The Irish song tradition is all about telling stories. The beauty of this tradition is that the stories are so rich and the melodies so beautiful. Often, they are treated as texts/poems – or simply as airs – but, combined, the singer has the tools to transport the listener to another place; to an ‘Ireland of old’. Of course, for as long as the singer sings the song, this ‘Ireland of old’ continues to exist. With every ornamental variation or altered lyric, the tradition evolves and adapts. There is no single way to perform these songs, but it is integral to performance that the singer understands the song’s context; its history, stylistic influences and cultural significance. The singer must tell the story of the song.
An Amhrán / The Song
The song now known as Óró sé do bheatha bhaile started life in the 18th century during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-46. This era saw the attempt by Bonny Prince Charlie, who was Roman Catholic, to regain the British throne from the Protestant monarchy. As Ireland was largely Catholic at the time, it is said that the Irish generally supported Bonny Prince Charlie and sang songs in his favour – presumably hoping that he would change the law to remove the English landowners and planters once he became King.
Óró sé do bheatha bhaile welcomes the Prince to Ireland and looks forward to his successful rebellion to banish all the English from Ireland. High hopes! The Jacobite Rebellion didn’t succeed, however, and Bonny Prince Charles failed to meet Irish expectations as a leader and liberator. Not so good for him then...
Óró sé do bheatha bhaile appears in George Petrie’s The Complete Collection of Irish Music (1855), also titled “Welcome Home Prince Charley”. Both are marked as an ‘ancient clan march', which was something of a wedding song: the groom would welcome his lucky new bride into his home after the wedding ceremony in front of a sing-along congregation. How beautiful... By the end of 19th century, the melody was most popularly used for the sea shanty, “What shall we do with the drunken sailor?”
Páraic Pearse liked the song, but didn’t want to celebrate Bonny Prince Charles’ rebellion, given that he wasn’t actually Irish (he was Scottish, God forbid!) and that his mighty conquest had ultimately been unsuccessful. So Pearse replaced Bonny Prince Charles as the song's subject with a legendary Irish native, effectively writing the failed Jacobite out of the song's memory for the coming century.
As the protagonist, Pearse chose Grace O’Malley / Gráinne Ní Mháille (born c. 1530 – died c. 1603), a 16th century chieftain from Galway who had been a ruthless naval and military leader, and who became a so-called patriot in the eyes of the leaders of the Gaelic revival at the end of the 19th Century. Also known as The ‘Sea Queen of Connacht’, the ‘Pirate Queen’, and ‘Granuaile’, this woman has became one of the most popular figures in Irish folklore.
In the song, Pearse used ‘Granuaile’ to represent the Irish diaspora coming home to fight off the ugly foreigners. This was a powerful sentiment in the context of Ireland’s noble independence movement, which led to the Easter Rising (1916), the War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922-23).
Granuaile came to be seen as an Irish patriot who stood up against foreigners to protect Ireland. She became a metaphor for Gaelic Ireland in the early 20th Century. Whereas Bonny Prince Charlie had come to Ireland with foreign soldiers, the idea of being 'native' is emphasised in Pearse’s lyrics: “Gaeil féin 's ní Francaigh ná Spáinnigh / They are Gaels, not French or Spanish.”
As one of the leaders (and subsequent martyrs) of the movement against British government in Ireland, Páraic Pearse believed that changing the lyrics would tell a strong story in favour of Irish independence. He was right – his ideas survived longer than he did! That's the power of song.
Throughout the 20th century and still to this day, Óro sé do bheatha bhaile has been taught to schoolchildren and teenagers in colleges across Ireland and abroad. It remains part of the traditional, folk, and pop repertoire for Irish singers in the 21st Century. Above, you can see a sean nós version sung by Darach Ó’Catháin in 1980, a 1962 performance in Chicago given by The Clancy Brothers, and a 1990 performance by The Dubliners. Below is a typically groovy recording by Sinéad O'Connor from 2003, and some further listening - in case you want to hear a Hungarian artist's take on the tune!