Songs of Freedom

The distorted history behind Irish nationalist folklore

The first president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, was a renowned folklorist. getty images
01 May, 2019

On 29 October 1842, The Nation, an Irish weekly newspaper, published the lyrics of a new version of “Sean Bhean Bhocht,” a folk ballad that had been passed down orally over generations. It was originally a scurrilous love song, about a young man who marries a sean-bhean bhocht—a poor old woman—and submits to her every demand, most of them sexual in nature.

The version published in The Nation, however, recast the previously apolitical ballad to decidedly political ends. It had been composed almost fifty years before, and heralded the success of a French maritime expedition that planned to land nearly fifteen thousand troops at Bantry Bay in 1796 to aid the Society of United Irishmen in their planned rebellion against British colonial rule. Their landing was imminent, the sean-bhean bhocht said, and once they had set up camp on the curragh of Kildare, the Irish yeomanry would join them and throw off the red and blue of British rule for their “own immortal green.” The song went on:

Will Ireland then be free?
Says the sean-bhean bhocht;
Yes! Ireland shall be free,
From the centre to the sea;
Then hurrah! for Liberty!
Says the sean-bhean bhocht.

The French never landed. Their ships were scattered by stormy weather, and the fleet was driven back to France. Over two thousand sailors lost their lives. The French republican government was able to land a smaller expeditionary force during the Irish rebellion of 1798, but it was unable to make much of an impact in the failed revolt. Ireland would not be free until after the Easter uprising of 1916.