The Kerry Recruit is one of a long line of recruiting sergeant songs that sprang up all over Ireland in the 19th century.
Other notable examples are Mrs McGrath, Arthur McBride and Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya.Ireland was part of the British Empire at that time and contributed hundreds of thousands of men to the British army and navy. Many of these men enlisted after meeting up with recruiting sergeants.
Recruiting sergeants travelled the country looking for healthy young men who were desperate for work and who might be persuaded to join up.
New recruits were given a financial inducement of one shilling to enlist. Taking the king’s shilling became a popular expression meaning to join the British armed forces.
The Kerry Recruit refers to this when he tells the sergeant to “slip the bob in me fist”. A “bob” was a slang word for shilling until into the 1960s.
The Kerry Recruit has a jaunty rhythm and comical lyrics which seem to belie the seriousness of the theme. This, after all, is a song about a man leaving the peaceful life of a farm labourer to go off to become mutilated in a war.
The tone, however, remains light hearted throughout. When the captain asks about his family and background he replies that his father and mother were “two Kerrymen”. There’s a sense of youthful cockiness about him as he makes light of everything he comes across including the redcoat uniform of the British Army, the horse he is given to ride and the ship that takes him across the sea to battle.
The playful tone of the Kerry Recruit soon ends when the fighting begins. He is taken to fight at Balaclava. This was one of the major battles of the Crimean War and took place in 1854. The recruit comes through that unscathed and is also successful at the battles of Alma and Inkerman during the same campaign.
However, as in most Irish recruiting songs, he comes unstuck before long. He describes how the Russians “foiled us at the Redan”. A redan was part of Russian fortifications around their strongholds.
The Kerry Recruit could be referring to various redans that played a part in the Crimean War, but it’s quite likely that he’s talking about the Battle of Malakoff in 1855 when the British were driven back as they attacked the Russian redan to the south of Malakoff.
Wherever the location, the recruit is left maimed for life, having lost an eye and a leg. Then, like millions of other wounded servicemen of the time, he was left to survive on a pension of ten pence a day.
Unlike many other Irish recruiting songs, the Kerry Recruit contains no bitterness and doesn’t even seem to be anti-war; it’s just a factual and at times comical tale of one young man’s experiences.
The final verse of the song takes us by surprise because it appears that the person narrating the story suddenly changes. In every other verse, it appears that we are listening to the recruit telling his own story.
In the final verse we’re told that the Kerry Recruit was the grandfather of the person narrating the song. It’s not clear why this sudden change takes place, but it might be that the final verse was added several years later to bring it up to date, possibly to make it relevant to a new generation at a time when many Irish men were agitating for independence from Britain.