The Wind That Shakes the Barley is about a man torn between staying with his true love or going to fight for his country. In the third verse, the dilemma is taken away from the young man because his true love is killed by enemy fire.
In the fifth verse, the young man describes how he avenges her death by taking “blood for blood” at the Battle of Oulart Hollow. This was a famous victory for the rebels led by Father John Murphy, of Boulavogue fame.
The battle took place near the village of Boulavogue in County Wexford with the rebels completely routing the opposing force of British militiamen.
The vengeance brings little comfort for the young rebel as his mind is still dominated by thoughts of his true love. He continues to wander around her grave, fully expecting that he might soon follow after her.
This would have been a real fear because many of the rebels who took part in the 1798 Rebellion were hounded remorselessly until they were captured and executed, usually in the most brutal fashion and often after being tortured.
Torture methods included practices such as half hanging and pitch capping. Half hanging involved hanging the victim until they were on the point of death and then releasing them.
Pitch capping involved putting molten tar into a cap or container and then putting it on to the victim’s skull in order to make them reveal the whereabouts of other rebels.
Some victims attempted to smash their own skulls in an attempt to end the pain and avoid the risk of revealing secret information.
The refrain The Wind That Shakes the Barley serves as reference point that holds the lyric together. It punctuates each important moment in the narrative.
The wind rustles through the barley as the young man struggles with the dilemma of choosing between his lover and his country. It’s there when he decides to join the United Irishmen and then when his lover is killed.
After the tragic events of the song are played out, the young man feels his heart break every time he hears the wind shaking the barley because of the memories it evokes.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a classic among Irish rebellion songs and retains the evocative power it had when it was first published
The song has been recorded by numerous artists including Irish singer Dolores Keane, the Australian duo Dead Can Dance and the Scottish singer Dick Gaughan.
Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt not only recorded The Wind That Shakes the Barley, she also made it the title of a best selling album released in 2010.
The director Ken Loach also borrowed The Wind That Shakes the Barley as title for his film set during the Irish War of Independence from 1919 to 1921.