THERE is little in Ireland that is not associated with the wearing of the green. We can simplify that by stating that our international sports teams in general tog out in green, let it be rugby, hockey, cricket, GAA, soccer, show jumping teams, athletes, and many other sports, are dressed to some extent or totally in green. The sportsmen and women who don these colours are proud to do so and follow a tradition dating back as far as the pre-1798 rebellion period when green was the colour, whether a sprig of shamrock or the green waistbands and hats worn by many of the insurgents. It was green and that is what mattered.
There are parts of Irish history that on their own are truly isolated; then there are those that cannot be ignored. In this article, I am going to look at pieces spanning different generations. The first is a piece from some historian who, if he or she were still alive, would be glad that at least one other suffered the sadness he or she felt writing their piece. It begins thus:
‘A blessing upon the soul of Ireland,
Ireland of the faltering steps;
Methinks that Brian’s home and soft voices
Is full with sorrow’.
These words were written in an American publication. I have been unable to trace the author but who I am sure was a sorrowful Irish emigrant. The article went on to say that when laws were established against dissenters in 1695, Irish Catholics were forbidden to own land, to school their children, vote, own a horse worth more than £2.50, be a public official, be a lawyer or soldier, or serve on a jury. This is the period that saw the end of many Irish traditions, including the wearing of the Irish kilt.
There was a time when Henry Grattan (a leader of the Protestant class) became leader of a group called the Irish Volunteers, who were fighting a battle looking for the lifting of restrictions off the backs of the Irish Catholic population and Irish trade. Grattan fought on the grounds that the Irish Protestant could not be free until the Irish Catholic ceased to be a slave.
The Wearing of the Green is also an Irish Street ballad which laments the troubles and repression of the ordinary farm labourer, street cleaner, farmers of the time and those gentry whose allegiance lay with Irish freedom fighters, whether they were Catholic or Protestant, and all others who were prepared to lay down their lives for the wearing of the green. As we will find out shortly, the English required no excuse to hang men and women for such simple things as wearing a green sprig of shamrock.
The Revolutionary Society of United Irishmen adopted green as their colour and there was widespread support for the organisation, with men, women and children bedecked in green-hued garments such as ribbons and cockades. This was considered sedition.
The wearing of the green at this time led to violent reprisals by loyalist mobs, and more often than not prosecutions by the authorities. I suppose here it is time to concentrate on the words of the song, and many different versions there are. I suppose you might even call the birth of this ballad an emigrant song, where someone who had left our shores years previously was fishing for information from his native land.
There are so many versions of the ballad, each attached to the author’s personal experiences. It is hard to figure out which creates a true reflection of the time in question. However, by far and away the best-known version is without doubt that of Dion Boucicault, which he adapted for his play Arragh Na Pogue, which was translated as The Wicklow Wedding and was set in Co Wicklow during the 1798 rebellion.
In the second verse, the author recounts a meeting between the singer and Napper Tandy, whose full name was James Napper Tandy. Napper was a Dublin-born Protestant and was a revolutionary and member of the United Irishmen. He attended the Quaker school in Ballitore, Co Kildare at the same time as Edmund Burke, even though the latter was eight years older.
Not many historians have delved into Napper Tandy’s story and it was only while researching this article that I found out how involved Napper Tandy was, being the son of an ironmonger from a Protestant background, and how he supported the Catholic side and his contribution to Irish history. It is a part of this story I have to include as Napper would not be one of the more famous leading lights in Republicanism during this period, though he played a huge part in nationalist actions over a number of years. He is also the only Republican hero referred to in the song The Wearing of the Green.
In April 1780, he was expelled from the volunteers for proposing the expulsion of the Duke of Leinster. He was probably leader of what is known as the shopkeeper class of volunteers, who formed a committee in 1784 calling for reform and drew delegates from all over Ireland in October of that year. Tandy urged Dublin Corporation to oppose Pitt’s resolutions, while in 1785 he became a member of the Whig Club, joining with Henry Grattan.
In 1791, he actively co-operated with Wolfe Tone in the founding of the Society of the United Irishmen, becoming the first secretary of that organisation. In 1793, he was forced to flee to Paris when an informer revealed his location after a bounty had been placed on information which would lead to his capture. It is believed that it was a meeting with an old comrade in Paris that inspired the song.
In 1798, he returned to Ireland, landing at Lifford, County Donegal, with a shipment of arms and French troops. However, he was too late as the rebellion was over so they set off back to France. He was captured in Hamburg, and first brought to Kilmainham Jail, then back to Lifford, where he was charged with high treason, convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
He was saved when Napoleon refused to sign a peace treaty between the two countries until Tandy was returned to France. He died in Paris on 24 August 1803, aged 63.
So I think this is the right place to put in the words of the 18th century ballad in full. There are some variations in some versions, but basically the changes are slight.
O Paddy dear and did ye hear the news that’s going round?
The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground!
No more Saint Patrick’s Day we’ll keep, his colour can’t be seen
For there’s a cruel law ag’in the wearin’ o’ the green.
I met with Napper Tandy and he took me by the hand
And he said: “how’s poor old Ireland and what way does she stand?”
She’s the most distressful country that ever yet was seen
For they’re hanging men and women there for the wearin’ o’ the green.
So if the colour we must be England’s cruel red
Let it remind us of the blood that Irish men have shed.
And pull the shamrock from your hat and throw it on the sod
But never fear, twill take root there, though underfoot ’tis trod.
When laws can make the blades of grass from growing as they grow
And when the leaves in summer-time their colour dare not show,
Then I will change the colour, too, I wear in my caubeen,
But till that day, please God, I’ll stick to the wearin’ o’ the green.
The shamrock, which in the present day is worn on Saint Patrick’s Day as a sign of our allegiance to the country’s patron saint, had emerged in the 18th century as a very religious emblem. It came to be seen as the symbol of Ireland, even more so than the harp, which was depicted on the green flags carried by the United Irishmen throughout the country during the ’98 Rebellion and thereafter until the tricolour was unfurled for the first time during the Young Irelanders uprising in 1848. It was only a small step for the little sprig of shamrock to make its way into our eternal history.
Britain at the time was keen to stamp out anything to do with our identity. It saw the Irish language and the colour green as the main tools which would rally nationalist fervour and so both were banned. Irish newspapers had to publish notices stating that for men to wear green as an emblem of affection to Ireland was prohibited and that to do so would lead to imprisonment, transportation, the rope or the bayonet. For women, it would expose them to the brutal insults of common soldiery; I don’t believe I have to expand on that statement.
I believe the verses of the song tell the reality of events of that period. There are other songs which refer to the wearing of the green; most popular would be the Dubliners’ ballad Monto.
The tale of the shamrock not being allowed to grow on Irish ground sounds ridiculous but it was a law, and if the shamrock was found growing on your land then men and women could be hanged, and that is a fact. Remember, in those years and up to recent times the plant was not about cultivation; you would find it in many fields, gardens, even in crevices in walls; it was everywhere, just like clover is now.
In March 1900, on hearing of the Irish Regiment’s success in the Boer War, Queen Victoria sent this message: “I have heard with deepest concern of the heavy losses by my brave Irish soldiers. Her Majesty the Queen is pleased to order that in future on Saint Patrick’s Day all ranks of her Irish Regiments will wear a sprig of shamrock on their headdress in honour of their gallantry.” So to this day a member of the royal family presents shamrock to the members of the Irish Guards regiment of the British Army on St Patrick’s Day.