I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

A Sneakin’ Regard


In George Denis Zimmermann’s anthology Songs of Irish Rebellion, Political Street Ballads and Rebel Songs 1780-1900, the author notes that popular songs present a running commentary on political life as seen from below. This is undoubtedly the case and indeed street songs offer one of the few windows opening onto popular culture in nineteenth century and Victorian Dublin. As late as 1900 performers were regularly heard on Camden Street, Patrick Street, Francis Street and in other areas where the poor lived or gathered. Many observers through the nineteenth century commented on the ragged crowds that followed Dublin’s street singers, hanging on their words. Examples of political ballad singers were noted in the 1920s but the practice does not appear to have survived for long under the new political dispensation.

Zimmermann’s collection is fascinating, revealing a great deal and allowing us, among other things, to confirm that popular political attitudes were pretty much in harmony with those of the more respectable leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party. (This was also the case on the Orange side.) Parnell was believed capable of great things and in him people saw a popular hero comparable in stature to O’Connell or Napoleon; like the earlier giants he was understood as one who could bring substantial victories.

Viva la for gallant Parnell, viva la for all his band,
Onward driving foes and landlord reptiles from his native land.

O’Connell and Parnell were closely linked in the popular mind:

Go search the world o’er and o’er, there’s none has fought so well
To right the cause of Ireland as O’Connell and Parnell.

Interestingly, the moral force/physical force dilemma which weaves its way through two centuries of Irish history finds echoes in these humble ballads. If across the social spectrum there was support for Parnell’s constitutional nationalist methods, there was also a latent if varying sympathy for those who believed in violent methods. Historical heroes in arms were championed enthusiastically in both street songs and around drawing room pianos, but the situation was less straightforward when it came to contemporary violent actions.

When Chief Secretary Cavendish and his under secretary, Burke, were stabbed to death in the Phoenix Park in 1882 by Fenian Invincibles, very few were prepared to say publicly that the killings were justified. One song spoke of “this cruel and wicked dreadful deed”. The reticence was largely because the Invincibles’ tactics were at odds with those of Parnell and the feeling was that this rash act would endanger the passage of Home Rule.  But, as time passed and those involved faced trial and the testimony of informers, Dublin street ballads began to express sympathy, denouncing the main informer and former Invincible James Carey:

So now to conclude and finish my song
Let no man in Ireland say anything wrong
Against the poor men who have to be tried
On the evidence of Carey, an informer double-dyed.

The reckless assertion of a lone individual or group against a state, perceived to be cruel and unjust, clearly appealed psychologically to the feelings of the city’s poor. Tim Kelly was one of those hanged for the Phoenix Park killings, an event remembered in one ballad that focused on Kelly’s mother:

It was in Kilmainham prison the Invincibles were hung.
Mrs Kelly she stood there, all in mourning for her son,
She threw back her shawl and said to all “though he fills a lime-pit grave,
My son was no informer, and he died a Fenian blade”.

Such songs embodied a popular assertion of the moral validity of direct action but also recognition of its political futility. In practice both rich and poor avoided political violence. John Mitchell pointed out that singing was no substitute for action. O’Donovan Rossa made a similar point a generation later, ironically perhaps, as he himself featured in many street songs. In Joyce’s “Araby” street singers are heard in the background:

On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land.

James Fitzharris, known as Skin the Goat, was the cabman who drove the Invincibles to the Phoenix Park. He became a popular hero following a defiant performance in court and a refusal to identify his passengers, for which he served fifteen years penal servitude. Following his release he toured the US as a hero and returned to Dublin, living in the city until 1910, when he died in the South Union Workhouse.

One comic street ballad featured Fitzharris’s curse on the informer Carey ‑ Carey also being the one who had sworn Skin the Goat into the Invincibles:

May every buck flea from here to Bray
Jump through the bed he lies on
And by some mistake may he shortly take
A flowing pint of poison.

Carey was given the alias of Power by the authorities and spirited out of the country. On a ship headed to Cape Town he became friendly with a Donegal bricklayer named Patrick O’Donnell. Later, when they both transferred to the Melrose and were bound for Durban, O’Donnell became aware of Carey’s true identity. Using a gun he had with him in his luggage he shot Carey dead. O’Donnell himself was returned to London for trial and was hanged in Newgate. He duly became a street ballad hero:

My name it is Patrick O’Donnell, I was born in Donegal,
I am, you all know, a deadly foe to traitors one and all.
For the shooting of James Carey, I was tried in London town,
And on some fatal scaffold my life I must bail down.

The sympathy was not confined to the poor. Katharine Tynan, the prolific novelist and friend of WB Yeats, reported in a memoir that the general opinion was that O’Donnell had performed a righteous deed. Zimmermann quotes her as saying: “We all hoped and prayed O’Donnell would not suffer for his act.”

The world of Ulysses, the great chronicle of Edwardian Dublin and more, is steeped in awareness of the Invincibles and their fate. Stephen and Bloom are quite different in temperament but both are essentially loyal Parnellites and thus keep a respectable political distance from violent politics. But beyond the political and moral distance, the emotional distance is narrower. At All Hallows church Bloom reflects on Carey: “That fellow that turned queen’s evidence on the invincibles he used to receive the, Carey was his name, communion every morning. This very church … And plotting that murder all the time.”

Dublin was fascinated by the mechanics of power: Queens evidence, informers, coercion, the multi-layered paraphernalia of the state as it was politically deployed in Ireland. There are many references to such minutiae in Joyce’s masterpiece and, of course, the fascination extended to those who challenged the state, if it did not actually derive from that source.

In Ulysses street hawkers sell commemorative postcards of the Phoenix Park murders. The emotional appeal of the episode, suggesting as it did instant means of political gratification, means which stood in stark contrast to the painfully slow and endlessly failing peaceful politics that society as a whole endorsed, is not difficult to discern. It is certain the killings both in the Phoenix Park and those in Kilmainham, together with minutiae such as the route the Invincibles took to the park, which Bloom himself mulls over, were widely discussed in Dublin.

Skin the Goat himself turns up in the Eumaeus episode of the novel, where he is found running the cabman’s shelter adjacent to Butt Bridge. The bridge was named after Isaac Butt Parnell’s moderate predecessor of whom, on the streets of Dublin, it was sung:

Then hurrah for noble Isaac Butt, that hero true and brave
He’ll work for Ireland’s freedom and his country won’t deceive.

In bringing Isaac Butt and Skin the Goat together in the same corner of Dublin, Joyce juxtaposes the two extremes of nationalist politics, both of which were sung on the city’s streets. Once again Joyce had the measure of things as it seems that Dublin’s political heart rested in the narrow space between Butt Bridge and the Cabman’s Shelter.

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