"The Minstrel Boy" is an Irish patriotic song written by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) who set it to the melody of The Moreen, an old Irish air. It is widely believed that Moore composed the song in remembrance of a number of his friends, whom he met while studying at Trinity College, Dublin and who had participated in (and were killed during) the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
The song gained widespread popularity and became a favourite of many Irishmen who fought during the American Civil War and gained even more popularity after World War I. The song is notably associated with organisations that historically had a heavy representation of Irish-Americans, in particular the police and fire departments of New York, Boston and Chicago and those of various other major US metropolitan areas, even after those organisations have ceased to have a substantial over-representation of personnel of Irish ancestry. The melody is frequently played at funerals of members and/or officers of such organisations who have died or been killed in service, typically on bagpipes. Unsurprisingly, given its lyrics, it is also associated with the Irish Army and with traditionally Irish regiments in the British, United States and other armies.
The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you'll find him;
His father's sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
"Land of Song!" said the warrior bard,
"Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!"
The Minstrel fell! But the foeman's chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne'er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said "No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!"
A concentrated, single verse version exists:
The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death ye may find him;
His father's sword he hath girded on,
With his wild harp slung along behind him;
Land of Song, the lays of the warrior bard,
May some day sound for thee,
But his harp belongs to the brave and free
And shall never sound in slavery!"
During the American Civil War a third verse was written by an unknown author, and is sometimes included in renditions of the song:
The Minstrel Boy will return we pray
When we hear the news we all will cheer it,
The minstrel boy will return one day,
Torn perhaps in body, not in spirit.
Then may he play on his harp in peace,
In a world such as heaven intended,
For all the bitterness of man must cease,
And ev'ry battle must be ended.
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The song's popularity was substantially enhanced in the early 20th century by performances and recordings by John McCormack (1884–1945) a world-famous Irish tenor in the fields of opera and popular music – who performed successfully in many major live venues in the United States and Europe. McCormack was occasionally referred to as the "Minstrel Boy," (or alternately the Irish Minstrel) and this title has been applied to collections of his recordings.
At the funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in London on April 9, 2002, the Pipes and Drums of the Irish and Scottish Regiments played The Minstrel Boy during the procession from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey. The Queen Mother had a long association with the men of the Irish Regiment, and presented them with a shamrock every year on St Patrick's Day.
The tune is a standard of the Fort Henry Guard Drums, arranged for fife and drum in four part harmony by a past Drum Major. This particular arrangement has been very well received.
In the Sam Peckinpah film Major Dundee (1965), the song is briefly sung by Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris) as he teaches it to a young boy. It is also played instrumentally throughout the movie's soundtrack.
The song, including a choral version in a spiritual style forms much of the theme of the PBS documentary "For Love of Liberty: the story of America's Black Patriots" which chronicles the history of Black troops in the US military from the revolutionary period to the present.
The song appears in both the opening and closing credits of the Sarah Palin biography "The Undefeated" and is sung by the performer Amanda.
The first two lines of the song are quoted by the character Lechmere in Benjamin Britten's pacifist opera 'Owen Wingrave' (1971, commissioned for BBC TV), as he is singing the glories of war.
An instrumental version of the song is used as recurrent background music in the Korean television drama series Pasta.
The song is used on an episode of TV show "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" (Nov. 1964) called "Long Live the King." Carroll O'Connor as "Old Jim" plays it on the penny whistle and sings it to help inspire a young boy who is inheriting a throne.
A part of the song is sung at the end of the episode "Kupu'eu" (Fallen Hero) of the TV series Hawaii Five-O, which aired 25 October 2013 on CBS. It was sung after the funeral of Billy Harrington, a retired Navy Seal.
The song is played on the bagpipes during the ceremony attended by Captain Cragen during the season 1 episode "The Blue Wall" of "Law & Order" in June 1991