The Irish Volunteer: Songs of the Irish Union Soldier, audio CD by David Kincaid, Rycodisc USA, Salem, Mass., $15.98.
While some people write history, the Irish have long preferred to sing it. When a call to arms was sounded, an effective Irish recruiting tool was to evoke the deeds of past heroes in an appeal for a new generation of warriors to follow in their footsteps. That tradition made its way to the United States during the great Irish immigration of the 1840s and 1850s, and when the Civil War broke out in April 1861, it was applied to the recruitment of entire regiments–and ultimately a brigade–of Irish soldiers for the Union Army.
David Kincaid, former lead singer of the rock band the Brandos, spent countless hours of research before re-creating the Civil War music in The Irish Volunteer: Songs of the Irish Union Soldier. His efforts involved finding either sheet music or, if only the lyrics could be found, searching for an existing tune to which they had been originally adapted. Although some of the songs were original, a great number were, as is often the case with folk music, simply new words to a proven, catchy tune. Kincaid’s opening number, “The Irish Volunteer,” is a particularly striking case, since its tune, originally “The Irish Jaunting Car,” served not only as the basis for New York music hall performer Joe English’s Union recruiting song but also for Harry McCarthy’s quintessential Confederate anthem, “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”
A folk song’s greatest value from a historian’s standpoint is as a reflection of the attitudes of its time, and The Irish Volunteer gives several examples in unexpurgated form. Widespread British sympathy for the Southern cause strained relations between the United States and British governments, and fears that a divided America might be vulnerable to a British threat from the Canadian border made it easy for Irish-Americans’ long-standing antipathy toward the British to become an urgent cry to fight for their adopted country. Some songs refer more to past struggles against British domination–especially the rising of the Society of United Irishmen in 1798–than to the “Southern traitors” to be fought in the present.
One exception among the patriotic broadsides is “Paddy’s Lamentation,” a genuine anti-war song of the time, sung from the viewpoint of a battlefield amputee. Also specific to the Civil War is a swipe taken in “Pat Murphy of Meagher’s Brigade” against Northern abolitionists, since even the most staunchly pro-Union Irish feared that freeing the slaves would limit their own prospects of finding employment. Yet another sentiment voiced in at least two songs that may seem curious to present-day listeners is the popularity enjoyed by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan among the Irish Brigade. Historians may dismiss him as a vacillating general who threw away opportunities to win the war, but even as late as 1864, Joe English was concluding “The List of Generals” with: “But of one more I will be telling/And who should be restored straightaway/To put an end to this rebellion/Little Mac he knows the way.”
Among the odder numbers included in Kincaid’s collection is a second version of “The Irish Volunteer,” by J.P. Webster and S. Fillmore Bennett, which is not performed to an Irish folk melody but to a tune typical of American sentimental parlor music at that time. “The Boys of the Irish Brigade,” though sung during the Civil War, actually predates it and refers to an earlier such unit in the French army during the 1700s. The one anachronism in the collection, “Free and Green,” written by Kincaid and Carl Funk about the death of a Captain Taggart, is included because of an eerie coincidence. Years after writing the song, when he became a re-enactor in Company I, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry, Kincaid discovered that that very company had been led by Captain Samuel Taggart, and that he had been mortally wounded at Ream’s Station, Va., on August 25, 1864.
Irish folk music is, admittedly, an acquired taste, but for those who have acquired it, the renditions performed by Kincaid, Liz Knowles, Jerry O’Sullivan, John Whelan and a number of other supporting musicians have considerable merit. Accompanied by a booklet of lyrics that explains such historical references as Brian Boru’s victory over the Vikings at Clontarf in 1014 (in “Meagher Is Leading the Irish Brigade”) and the loss and recovery of the 69th New York Infantry’s colors during the First Battle of Bull Run (in “Boys That Wore the Green”), The Irish Volunteer is an enlightening and entertaining slice of American history.