The Minstrel Boy ranks alongside Danny Boy as one of the most internationally celebrated and widely recorded Irish songs of all time.
Its popularity is based on its sublime and stirring melody, and on the way it evokes a sense of selfless devotion to one’s country.
The country, of course, is Ireland, but the song has also become an anthem for patriotism in other countries, particularly in America where it has been adopted by several army regiments, police departments and fire services.
Thomas Moore and Irish nationalism
The Minstrel Boy was written by Thomas Moore, one of Ireland’s greatest writers.
Moore had been a student at Trinity College Dublin where he rubbed shoulders with many idealistic young Irish nationalists. He became friends with Robert Emmett, who led a rebellion against British rule in 1803.
Moore supported Irish nationalism but he was not an activist or a rebel himself. He was a writer who felt his contribution to the cause should be through his poems and songs.
The Minstrel Boy is probably the best and certainly his most well known song in support of Irish nationalism.
Minstrel Boy popular during American Civil War
Thousands of Irishmen emigrated to the United States following the Famine of the 1840s.
They brought their music and culture with them. The Minstrel Boy, with its stirring melody and its lyrics expressing devotion to freedom and one’s country, quickly became popular with the American people, many of whom still resented the power of the British Empire.
The Minstrel Boy was taken up by soldiers fighting on both sides of the American Civil War. It remained popular in the First and Second World wars and it is still played today. It even featured at the end of the film, Black Hawk Down.
It has also become something of an anthem for many police and fire departments. The melody is still sometimes played at the funerals of officers killed while on duty.
Minstrel Boy set to old Irish melody The Moreen
The Minstrel Boy is set to an old Irish folk tune called The Moreen. Its origins are unknown.
Moore first published The Minstrel Boy in his collection of songs and poems called Irish Melodies. The collection was hugely popular and made a lot of money for Moore.
There were many other fine songs in the collection, but it was The Minstrel Boy that went on to capture people’s imaginations all over the world and it’s still the song for which Moore is best known today.
John McCormack and recordings of the Minstrel Boy
The Minstrel Boy started to be recorded almost as soon as the technology became widely available in the early 20th century. The Irish tenor John McCormack recorded it early in his career and helped to make the song popular across the world.
McCormack was so closely associated with the song that he was sometimes referred to as the Minstrel Boy or the Irish Minstrel.
Since McCormack, the song has been recorded by thousands of artists from widely diverse backgrounds and musical styles. These include people like Paul Robeson, Tommy Makem, The Corrs and Shane MacGowan.
The Minstrel Boy on TV and in film
The Minstrel Boy has been used in numerous films and television programmes including Star Trek, The Man Who Would Be King, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Profiles in Courage – an American TV series based on the book by President Kennedy.
The most high profile use was perhaps in Black Hawk Down, the film about the crash of an American military helicopter in Mogadishu in Somalia. The Minstrel Boy, performed by British punk rock singer Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros, is played over the closing titles.
That recording sparked a new interest in the song among young people who had never heard it before.
The Minstrel Boy strikes a chord with people all over the world and, with new recordings being made every year by new generations of performers, its popularity looks set to continue.