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The Croppy Boy

[ Roud 1030 ; Master title: The Croppy Boy ; Laws J14 ; Ballad Index LJ14 ; MusTrad MT149 ; Bodleian Roud 1030 ; Wiltshire 566 ; DT CROPPIE2 , CROPPIE3 ; Mudcat 569 ; trad.]

Ted and Bet Porter sang The Croppy Boy in The Three Cups, Punnetts Town, in 1965. This recording by Brian Matthews was included in 2001 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs from Sussex county pubs, Just Another Saturday Night. Rod Stradling noted in the accompanying booklet:

Obviously an Irish song, and of Roud’s 78 entries only four are from England—George Gardiner heard it from a Mrs Munday in Axford, Hants in 1907, Shepherd Haden and Charlie Tanner sang it in Bampton, Oxon, to Cecil Sharp and Alfred Williams respectively, and Henry Burstow knew it in Sussex. A surprisingly small number, given that it was in the catalogues of numerous English broadside printers.

The Croppies were the insurgents of the Irish 1798 rebellion. Most authorities agree that the name derives from the cropped haircuts which they wore, modelled on those of French revolutionaries. Although not an authoritative source, Galvin’s Irish Songs of Resistance offers a number of alternative explanations, saying that it refers to the pitch cap torture which was applied to rebels (the British army used to fasten a cap filled with pitch and gunpowder to the rebel’s head and set fire to it. It’s where the word kybosh, meaning ‘cap of death’ derives from. Also to an ancient Gaelic style of haircut (unlikely), and to the fact that felons in Ireland were frequently punished by having their ears cropped.

There are two songs called The Croppy Boy, both of which derive from ’98. The more literary of the two was written by one Carroll Malone, and concerns a Croppy who seeks confession from a priest, only to find that the ‘priest’ is an yeoman officer in disguise. The one we are concerned with, however, is a street ballad which predates it and is much less literary in style. It seems to connect with the Child ballad The Maid Freed from the Gallows, and with the Ulster song The Streets of Derry. All three are progressive execution songs with rejection by the family as a significant motif. However, in the case of The Croppy Boy, no sweetheart appears to save him … though the Porters’ third verse might hint at his sister taking this role. This motif is also present in the British Army song McCaffery—the tune of which is one of the two usually associated, as here, with The Croppy Boy.

Despite having been extensively anthologised, we can’t find much evidence for it being widely sung in Ireland while collectors were active. P.W. Joyce in Old Irish Folk Music and Songs (1909) says “This song was a great favourite in the southern and south-eastern counties: and I have known both air and words since childhood.” On the strength of this, it looks as though the song may have declined in popularity during the twentieth century. Of the nine previously-known sound recordings, three are from Canada, one is from the USA, and only Nellie Walsh of Wexford, Elizabeth Cronin and Brigid Tunney have been recorded singing it in Ireland. This is surprising, since the song bears all the hallmarks of a ‘folk’ creation, unlike many ’98 songs—and one might expect the young man’s plight to hold a strong appeal among ordinary people.

The present recording is the only known one from England. Why The Croppy Boy should end up being sung by English gypsies is another question entirely. However, Irish rebel songs seem fairly popular among English travellers—perhaps they are songs which they just happen to ‘know’ from contact with Irish travellers, and perhaps they see in them something which equates with their own position. If you’re in the market for a song of alienation, The Croppy Boy would be an obvious contender.

Nic Jones sang The Croppy Boy to the tune of Lord Franklin in 1967 on the Halliard’s first album, It’s the Irish in Me. Dave Moran reminisced in the notes of the album’s 2011 reissue:

We enjoyed making this LP for the experience, and in the expectation of then doing our broadside songs. Maybe this last track was Nic looking to that next recording, because I think our freer rhythmic delivery in beginning to pop out in this song, and it makes for a very good version of a very good song by a very good singer.

Louis Killen learned The Croppy Boy from his father, Frank Killen, and sang it in 1993 on his CD A Bonny Bunch. He commented:

There is no humour in The Croppy Boy. Betrayal, both personal and of country, runs strungly in the songs of the ’98 rebellion.


Patrick Galvin’s The Croppy Boy

It was early, early in the Spring
The birds did whistle and sweetly sing
Changing their notes from tree to tree
And the song they sang was Old Ireland free.

It was early, early in the night
The yeoman cavalry gave me a fright
The yeoman cavalry was my downfall
And I was taken by Lord Cornwall.

’Twas in the guard-house where I was laid
And in a parlour where I was tried
My sentence passed and my courage low
When to Dungannon I was forced to go.

As I was passing my father’s door
My brother William stood at the door
My aged father stood at the door
And my tender mother her hair she tore.

As I was going up Wexford Street
My own first cousin I chanced to meet
My own first cousin did me betray
And for one bare guinea swore my life away.

As I was walking up Wexford Hill
Who could blame me to cry my fill?
I looked behind and I looked before
But my aged mother I shall ne’er see more.

As I was mounted on the platform high
My aged father was standing by
My aged father did me deny
And the name he gave me was ‘The Croppy Boy’.

It was in Dungannon this young man died
And in Dungannon his body lies
And you good people that do pass by
Oh shed a tear for the Croppy Boy.

Ted and Bet Porter sing The Croppy Boy

(’Twas) early, early in the Spring,
The birds did whistle and sweet-lie sing.
They changed their notes from tree to tree
And the song they sang was Old Ireland Free.

It was very early in the night,
The yeoman calvery did me ’fright.
The yeoman calv’ry was my downfall,
Takèd I was by Lord Cornwall.

My sister Mary heared distress,
She ran upstairs in her morning dress.
Five hundred guineas I will lay down
To see my brother through Wexford town.

As I was mounted on that scaffold high,
My agèd father he stood close by.
My agèd father did me deny
And the name he gave me was ‘The Croppy Boy’.