The Minstrel Boy
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"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, typically on bagpipes, at funerals of members and/or officers of such organisations who have died or been killed in service. Unsurprisingly, given its lyrics, it is also associated with the Irish Army and with traditionally Irish regiments in the armies of the United Kingdom and the United States as well as other armies of the world.
The original lyrics are as follows:
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 that 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.
Notable performances and recordings
- 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.
- It has also been widely recorded by many non-Irish performers, ranging from Paul Robeson to The Holy Modal Rounders.
- The tune is played annually at the National Service of Remembrance on Remembrance Sunday, at The Cenotaph, Whitehall, in London.
- It features heavily in the soundtrack of the 1975 film The Man Who Would Be King, adapted from the Rudyard Kipling novella of the same title with masonic themes, but the lyrics are those of Reginald Heber's "The Son of God Goes Forth to War" from the Lutheran Songbook .
- The song is heard during the end credits of the film Black Hawk Down, performed by Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros. An 18-minute version of the song is featured as the final track on their album Global a Go-Go.
- Elements of the song are used in the final verse of Pretty Girl Why by the Buffalo Springfield on their final album Last Time Around.
- The song is performed by the Canadian band Enter the Haggis on their 2004 album, Casualties of Retail.
- Don Partridge recorded the song with acoustic guitar and solo vocals on the album "The Kerbside Entertainers" released 1971.
- The song is performed by The Clancy Brothers (sung by Liam Clancy) on their 1959 album, The Rising of the Moon.
- The song is covered by Shane MacGowan & The Popes on their album The Rare Oul' Stuff.
- An instrumental version of the song was recorded by The Corrs on their album Forgiven, Not Forgotten.
- Parts of the chorus are used in various songs, such as John McCutcheon's "Christmas in the Trenches" and in the World War I song, "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier".
- A short but very lushly orchestrated version (the first four bars) was used by Wally Stott (Angela Morley) in several of the link scores for The Goon Show
- A solo guitar arrangement of the tune, paired with The Ash Grove was recorded by Norman Blake on Whiskey Before Breakfast (1976).
- The tune is used in the Black 47 song "Downtown Baghdad Blues" on their album Elvis Murphy's Green Suede Shoes.
- The first verse is heard played by a solo trumpet as the opening to the track The Lion's Roar on the Trans-Siberian Orchestra album Night Castle.
- 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 three part harmony by Drum Major Thompson, FHG 1997. This particular arrangement has been very well received, and continues to regularly appear in the Drums' performances.
- The song was played at the grand opening of the World Trade Center Memorial on 11 September 2011; the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
- Noted singer/songwriter Pierce Pettis began prefacing live performances of his song "A Mountaineer is Always Free" with the two original verses of "The Minstrel Boy"
- The song was performed by Paul Kaye and Trond Fausa Aurvåg in the sixth episode of the third season of the TV-series Lilyhammer.
References in film and television
- The song's first verse was sung by the character Miles O'Brien (Colm Meaney) in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Wounded" (air date 28 January 1991). O'Brien later became a main character in The Next Generation's successor, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; the song's melody was used on several occasions in that series as a leitmotif for the character. A notable example is in the final episode "What You Leave Behind", in which it is heard when O'Brien is looking at his empty quarters and recalling his life aboard Deep Space 9.
- The melody of "The Minstrel Boy" is briefly heard at the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Hollow Pursuits" (air date 28 April 1990) when the character Reginald Barclay (Dwight Schultz) leaves the Hollodeck.
- The song is played by a lone piper preceding the cortege at the funeral of Bobby Sands in the Terry George film Some Mother's Son (1996).
- The song is also heard in the movie The Departed, during a graduation ceremony of police cadets.
- The song is played by the Camp Chase Fifes & Drums and Second Maryland Fifes & Drums in the film Gettysburg as General Winfield Scott Hancock watches the Irish Brigade receive Fr. Corby's blessing prior to the battle. Given the religious setting, it is possible that this is intended as the hymn "The Son of God Goes Forth to War," which uses the same music.
- The tune is incorporated into the score of the episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles episode "London, May 1916".
- A clip from this film was used in the show Warehouse 13 episode "Secret Santa"
- The song is used as G Troop's troop song in John Milius's TNT film, Rough Riders.
- The song is both sung and used in Max Steiner's score in John Ford's The Informer (1935).
- 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 appears in the film Breaker Morant.
- It was used as background music in the Ken Burns documentaries Lewis and Clark, The Civil War and Baseball.
- A version of the song, performed by Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros is heard during the closing credits of the film Black Hawk Down.
- 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.
- This song is featured in the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Squid on Strike". It is played in the background when Squidward initiates the strike.
- 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
- In the end of the 1975 film The Man Who Would Be King (based on Rudyard Kipling's novel of the same name), the character Daniel Dravot (portrayed by Sean Connery) sings it along while a horde of angry Kafiristans forces him to walk along a rope bridge before cutting it down, in order to execute him for posing as a god. First he sings on his own, but soon is joined by his friend Peachy Carnehan (portrayed by Michael Caine), who eventually, continues singing alone as Dravot falls. Though, the lyrics are those of Reginald Heber's "The Son of God Goes Forth to War".
- In "The Boys in the Band," a story from the DC Comics series "Fables," (#139, 140) the Minstrel Boy is one of several musicians who return to the Homelands and start life anew, after the Adversary's Empire is destroyed.