Music punctuates our everyday lives to a degree that we rarely appreciate. How often do we actually listen to a song and try and understand the story that it might be telling. The ballad is a particular type of song which tells the story, be it of love, loss, betrayal, or of a particular moment in time. There are few songs, which come down through the centuries with their original story and meaning intact. But their survival means that there is a greater truth which ensures that they endure. One such song is “Johnny I hardly knew Ye”.
Like many of my generation I can recall the opening lines, “Along the road to sweet Athy Huroo Huroo”, but find myself struggling thereafter. The song owes its origin to the large numbers of Irish men who served in the armies of Britain through the centuries and the countless numbers who returned to this country damaged in mind and body and the song is a tribute to those men. It seems to viciously lampoon their suffering and loss but in reality is a dirge mourning their loss and their sacrifice coupled with the determination that no more men will be offered up as victims of war.
The song seems to be composed sometime around the 1800’s and possibly earlier. The song itself refers to the soldiers service in Ceylon, modern day Sri Lanka. And indeed it seems possible to place men from Athy who served in the Army in Ceylon in and around the 1790’s.
In the early summer of 1796 the troops of the First Madras European Regiment landed on the shores of Ceylon. This regiment formed part of the east India Companies Private Army. The company was established in London in the early 1600’s to exploit the commercial opportunities which India appeared to offer to the fledging British empire.
In advancing its aggressive commercial expansion in India and the Far East the company founded its own private army to protect and advance its interest. The regiments of this army, particularly the Madras European Regiment had a strong Irish presence in its ranks, particularly in the lowest ranks. The Public Records Office in London holds thousands of records of the service of many of these young Irishmen. At the time the regiment was garrisoned in Ceylon we know that at least two Athy men were in the regiment’s ranks, James Byrnes and John Eustace.
We know little about these two men but for the fact that they are both originally from Athy and that they both enjoyed an unusually long Army service. James Byrnes would serve with various regiments of the East Indian and British Army until he was discharged in 1823 at the age of 56, while John Eustace would leave the Army in 1811 at the age of 53. They were the exceptions. The attrition rates amongst troops serving in India and Ceylon to disease and death was appalling and few would have survived the rigours of foreign services as long as Byrnes and Eustace did.
There is little record of the regiment service in Ceylon in 1796 as Europe was occupied at the time by the threat of Napoleon while Britain scrambled nervously to protect and secure its overseas interest.
The song itself marks the return of a soldier to his home town of Athy after the vicissitudes of military service and it is quite visceral in its description of the damage brought by the War on the body of the returning soldier. “You haven’t an arm and you haven’t a leg, you’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg, you’ll have to put out a bowl to beg.”
The song’s ultimate origins are obscured by its longevity and popularity through the centuries. To Americans it is better known as “When Johnny comes Marching Home” or “Johnny Fill up the Bowl” and during the American Civil War it was one of the most popular songs sung by the Union troops. Frequently the lyrics were adapted by the troops who added on extra verses or altered those already there for verses of a more ribald nature.
Its popularity during the Civil War owed a lot to its arrangement by Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore. Gilmore, writing under the name of Louis Lambert was a native of Dublin who probably heard the song in his youth and employed by the State of Massachusetts in forming up many of its military bands adapted the air and words of the song for the Union Army where it became a popular marching song. Indeed its popularity will outlive the Civil War itself and has re-surfaced many times in later wars involving the United States.
Perhaps the ultimate recognition of his acceptance into the pantheon of American martial music was the adaptation of the song’s title for a Hollywood movie directed by the Irish American director John Ford called “When Willie comes Marching Home”, a story about the experiences of a callow American youth.