“John McBride's Brigade”


"In far-off Africa to-day the English fly dismayed Before the flag of green and gold born by McBride's Brigade." The Irish Brigade fights with Kruger against the English in Transvaal. "Remember '98". The flag will fly with McBride on Ireland's soil.


Zimmermann: The _United Irishman_ claimed the ballad "is being sung throughout Mayo" in 1900. "John McBride had become a major in the Boer army after forming an Irish Brigade in South Africa. He stood as a candidate for Mayo in the election of 1900, but was not elected. He was sentenced to death and shot after the rising of 1916."

For more information about McBride's Brigade and the Irish support for the Boers see the book review of _MacBride's Brigade_ by Donald McCracken at the Republican Sinn Fein site. - BS

The reference is evidently to the second Boer War (the 1899-1902 conflict people usually think of when one mentions the Boer War). The first war (1880-1881) was almost more of a demonstration, in which the Transvaal and Orange Free State won something approximating what the Irish would have called Home Rule: they ran their internal affairs but let Britain handle foreign policy.

The second war was very complicated: The Boers had discovered gold, which the British wanted; on the other hand, the Boers were treating the Black natives even worse than the British.

But there was a lot more to it. The Boers of course wanted independence -- and, after the disastrous stunt known as the Jameson Raid (a private attempt in 1895 to control the Boers, but widely viewed as inspired by the British government), Kaiser Wilhelm II sent a telegram of support to Paul Kruger (1825-1904), the most important Boer leader. What should have been a colonial affair became an international incident.

The Boers were initially very successful, forcing the British to bring in a real army to suppress them. Many of these troops, ironically, were Irish; see "South Down Militia" for one of their songs. But, since the Boers were fighting the British, naturally a lot of Irish radicals supported the Boers.

It should be noted, however, that the two "Irish Brigades" which fought with the Boers were not from Ireland; they were locals. There was a pro-Boer movement in Ireland, but few men enlisted.

One of the Irish Brigades was insignificant; organized by a "Colonel' Lynch, it existed for only a few months, did not fight, and had few even of South African Irishmen (see Robert Kee, _The Bold Fenian Men_, being volume II of _The Green Flag,_ p. 148.)

The other Irish force was more significant. It even had an Irish-born Irishman: John MacBride (1865-1916). Upon his arrival, he was commissioned major, making him the second-in-command behind "Colonel" John Blake (an American emigrant to Africa who did at least have West Point training; see Eversley Belfield, _The Boer War_, p. 23); MacBride did command for a time when Blake was wounded.

Kee, p. 149, notes that MacBride's brigade "played, by comparison with those Irishmen in the British army, a totally insignificant part in the war. It existed only for one year, from September 1899 to September 1900, when it was disbbanded by the Boers and the men gave themselves up to the Portugese frontier post at Kamati."

Charles Townshend, in _Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion_, p. 10, comments on these troops that the "aid of a few hundred Irish miners was probably less valuable as military than as moral support to the Afrikaners."

MacBride would estimate that his unit would suffer 30% casualties -- yet, according to Kee, it lost only about 80 men, of whom 17 were killed. This implies that the "brigade" had an actual strength of 300-350 men, making it not a brigade but an understrength battalion. Presumably it was called a brigade because, well, there were lots of Irish Brigades. At least it makes it less unreasonable to have a major in command.

MacBride continued to find trouble even after coming home. In early 1900, he was nominated for parliament in a South Mayo by-election -- but was crushed by 2401 votes to 427 (Kee, p. 149).

This song may have been written in connection with that election, though it wasn't published until some weeks too late. Kee, who cites it on page 149, isn't clear on whether future Irish president Arthur Griffith -- at that time considered to be a rather militant nationalist, though he would come to be much more conservative -- wrote the piece or just published it.

MacBride in 1903 married the famous nationalist Maud Gonne; their son Sean was a major force in the IRA and in Irish politics after the Civil War.

MacBride did not participate in the planning of the 1916 rebellion (according to Michael Foy and Brian Barton, _The Easter Rising_, p. 89, the leaders "did not trust him to keep a secret"), but he joined the fighting "at the last moment" (see Terry Golway, _For the Cause of Liberty_, p. 240), and was executed on May 5, 1916. It will tell you something about Maud Gonne that she divorced MacBride after their son was born, then adopted his name only after his execution. To be sure, Golway, p. 204, calls him "a boor, often drunk and menacing"; Yeats would call him "a drunken, vainglorious lout" (Foy and Barton, p. 89).

If this song was indeed published in 1900, it was written at a time when the Boers seemed to be well on their way to expelling the British. The tide would soon turn. - RBW

Cross references


  1. Zimmermann 92, "John McBride's Brigade" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. BI, Zimm092


Author: (published by Arthur Griffith)
Earliest date: 1900 (_United Irishman_, April 7 edition)
Found in: Ireland