Eugene Dunphy charts the origins of a Luke Kelly classic


In the 1700s and well into the 1800s, The Whiteboy Act was used in Ireland to repress and quash secret agrarian societies such as the Levellers, Whiteboys and Ribbonmen, who rebelled against the vagaries of tyrannical landlords.

To safeguard against being infiltrated by government agents and spies, such groupings invariably used their own hand-signs and passwords, the Ribbonman often secreting about his person a remnant of coloured cloth, thus identifying him as belonging to a particular ‘Ribbon cell’.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 1820, while a hurling match was underway on the green in Two-Mile Borris, County Tipperary, players of both teams whooped and cheered as a man galloped by at a thunderous pace on an unbridled horse.

Yelling at the top of his voice, ‘Here’s a real Ribbonman!’, witnesses saw that the rider was wearing a hat, around which was placed a multi-coloured ribbon.
John Grant and Bernard McCue, both members of the Eliogarty and Kilnamanagh Police, mounted their steeds and went in hot pursuit, and managed to corner both rider and horse just outside the town.
When he told his disbelieving captors that his name was ‘Dominick Kelly’, and that he was an ‘oyster seller’ from Galway, Grant and McCue hauled Kelly before Judge Johnson at Clonmel, the London Globe and the Limerick Gazette reporting that he was sentenced to flogging and imprisonment, pursuant of clauses 15 and 16 of The Whiteboy Act.

Though he does not mention Dominick Kelly by name in his ‘Songs of the Irish’, Donal O’Sullivan claimed that the mournful ballad ‘Príosún Chluain Meala’, also known as ‘The Gaol of Clonmel’ or ‘The Jail of Cluain Meala’, could well have been written about an incarcerated, hurling-loving Whiteboy.

Originally entitled ‘The Convict of Clonmel’, the verses were first collected and translated from Irish into English by Jeremiah Joseph (‘J.J’) Callanan, and published in February 1823, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.
‘The Convict of Clonmel’ was later included in ‘The Poems of J.J. Callanan’, published in 1830, by Bolster, Patrick Street, Cork, with the following note placed beside the poem’s title: Is dubhach é mo cás (roughly translated as ‘How hard is my fortune’).

So who was J.J. Callanan? From a well-connected family, he was born in Cork city in May 1795. Having completed his formative education in the city, he began studying for the priesthood at Maynooth College in 1812, but soon discovered that he was ‘not cut out for the cloth’.

Deciding instead to try his hand at studying medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, he again found himself out of his depth. Leaving Trinity behind, he returned to Cork, where he became a private tutor, imparting the ‘three R’s’ to the children of merchants and businessmen.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own