By Eugene Dunphy


St. Patrick was a gentleman, he
came from decent people,
In Dublin town he built a church
and on it put a steeple;
His father was a Callaghan, his
mother was a Brady,
His aunt was an O’Shaughnessy,
and his uncle was a Grady.

In 1829, Glasgow-based printer, Mr. J. Neil, published Bailie Nicol Jarvie’s Journey to Aberfoil, a little ballad sheet containing the lyrics of three songs, one of which was ‘St. Patrick was a Gentleman’. Unfortunately, Neil did not include the name of the writer. So who wrote this rip-roaring ballad, and how did it become popular?

On the 27th of July 1817, a musical farce entitled ‘The Irishman in London’ was staged at the Theatre Royal, Dublin. Saunders’s News Letter reported that the star of the show, Mr. Webb, introduced ‘a new song called St. Patrick was a Gentleman and came from decent people’, the lyrics of which were written expressly for him ‘by a friend in Cork’.

The melody, the paper stated, was composed ‘by Mr. W. O’Rourke’. Apart from the fact that he was regularly billed as an ‘Irish comic actor and singer’, little is known of Mr. Webb’s background, but we know that ‘Mr. W. O’Rourke’ was Dublin-born William Michael O’Rourke (1794-1847), a violinist and ‘Professor of Music’ who had recently changed his surname to ‘Rooke’, and who often coached singers attached to the Theatre Royal and the Dublin Musical Amateur Society.

Then, in May 1822, a London gazette, The National Register, identified Webb’s lyricist friend from Cork as ‘R. Tolkein’, but according to Thomas Crofton Croker, an antiquarian and music collector from Cork, the lyrics to St. Patrick was a Gentleman were in fact a ‘joint production’, the collective work of ‘Mr. Toleken’ [Tolkein] and another Corkman, Henry Bennett. In his 1839 publication, The Popular Songs of Ireland, Croker maintained that Bennett and Toleken originally wrote three verses, which they sang at a ‘masquerade’ (fancy dress ball) in Cork ‘in the winter of 1814 or 1815’.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own