The song Mrs McGrath may be 200 years old but its theme and its appeal are timeless.
It’s an anti-war song in which a mother laments how her son lost both his legs in battle after being recruited into the British Army.
It’s been recorded by several major folk artists and in 2006, the American rock star Bruce Springsteen brought it to a whole new audience with his highly individual recording.
British Army recruited thousands of Irishmen
Ireland was a rich source of soldiers for the British Army throughout the 19th century.
As the lyrics to Mrs McGrath show, recruiting sergeants toured the country enlisting young Irishmen with the promise of money, adventure and fancy uniforms.
The recruiting sergeants were despised by the Irish who resented British rule.
Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of young men signed up because there was no other work available. Many of them went off to fight for a country whose rule they hated because it was either that or starve.
A scarlet coat and a big cocked hat
Naturally, the recruiting sergeants were at their busiest during times of war.
Mrs McGrath dates from the early 19th century and the time of the Peninsular War when Britain , Spain, Portugal and Napoleon’s France fought over the Iberian Penisula, covering the territories of modern day Spain and Portugal.
Mrs McGrath’s son Ted is sent off to fight in this war after being recruited into the British Army with the promise of “a scarlet coat and a big cocked hat”.
Why didn’t you run from the cannonball?
Ted is away at war for seven years and when he eventually returns, his mother’s delight turns to horror when she sees that his legs are missing, blown away by a cannonball.
Mrs McGrath’s anger turns to thoughts of revenge with the words, “I’ll make them rue the time, They took two legs from a child of mine.”
The anger and frustration is only to be expected, but part of the poignancy of the song is that Mrs McGrath’s threat is essentially meaningless.
There is nothing she can do, just as there was nothing that the thousands of other Irish mothers could do, and just as there is nothing that the millions of mothers all over the world can when their sons are called to war.
This is a theme Bruce Springsteen highlighted in his version of the song.
Mrs McGrath as marching song for Irish Volunteers
Mrs McGrath dates from the early 1800s and was first published as a broadside ballad in Dublin in 1815.
It was a popular marching song with the Irish Volunteers in the period leading up to the Easter Rising in 1916. It was also sung by Irish soldiers fighting on both sides of the American Civil War.
The song’s popularity as a marching song may explain why it is often performed in a bright and light-hearted way that seems to overlook the sense of tragedy in the story.