The Wind That Shakes the Barley explores a young man’s dilemma in deciding whether to stay safely with his true love or to go and fight for his country’s freedom in the 1798 Irish Rebellion.
It was written by the Irish doctor and professor, Robert Dwyer Joyce and published in his collection of songs, Ballads of Irish Chivalry in 1872. Like many other classic ’98 songs such as Boolavogue, Roddy McCorley and Kelly the Boy From Killane, it was written many years after the events it describes.
Barley evokes the sacrifice of the croppy boys
The reference to barley in the song has enormous historical significance. Many of the rebels involved in 1798 were referred to as croppy boys because of their short cropped hair.
They carried barley oats with them as food on long, tiring manoeuvres. When the rebellion failed, many croppy boys were executed and their bodies were dumped into mass graves. These graves were known as croppy pits or croppy holes.
Barley a symbol of Irish nationalism
For several years after the burials, local people reported seeing barley growing above the graves as the oats carried by the croppy boys began to sprout and flourish.The barley came to be seen as a symbol of the spirit of Irish nationalism which could not be buried and destroyed. It would always be reborn and come back stronger than ever before.
My sad heart strove between the two
The first verse of The Wind That Shakes the Barley begins by stating the young man’s dilemma.He is torn between the old love and the new.
The old love is his long established love for his girl; the new love is his newly awakened concern for his country. In the second verse he faces the choice head on.Though it is hard to break the ties with his lover, it is even harder to bear the fact that his country is enchained by a foreign power. He decides to join the United Irishmen, the rebel force involved in the 1798 Rebellion.
It might be asked why he feels the need to choose at all. Why not serve his country and remain with his lover. The answer is probably that it would be unsafe for her to be associated with a rebel. It would put her safety and even her life at risk.
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