“The Shan Van Voght”


The Shan Van Vogt declares that the French are at hand, and will rescue Ireland. The troops are called together; they will wear green; they will free Ireland and proclaim liberty


Sparling dates his text 1797 and says it is "the first song I can find with this refrain."

Zimmermann p.56: "The name Shan Van Vocht (Seanbhean Bhocht: Poor Old Woman), Gaelic as it sounds, seems to have had a political meaning almost exclusively in songs written in English, and constantly adapted to new events. [Cf. "The Shan Van Voght" (1828), "The Shan Van Voght" (1848), "The Battle of Ballycohy"]

The most famous variant is said to date from 1797, though no text was printed before the 1840s. According to Donal O'Sullivan this name was borrowed from a non-political song; prior to the 1790's, 'there is no trace in Irish or Anglo-Irish literature of any such allegorical conceptions'. [D. Osullivan _Songs of the Irish_ pp. 130-131]."

Moylan notes "Bunting collected a (non-political) song called "An tSeanbhean Bhocht" in 1792. By the end of the 18th century the air had become the bearer of political verses, this one the most famous. It did not see print, however, until the mid-19th century, when it was published in _The Nation_."

The ballad is recorded on one of the CD's issued around the time of the bicentenial of the 1798 Irish Rebellion. See:

Franke Harte and Donal Lunny, "Shan Van Vocht" (on Franke Harte and Donal Lunny, "1798 the First Year of Liberty," Hummingbird Records HBCD0014 (1998)) - BS

Although the Irish often looked to the French for help (as in the case of the United Irish rebellion of 1798), the French supplied it for their own reasons. In this case, it was to distract Britain (as a result of the French Revolution, France was at war with most of Europe) and found a base at their back.

When the 1796 expedition under Hoche failed (due mostly to incompetent seamanship; France had purged most of its experienced naval officers), the French simply gave it up and went on to other things.

It was one of those things that had people talking about a "Protestant Wind," as in 1688. Hoche was one of the best, if not the best, young French general. But the wind that let the French fleet get out of Brest also scattered it. (David Davies, _A Brief History of Fighting Ships: Ships of the Line and Napoleonic sea battle 1793-1815_, Carroll & Graf, 1996, 2002, pp. 76-77, attributes much of this to the action of Sir Edward Pellew in the frigate _Indefatigable_, which during the night flitted in and out of the French fleet spreading confusion with spurious signals, but bad French seamanship and confused instructions from the admiral are generally considered more important).

Most of the fleet made it to Bantry Bay, but the ship with Hoche aboard was blown off-course. The fleet waited a day, hoping for its general -- and its admiral, who might have a better idea how to land on the rough coasts of the bay. Then the winds came and scattered the fleet. End of landing. Later French expeditions would be made with small raiding forces rather than true armies of invasion.

"Shan Van Voght" is the anglicized form of "Sean Bhean Bhocht," "poor old woman," a title for the oppressed Irish people. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a Belfast literary journal would arise with the title _Shan Van Vocht_ devoted to promoting an independent Irish culture.

Theobald Wolfe Tone was, interestingly, a Protestant (the whole 1798 rebellion was basically a Protestant idea), but wanted a free Ireland with equal rights for both religions. After a (much too brief) period of resistance with the pen, he turned to the sword.

After the fiasco of Bantry Bay, Tone would make two more attempts to invade Ireland. The first, in a Dutch fleet, was destroyed by the British at the Battle of Camperdown (October 11, 1797) -- by which time Tone had given up anyway; the army he and the Hoche had assembled had to be disbanded. Hoche died soon after, and he was the one committed Frenchman.

Tone had, by then, already set off to appeal to Napoleon. But Napoleon turned him down; an Irish expedition, even if it succeeded, would not be practical (read: cost-effective; there was no treasure to be collected in impoverished Ireland). Napoleon went to Egypt instead, and did not send a force to Ireland until after the 1798 rebellion had been crushed.

Still, three small French forces sailed in 1798: Three ships under General Humbert (see "The Men of the West"), one ship with Napper Tandy aboard (see "The Wearing of the Green"), and a large force -- ten ships and nearly 3000 men -- with Tone aboard.

Tone's force was caught by a superior British fleet off Donegal on October 12, 1798. Tone himself was taken and condemned to death by hanging (as a traitor). He requested that he instead be shot as a soldier. When this was denied, he cut his own throat. He was 35.

The sad irony is that the British government in Ireland, under Lord Grattan, was sincerely trying to improve conditions in Ireland at the time of the 1798 rising. As recently as 1782, Ireland had received the right to an independent parliament. (Prior to that, it had had a parliament, but it was under the thumb of the British parliament. For details on this, see the notes to "Ireland's Glory.")

But, of course, this was the era of George III, with all the Crown high-handedness that implied; a few local officials could hardly make up for the stupidity at the top. And the military under General Lake made things worse with a policy of pure brutality.

The rebellion generally put an end to that. (Nor was this the only time a rebellion slowed liberalization.) Indeed, the British decided that the problems had gone on long enough, and for the first time united Ireland with Britain.

The "Lord Edward" of some texts is Lord Edward Fitzgerald (1763-1798), one of the leaders of the United Irishmen and the last one to retain his liberty after the government cracked down (March 12). He doesn't seem to have been particularly smart, and was eventually wounded and captured (May 19); he died in prison of the effects of his wound. For more about him, see the notes to "Edward (III) (Edward Fitzgerald)." - RBW

Bodleian Library site Ballads Catalogue does not have broadsides for this song but has a number of songs modelled on it. For example,

Bodleian, Harding B 18(151), "The Escape of Stephens, the Fenian Chief," H. De Marsan (New York), 1864-1878

Bodleian, Harding B 19(87), "The Shan Van Vouch" ("Oh, the time is coming on ... News of battles won and lost ... The tax that's still to come..."), unknown, n.d.

Bodleian, 2806 c.8(54), "The Shan Van Vought ("I am sure you heard of Warner, says the Shan Van Vought"), unknown, handwritten: "A Fenian Ballad 1866"

Bodleian, Harding B 11(3483), "The Shan Van Vought on Garibaldi" ("I've a story to relate, says the Shan Van Vought"), T. Pearson (Manchester) , 1850-1899

Bodleian, 2806 c.8(49), "Shan Van Vought's Farewell to Ireland" ("My sons are going away says the shan van vought"), unknown, n.d.

Another Bodleian broadside version to "remember '98": 2806 b.9(68),"A new song call'd the Gay Old Hag" ("Will you come a boating my gay old hag"), P. Brereton (Dublin), c.1867; also Johnson Ballads 2191c, "A new song call'd the Gay Old Hag"

Broadside Harding B 18(151): H. De Marsan dating per _Studying Nineteenth-Century Popular Song_ by Paul Charosh in American Music, Winter 1997, Vol 15.4, Table 1, available at FindArticles site. - BS

Historical references

  • 1796 - A French fleet (carrying, among others, Wolfe Tone) sets out for Ireland. At Christmas, one of the ships is in Bantry Bay. Bad weather and incompetent French seamanship, however, keeps the fleet at sea, and the French (distracted by their ongoing revolution) do not pursue the matter
  • 1798 - main Irish rebellion. Wolfe Tone tries again

Same tune

  • The Bird Is Left His Nest (Healy-OISBv2, pp.122-124)
  • Up for the Land (Healy-OISBv2, pp. 151-152, apparently to this tune)
  • The Escape of James Stephens (File: OLcM003A)

Cross references


  1. O'Conor, p. 32, "Shan Van Vogh" (1 text)
  2. PGalvin, p. 27, "The Shan Van Vocht" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. OLochlainn-More 60, "The Shan Van Vocht" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Zimmermann 7A, "The Shan Van Vocht" (3 texts, 1 tune)
  5. Moylan 28, "The Shan Van Vocht" (1 text, 1 tune)
  6. Tunney-StoneFiddle, p. 23, "Sean-Bhean Bhocht" (1 fragment)
  7. Silber-FSWB, p. 322, "Shan Van Voght" (1 text)
  8. ADDITIONAL: H. Halliday Sparling, Irish Minstrelsy (London, 1888), pp. 18-20, 514, "The Shan Van Vocht"
  9. Kathleen Hoagland, editor, One Thousand Years of Irish Poetry (New York, 1947), pp. 297-299, "The Shan Van Vocht" (1 text plus a portion of a parody about Home Rule by Susan Mitchell)
  10. ADDITIONAL: Thomas Kinsella, _The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse_ (Oxford, 1989), pp. 256-257, "The Shan Van Vocht" (1 text)
  11. Roud #6529
  12. BI, PGa027


Alternate titles: “The Shan Van Voch”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1797 (Sparling)
Found in: Ireland