Legion of the Rearguard, The
DESCRIPTION: "Up the republic, they raise their battle cry, Pearse and McDermott will pray for you on high, Eager and ready, for the love of you they die." The soldiers for the Republic die proud, bloody deaths to accomplish an unstated goal
AUTHOR: J. O'Sheehan
EARLIEST DATE: 1922 (copyright, according to the Clancy/Makem songbook)
KEYWORDS: Ireland political soldier death nonballad
REFERENCES (1 citation):
NOTES: Why is it that the Irish nut cases get all the good songs?
After the 1916 rebellion, the Irish people finally turned truly nationalist. And, after World War I, Michael Collins and others turned up the heat so much that the British, after repression failed (see the notes, e.g., to "The Bold Black and Tan"), gave up and started negotiating.
The result was the Anglo-Irish Treaty (for which see, in particular, "The Irish Free State"). This would have turned Ireland into a British Dominion (a nearly-independent state; Canada was the prototype). But there were two things in the Treaty that were objectionable: The Irish still owed nominal allegiance to the British crown, and Ireland was to be partitioned between Ulster and the Free State, according to a boundary to be determined.
Rationally, it was a fair agreement for Ireland; it was not George V and the current generation of the royal family who had oppressed them, but Elizabeth I (no descendants), Oliver Cromwell (repudiated by the English), William of Orange (not the ancestor of the current dynasty), and David Lloyd George, who wouldn't hold power much longer. And, had the boundary commission worked, Ireland would have gotten rid of those ungovernable Ulstermen that gave England almost as much trouble as they gave Dublin.
But the war with Britain had been fought by the IRA and other, even more secret and terrorist, forces, and they wanted complete independence. When Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins brought home the Treaty, Eamon de Valera (head of state and chief hard liner) rejected it. The Dail, the Irish parliament, however, went against him and -- despite being composed entirely of Sinn Fein members -- voted for it by a narrow margin. The national election which followed showed strong support for it; even the pro-Republican historian Calton Younger's statistics (pp. 313-314) make it appear that only 22% of the voters voted to reject the Treaty.
But 22% is more than enough for an insurgency. The IRA was split into pro- and anti-treaty factions. Speaking very loosely, the anti-treaty forces were concentrated in the south and west, with Cork their chief center (hence, presumably, the song's reference to the martial tramp of the Republicans being heard "from Cork to Donegal"). The anti-treaty forces promptly went to war against the pro-Treaty provisional government.
The insurgents scored one and only one real success: On August 22, 1922, they succeeded in killing Michael Collins, the effective head of the government. (For this, and much additional background, see the notes to "General Michael Collins").
It was the ultimate in pyrrhic victories. Collins had started his career as a terrorist, but he was also a realist and a genius. He might have managed to control the rebellion with relatively slight loss of life and liberty. Without him, the new government, headed by William Cosgrave, Kevin O'Higgins, and Collins's former Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy, turned Ireland into a temporary police state; the Dail gave them emergency powers, and they set up military tribunals and indeed engaged in arbitrary executions; the rebels were explicitly denied prisoner of war status (Kee,, pp. 168-169). What should have been a noble cause got off to a dreadful start. But it suppressed the rebellion.
This song -- the only thing I've ever encountered by O'Sheehan -- seems to have played its part. In 1923, Eamon de Valera, whose refusal to accept the Treaty had contributed to much to causing the Irish Civil War, finally gave in and urged the anti-treaty forces to lay down their arms. And he addressed them as "Soldiers of the Republic, Legion of the Rearguard" (Kee, p 175; see also p. 170). They were so-called because they had once been (and hoped to be again) the vanguard of Irish independence, but now were fighting a rearguard action to keep the dream alive.
In the long run, of course, de Valera would succeed in "freeing" the 26 counties; Ireland is no longer a British dominion. But it would surely have been a lot easier had he pursued a political solution.
Besides de Valera, the song mentions:
Pearse - Padraig Pearse, the leader of the 1916 uprising, who was executed in that year; see in particular the notes to "The Boys from County Cork."
McDermott - Sean McDermott, another executed in the aftermath of the Easter Rising; he was one of those who joined Pearse in organizing the rebellion. According to Foy/Barton, p. 4, he and Tom Clarke were "the key figures who, in the years before 1916, shaped the policies of the Irish Republican Brotherhood." Still in his early thirties at the time of the rising, he had suffered from polio in his late twenties, and could barely shuffle along with a cane or walking stick. I wonder if he may not have been offered as an example precisely *because* he was a cripple whom the British executed anyway.
"Wolfe Love" - This is what the Clancy Brothers record as the text, but I have to think this is an error of some sort. Certainly the reference is to (Theobald) Wolfe Tone, who helped inspire the 1798 rebellion and tried to win French support in the years before that; for his activities and his condemnation by the British, see e.g. the notes to "The Shan Van Voght."
Emmett - Robert Emmet (the usual spelling), whose 1803 attempt at rebellion was a complete botch but who inspired many songs; see e.g. the notes to "Bold Robert Emmet."
I doubt this song is actually traditional; I think the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem (violent nationalists all) picked it up because of their political beliefs rather than its historic status. But since they recorded it, it perhaps deserves an Index entry. - RBW
Last updated in version 2.5
- Foy/Barton: Michael Foy and Brian Barton, The Easter Rising, 1999 (I use the 2000 Sutton edition)
- Kee: Robert Kee, Ourselves Alone, being volume III of The Green Flag (covering the brief but intense period from 1916 to the establishment of constitutional government in the 1920s), Penguin, 1972
- Younger: Calton Younger, Ireland's Civil War (1968, 1979; I used the 1988 Fontana edition)
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