve Cavanagh among many others.

There are a number of parodies of traditional songs and others from the past – the Shan Van Vocht seems to have had a great attraction for composers; poets from Longfellow to Kipling have had their works remoulded to suit a 20th century Irish theme; and songs like Johnny I Hardly Knew You were reshaped to suit more than one set of circumstances during this agonising period of Irish history.

This brings me to what is, for me, the most fascinating aspect of this book: it is, in fact, a brilliant history book, and is especially relevant for singers because (to paraphrase one of Frank Harte’s favourite sayings) the majority of these songs really were written by those who suffered under the English (and fellow Irish) heel. And those song writers weren’t all the rank and file – you can feel what drove them and hear the very words of Padraic Pearce, Constance Markievicz, Thomas MacDonagh and other movers of the events of the day. A very significant number of the people we think of as the leaders of the Easter Rising, for example, were involved in song and poetry, which now helps us to understand their idealism. Read, for example, Pearce’s The Fool or A Mother Speaks or any of Ernie O’Malley’s poems. I don’t think many of our present-day politicians will leave such a poetic legacy.

There’s a very noticeable change once you get to the period of Independence and the Civil War. The verse seems far less idealistic, more direct in its approach, and there is an immediacy about the enmity between Free Staters and hard line Republicans that goes a long way towards explaining why that enmity lasted so long after the end of hostilities (although hopefully now very much reduced).

Much of the book’s readability is due to the excellent explanatory notes in the margins, many from Terry, but a significant number by Liam McNulty. These manage, in very few words, to set the scene for those pieces that need it and help take the book’s narrative forward. Thus it becomes more than a catalogue of historical material and comes alive as a narrative, with all the perspective that implies.

In the introduction, Terry acknowledges that there is a great deal of work and study to be done on this material now that it has finally seen the light of day and I have little doubt that folklorists and ethnomusicologists will already be pouncing on this rich source.

This book does exactly what the title says it will, and more. It has an immensely broad sweep that really can’t be properly conveyed in a review. There’s only one answer – read it.

John Waltham

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This album was reviewed in Issue 115 of The Living Tradition magazine.