Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya is one of the most powerful anti-war songs ever to come out of Ireland.
It tells the story of a young woman’s grief when she sees her lover, the father to her child, return from war with his body mutilated and broken.
The imagery is graphic and at times grotesque for this is a song that pulls no punches.
It sets out the horrors of war as a way of ensuring that young Irishmen would never be sent to fight in British wars again.
As a protest song it transcends national boundaries
Although Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya is an Irish song, it transcends national boundaries and has become popular all over the world.
It’s been recorded by artists from widely differing backgrounds including American folk singer Joan Baez, English opera singer Benjamin Luxon and punk rock band The Dropkick Murphys.
While on the road to sweet Athy
Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya begins with the singer describing how he chanced upon a heartbroken young woman one day while he was travelling on the road to Athy in County Kildare in Ireland.
We learn that her lover has been to war where he was almost killed. He has returned alive but it’s a small mercy because he is badly mutilated.
The young woman asks him where are his eyes, his arms, his legs … it paints an horrific picture.
You’re an eyeless, noseless, chickenless egg
The grotesque imagery of lines like “you’re an eyeless, noseless, chickenless egg” were deliberately meant to shock.
They served as an anti-dote to the kind of rosy picture of military of military life painted by recruiting sergeants who toured Ireland and the UK trying to persuade young men to enlist into the British Army.
Naturally, the recruiters said nothing about the dangers young soldiers would face.
You’ll have to be put with a bowl to beg
As if the soldier’s injuries aren’t bad enough, he now faces a life of poverty and destitution.
The Army did little to care for soldiers injured in its wars. They were effectively left to fend for themselves and many, like Johnny in this song, had no other option but to be “put with a bowl to beg”.
Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya – the girl’s lament
The refrain, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya, adds to the sense of loss and tragedy contained in the song.
Johnny and the girl had only just got together. They may have a child together but they have hardly had time to settle down and really get to know each other. Now all their options for a normal life have been closed down because of Johnny’s injuries.
Though from my heart you took leg-bail
The girl refers to Johnny as a taking leg-bail from her. A leg-bail was a runaway. It originated as a military phrase meaning a deserter from the army.
In this case, it’s ironic that Johnny did the opposite of running away from the army. Instead, he took leg-bail from his girl by leaving her and running away to fight in a war.
The implied suddenness of Johnny’s departure, and suggests that like thousands of others, he may have been lured into the army by recruiting sergeants offering money, and tales of glory and adventure.
They will never take our sons again
The song ends with reference to the guns being rolled out again as the army prepares for yet another war.
This time the girl makes a vow to Johnny that they will “never take our sons again” – echoing the sentiments of families all across Ireland and no doubt all across the world.
It is, of course, a heartfelt promise but it is ultimately an empty promise because the same story has been played out in numerous wars since the song first appeared in the 19th century. It is still being played out today.
Song strikes a chord with successive generations
That is perhaps one of the reasons that Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya has remained popular throughout the last 150 years. It remains popular today, striking a chord with every new generation. Most recently the song has been recorded by younger artists including The Dropkick Murphys and The Tossers.
Despite the song’s enduring appeal, it’s not known who wrote either the melody or the lyrics.
Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya has the same tune as the American Civil War song, When Johhny Comes Marching Home. But which came first?
We explore the evidence in our article on When Johnny Comes Marching Home.