A series by Eugene Dunphy
It may sound odd but every time I hear it, I can’t help but compare the melody to Hank Williams’ ‘The Lost Highway’, or to Ewan MacColl’s ‘Dirty Old Town’. It tells the story of an Irish freedom fighter listening to the last words of his comrade who lies seriously wounded on a Dublin street. When the wounded man’s father arrives at the scene of battle to ask about his son’s whereabouts, he is told, “there’s no use in searching, your son to heaven has gone.”
Just who was ‘the dying rebel’; where did he come from, and when did he die? Surely the answers are in the lyrics? Well, it really depends on which version you listen to, and there are many.
Some say that the ballad is set during Easter 1916, and that the dying man came from Tipperary, even Cork or Limerick: others say that it is set during the Anglo-Irish War, and the man in question was Seán Treacy, shot and killed on the 14th of October, 1920, in Talbot Street, Dublin.
We know for sure that the ballad found its way to New York, where it slipped through the fingers of Joseph Maguire, a Fermanagh man living at 157th Street on Broadway. Apart from running a restaurant, Maguire also contributed a series of articles, ‘Old Irish Ballads’, to the Advocate newspaper. On the 24th of June 1939 he published the lyrics (three verses and a chorus) of ‘The Dying Rebel’, but under the title ‘The Harp and Shamrock, Green, White and Gold’ – Tipperary and Dublin are mentioned, but Limerick and Cork are not.
Stating that it described “a scene from the late Easter Rebellion’, and that the words were sent to him ‘some months ago, by a reader whose identity I have lost,” the forgetful Maguire asked, “Can any reader identify the author?”
Unfortunately, his query was to remain unanswered. Here follows the first verse and chorus:
The first I saw was a wounded
Lying, dying, as he feebly cried,
‘God bless our home in sweet
God bless the cause for I am dying’
My only son was shot in Dublin,
Fighting for his country bold,
He died for Ireland, and Ireland
The Harp and Shamrock, Green,
White and Gold.
Two years later, a four-verse version of ‘The Dying Rebel’ was included in an article entitled ‘Ballads of 1916’, published in the Dublin journal, The Bell.
Interestingly, the article was written by Donagh MacDonagh, son of Tipperary-born Thomas MacDonagh, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, executed in May 1916.
Again, the writer of the ballad was still not identified and, moreover, the ‘My only son was shot in Dublin’ chorus was conspicuous by its absence! It would take another twenty years before the elusive songwriter would slowly emerge from the shadows, and that was to happen when the ballad gained traction in the US and the UK – more about this anon.