The ballad “The Irish Volunteer,” written and performed by Irish-American Joe English and published in 1864, tells the story of an Irish rebel’s son who fought the Confederate rebels during the American Civil War. The tune was “The Irish Jaunting Car” — the same used for 1861 Confederate song “The Bonny Blue Flag,” by Irish Confederate Harry McCarthy. (Random Walt Whitman connection: The song’s publishers, Dick & Fitzgerald, were at 18 Ann Street, Manhattan, the heart of the publishing and printing industry where Walt got his start as a journeyman printer and a journalist.)
Here, Oregon artist Stella Blue sings it for you. The Irish Volunteer [JOE ENGLISH] (the link opens a new tab/window, come on back and read this as you listen)
The ballad opens with the June 1798 Battle of Vinegar Hill, Ireland, during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. At Vinegar Hill, British and Irish forces counted roughly even, but the British literally outgunned the Irish, who were routed.
My name is Tim McDonald, I’m a native of the Isle,
I was born among old Erin’s bogs when I was but a child.
My father fought in Ninety-eight, for liberty so dear;
He fell upon old Vinegar Hill, like an Irish volunteer.
Then raise the harp of Erin, boys, the flag we all revere—
We’ll fight and fall beneath its folds, like Irish volunteers!
Chorus — Then raise the harp, etc.
Relative to the American Civil War, the casualties were slight — “only” about 500 to 1000 Irish and 100 British. Most of the Irish rebels lived to fight another day — or eventually to immigrate to the United States, where their sons (or, to be literalistic, their grandsons) would fight in the American Civil War.
When I was driven from my home by an oppressor’s hand,
I cut my sticks and greased my brogues, and came o’er to this land.
I found a home and many friends, and some that I love dear;
Be jabbers! I’ll stick to them like bricks and an Irish volunteer.
Then fill your glasses up, my boys, and drink a hearty cheer,
To the land of our adoption and the Irish volunteer!
Chorus — Then fill your glasses, etc.
The volunteer’s new “home and many friends” might have been on Vinegar Hill, this one in Brooklyn, near the Navy Ship Yard. Walt Whitman and his family (of solid English and Dutch descent with deep American roots) lived on Brooklyn’s Vinegar Hill, as did many Irish immigrants driven over the water by the Potato Famine and another lost rebellion, that of 1848. The volunteer would have done well as a bricklayer there. Brooklyn was expanding exponentially, and devastating fires made brick a far better siding than wood. But when the Secession War broke out, he traded hod and spade for a rifle.
Now when the traitors in the south commenced a warlike raid,
I quickly then laid down my hod, to the devil went my spade!
To a recruiting-office then I went, that happened to be near,
And joined the good old Sixty-ninth, like an Irish volunteer.
Then fill the ranks and march away! — no traitors do we fear;
We’ll drive them all to blazes, says the Irish volunteer.
Chorus — Then fill the ranks, etc.
The 69th Infantry Regiment of New York has a line of battle stretching from the Civil War through the Afghanistan War, with lineage roots back to the American Revolution. In the Civil War era, it was riddled with tensions among those who wished to use it as a hammer for Irish independence, and scorned by American “nativists” who believed that people born outside the United States — especially those not of British heritage — could not be “true” Americans.
The 69th took the chance to show their side of the story when the Prince of Wales visited New York in 1860. The regiment, under command of Colonel Michael Corcoran, an Irish rebel in his own right, would not turn out to parade.
When the Prince of Wales came over here, and made a hubbaboo,
Oh, everybody turned out, you know, in gold and tinsel too;
But then the good old Sixty-ninth didn’t like these lords or peers—
They wouldn’t give a d–n for kings, the Irish volunteers!
We love the land of Liberty, its laws we will revere,
“But the divil take nobility!” says the Irish volunteer!
Chorus — We love the land, etc.
Defiance of British royalty did not resolve their loyalty, though. Like Whitman, many of Corcoran’s followers balked at waging a war, as they saw it, instigated by abolitionists, whom they viewed as fanatic Union-breakers. The Regiment swung in doubt: were they Irish or American? The 69th resolved the question with their valor at Bull Run and subsquent battles. Legend has it, when they pushed back their brothers, the Louisianna Irish “Tigers” at Malvern Hill, Virginia, they earned the title “Fighting Irish” from the rebel commander himself, R.E. Lee.
Now if the traitors in the South should ever cross our roads,
We’ll drive them to the divil, as Saint Patrick did the toads;
We’ll give them all short nooses that come just below the ears,
Made strong and good of Irish hemp by Irish volunteers.
Then here’s to brave McClellan, whom the army now reveres–
He’ll lead us on to victory, the Irish volunteers.
Chorus — Then here’s to brave, etc.
Unfortunately, their beloved General McClellan nullified their advance at Malvern Hill by pulling back over the James River, leaving the field, and Richmond, to the Confederates. At Antietam, too, where the Irish 69th suffered 60 percent casualties, McClellan stopped Lee’s advance, but allowed him and his army to slip away, a scenario that would replay at Gettysburg under Union General Meade.
Now fill your glasses up, my boys, a toast come drink with me,
May Erin’s Harp and the Starry Flag united ever be;
May traitors quake, and rebels shake, and tremble in their fears,
When next they meet the Yankee boys and Irish volunteers!
God bless the name of Washington! that name this land reveres;
Success to Meagher and Nugent, and their Irish volunteers!
Chorus — God bless the name, etc.
The Irish volunteer reasserts his loyalty to America, bringing together “Yankee boys and Irish volunteers” to defy “traitors,” blessing their country’s founder George Washington, and cheering the commanders of the 69th, Meagher and Nugent, both Irish-born, both officers who paid loyal service to the United States, along with their Fighting Irish.