“The Boys from County Cork”


"You've read in history's pages of heroes of great fame...." The singer notes that the heroes of Ireland's history are those who died in the 1916 rebellion. The singer lists heroes from old Ireland, noting that the Boys from Cork beat the Black and Tans


People and things mentioned in this song include:

"The Black and Tans" (for which see "The Bold Black and Tan") -- A special English constabulary recruited to quell Irish violence. They failed, and in fact contributed to the brutality

MacSweeney -- presumably Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, who was arrested for seditious speech, then died in a hunger strike (1920). (See the notes to "Shall My Soul Pass Through Ireland"), though others in his family were also involved in the struggle against the British

The other possibility is Terence's sister Mary, who was one of the die-hards who fought in parliament against the Free State Treaty with England. (Coogan, p. 307, quotes her speech against the Anglo-Irish treaty: "This is a betrayal, a gross betrayal... I tell you there can be no union between the representatives of the Irish Republic and the so-called Free State"[for bibliography, see the note at the end of this entry]. In Coogan's view, her statement ended any hope of peace between the radicals and the more rational majority. Certainly a pointless civil war followed.)

Cathal Brugha - An officer in the resistance forces, famed for how hard he fought. He was also a political leader, arguing strenuously for a Republican government; he refused to join the delegation that negotiated with Lloyd George to negotiate the treaty of semi-independence. For his eventual fate, see "The Death of Brugh."

Padraic Pearse (1879-1916) -- Irish poet and historian, acclaimed provisional president of the 1916 Irish Republic. He declared the Republic on Easter Monday of 1916, surrendered it the following Saturday, and was executed on May 3 of that year. According to Kee (II, pp. 206-207), "Patrick Pearse [his name before he Gaelicized it] [was a] Gaelic League poet and schoolmaster, son of a Birmingham stone-mason and an Irish mother, who since 1908 had been running a nationally minded school for boys called St Enda's at Rathfarnham on the outskirts of Dublin." Townshend, p. 13, notes that his first major activity was with the Gaelic League journal _An Claideamh Soluis_: "When he became editor in 1903 his position as chief ideologue of the language movement was cemented."

But Irish nationalism at this stage was very fragmented (even Pierce apparently started out by trying for a Gaelic revival, not a revolt). What the vast majority opposed could still come about in the hands of a determined minority (the whole thing, frankly, reminds me of how Lenin first hijacked Russian Communism and then all of Russia). In May 1915, a small part of the leadership of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood appointed Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, and Eamonn Ceannt to look into a rebellion. Kee notes that it wasn?t until September that even the full Supreme Council of the IRB knew of Pearce's committee. And the IRB was a minority in the Sinn Fein Volunteers, which was a minority of the National Volunteers, who did not represent all of Ireland (Kee II, p. 236). The Easter Rebellion was not a popular rebellion; had it somehow succeeded, it would have been called a coup d'etat, and its leaders a junta. But, of course, it did not succeed in anything except laying much of Dublin in ruins.

In one sense, the rebels? timing was bad; with millions of British troops fighting in France, Britain had to end the rebellion with all possible speed -- i.e. with great brutality. But that made them martyrs -- and *that* reawakened the nationalist cause. Many English leaders begged to have the rebels treated leniently (see Kee III, p. 1).

Pearse, perhaps more than any other, foresaw the course of the Rising -- including its spectacular failure. The failure was fully expected, at least by Pearse and some of his associates. (Indeed, Pearse in 1915 wrote a play, "The Singer," about a hypothetical Irish rebellion, in which he described a handful of men going into battle against a multitude; told it was foolish course, one of the lost-hopers replied "And so it is a foolish thing. Do you want us to be wise?" -- see Kee II, p. 255. The hero went forth unarmed, but declaring "One man can free a people as one Man redeemed the world"; Townshend, p. 15).)

Many nationalist leaders opposed the Rising for this very reason (Kee II, p. 235). In a way, Pearse didn't even want to succeed. He thought Irish independence could only be achieved by a sort of mystic sacrifice -- and set out to make it. In this sense, they were wise -- think how the fate of William Wallace roused Scotland, or in later years how the destruction of the Algerian liberation organizations caused the Algerian public to demand independence. It's the modern version of Tertullian's dictum "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church."

Kee summarize this attitude as follows (II, p. 235): "Pearse... consistently proclaimed to the effect that a blood sacrifice, however hopeless its chances of military succes, was necessary to redeem Ireland from her loss of true national pride, much as Jesus Christ by his blood had redeemed mankind from its sins." It's probably not coincidence that Pease much admired Robert Emmet despite the utter futility of the latter's rebellion (Townshend, p. 23. For background, see the notes to "Bold Robert Emmet.?)

And, because the rebels were repressed, it changed public opinion. Until then, it seems certain that most Irish wanted home rule and peace. After the Rising, the IRA and resistance took over. Pearse sacrificed himself to win a free Ireland. One might say that the gods accepted the sacrifice. But they also exacted a price. J. C. Beckett (amplifying and paraphrasing a comment of Michael Collins) remarks that Pearse's sacrifice placed Ireland under the "tyranny of the dead." The dead cannot compromise. If the Rising had not taken place, Ireland might have found a peaceful solution. Because it did take place, Ireland was condemned to the Black-and-Tan War and the Civil War which followed.

The whole story shows how tragic the fate of Ireland was. The rebels destroyed much of Dublin, and the ordinary Irish, who had no part in the rebellion, at first reviled them. But, as Golway notes (240-241), the speed and brutality of British justice caused public opinion "to turn against Britain's pursuit of vengeance. The spat-upon rebels were becoming martyrs." In the end, it was Pearse's mystic incompetents -- schoolteachers and poets who thought themselves soldiers, though it turned out that Pearse couldn't even stand the sight of blood -- who became the Irish heroes. Kee III, p. 15, mentions a case of a girl actually making reference to "Saint Pearse."

de Valera -- Eamon de Valera (1882-1975) was born in America but became a leader of the 1916 rising, and barely avoided execution after its collapse. (He was among those about to be executed, but the British government realized he was an American citizen and halted the executions). Having survived, he was nominated in a parliamentary by-election in 1917 (the first chance to nominate a Nationalist since the Easter Rising) -- and was elected by a 2:1 margin (Kee III, pp. 27-28). He became the President of Sinn Fein in 1917, then of the rebel Irish parliament; he opposed the Treaty which led to the partition of Ireland, but formed the Fianna Fail party and won the 1932 election, then established the 1937 constitution. He remained Ireland's leading politician for fifty years, serving as President from 1959 to 1973.


In writing this summary, in addition to the standard references such as the _Oxford Companion to Irish History_, I have consulted the following works:

Coogan: Tim Pat Coogan, _Michael Collins_ (Roberts Rinehart, 1996). A biography of Collins, but since Collins nearly *was* Ireland from 1918 until his death, there is much good history here

Golway: Terry Golway, _For the Cause of Liberty_ (Simon & Schuster, 2000). A full history of relations between Britain and Ireland, though with curious gaps.

Kee II: Robert Kee, _The Bold Fenian Men_, being volume II of _The Green Flag_ (Penguin, 1972), seems to me to be among the most balanced histories of Ireland I've seen. This second of three volumes covers the period from around 1848 until the Easter Rising.

Kee III: Robert Kee, _Ourselves Alone_, being volume III of _The Green Flag_ (Penguin, 1972) is of course the sequel to Kee II; it covers the brief but intense period from 1916 to the establishment of constitutional government in the 1920s.

Townshend: Charles Townshend, _Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion_ (Ivan R. Dee, 2005, 1006). This is specific to the 1916 rebellion, but tries to offer a good historical context. - RBW

Historical references

  • Apr 24, 1916 (Easter Monday) - beginning of the Easter Rebellion

Cross references


  1. PGalvin, p. 70, "The Boys from County Cork" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. OLochlainn-More 95, "The Boys from Rebel Cork" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Roud #9774
  4. BI, PGa070


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1962
Found in: Ireland