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Mrs McGrath / My Son John / My Son Tim

[ Roud 678 ; Henry H131 ; Ballad Index MA126 ; VWML FS/S335869 ; trad.]

Garners Gay Sam Henry's Songs of the People The Cruel Wars

Seamus Ennis sang Mrs McGrath, probably in the BBC recording made by Alan Lomax on 21 September 1949, on the 1955 Columbia anthology The World Library of Folk and Primitive Music: Ireland. The words are from Colm Ó Lochlainn (ed.), Irish Street Ballads (Dublin 1939). The album's booklet noted:

This ballad is a bitter comment on the wars against Napoleon. Then, as now, the chief export of Ireland was its young men, who had to starve at home or become soldiers of fortune. The recruiting sergeant was a dreaded figure in those days, for if you accepted his shilling for a drink, you could be legally pressed into the army.

Timothy Walsh of Devonport, Devon sang My Son Tim in a BBC recording made by Cyril Tawney on the anthology A Soldier’s Life for Me (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 8; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970). The album's notes commented:

This powerful anti-war piece exists in many variants—all of them striking and memorable. It dates from the Napoleonic wars when thousands of young Irishmen became cannon fodder in the long struggle between the English and the French. It is best known as Mrs McGrath. Around the time of World War I, it was the most popular marching song of the Irish Volunteers.

Tim Hart and Maddy Prior recorded this song as My Son John in 1969 for their second duo album Folk Songs of Old England Vol. 2. They noted:

Fred Hamer collected this song in Bedfordshire from the singing of David Parrott [VWML FS/S335869] [Garners Gay]. A father and his disabled son are before a naval surgeon who is trying to cheat him of his disablement pension by claiming that he was careless to stand in the way of the cannon ball which shot his legs off.

Legend (Colin Pearson and Ingrid and Barry Temple) sang My Son John on Northumberland's Blagdon Arms Folk Club's 1977 album Once a Week's Enough.

Sean Doyle sang Mrs McGrath on his 2004 CD The Light and the Half-Light. He noted:

This is undoubtedly a Dublin song. Colm Ó Lochlainn says that it was a favourite marching song of the Irish Volunteers in the years prior to 1916.

John C. Reilly sang My Son John on the 2006 anthology of pirate ballads, sea songs and chanteys, Rogue's Gallery.

Wheeler Street sang My Son John on their 2009 album Roodumdah.

Martin Carthy sang My Son John with updated lyrics in 2010 on The Imagined Village's second CD, Empire and Love. This video shows them at Bridport Arts Centre, Bridport UK:

He also sang it live at Freeland Barbour and Friends concerts in 2015/16. They were recorded and published on the 2016 Greentrax album The Music and the Land.

A recording of Gigspanner playing Mrs McGrath on their May 2010 UK tour was released in the same year on their live album Doors at Eight.

The Jones Boys sang My Son John on their 2010 album Like the Sun A-Glittering. Gordon Jackson noted on their website:

My Son John is a variant of the longer and better known Mrs McGrath—“Mrs McGrath,” the sergeant said, “would you like to make a soldier of your son, Ted?”—although how Ted changed his name to John is something of a mystery!

Also a puzzle is how “he had a leg for every limb”. This line only occurs in My Son John. I can only think that John was so powerful his arms looked like legs! If anyone has another explanation, I’d love to hear it.

Mrs McGrath can be found in Colm Ó Lochlainn’s Irish Street Ballads, first published in 1939. I first heard My Son John on the LP Folk Songs of Old England by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior (1969).

The songs tell the story of a young Irishman who joined the British Army to fight in the Peninsular War against the forces of Napoleon, and who returned home having lost both his legs.

It seems likely that the songs relate to the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro (3-5 May, 1811). It’s possible that John/Ted was a soldier in the Connaught Rangers (the 88th Regiment of Foot, also known as “The Devil’s Own”). The battle took place in a village on the Spanish side of the border with Portugal. It was a hell on Earth:

The whole village became a holocaust of vomiting muskets, stabbing bayonets, violent explosions, shrieking struggling soldiers. Yard by yard the Scots and Irishmen punched their way over the corpses and reached the river; over the red and greasy water went the grappling men and on to the French bank.
(Roger Parkinson, The Peninsular War, 1973).

Jon Boden sang My Son John as the 27 January 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He noted in the blog:

I seem to recall that my folk-hating school friends became rather attached to this particular song. I’m not entirely sure why but there’s something slightly Monty Python about the wording and perhaps that’s the appeal. It’s a strange combination of jollity and social comment.

Andy Turner learned My Son John from Fred Hamer's book Garners Gay and sang it as the 18 November 2012 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

The Teacups sang My Son John in 2015 on their Haystack album Of Labour and Love.

Joshua Burnell sang Mrs McGrath on his 2018 album Songs from the Seasons.

Lyrics

Seamus Ennis sings Mrs McGrath

“O Mrs. McGrath,” the sergeant said,
“Would you like to make a soldier out of your son Ted?
With a new fur coat and a big cocked hat,
Now Mrs. McGrath, wouldn't you like that?”

Chorus (after each verse):
With a-too-ri-ah, fol-le-diddle-ah
Too-ri u-ri u-ri-ah
With a-too-ri-ah, fol-le-diddle-ah
Too-ri u-ri u-ri-ah
Lov-bin the cracker-o

“O captain dear, where have you been,
Or have been sailin’ on the Medi-te-reen?
Or have you any tidings of my song Ted,
Is the poor boy living or is he dead?”

Now then up comes Ted without any legs,
And in their stead he has two wooden pegs,
She kissed him a dozen times or two,
Sayin, “Holy Moses! It isn't you!”

“O then were you drunk or were you blind,
That you left your two fine legs behind?
Or was it the walking on the sea
Wore your two fine legs from the knees away?”

“All foreign wars I do proclaim,
Between Don John and the King of Spain,
And by heavens I'll make them rue the time,
When they swiped the legs of a child of mine!”

Timothy Walsh sings My Son Tim

O my son Tim was a bosun's mate
He could whistle but he never ran a rate,
When the thoughts of his mother came into his head,
You couldn't understand one word he said, —
    With your too-ri-ra, whack fol-the-da,
    Whack fol-the-doodle, fol-the-di-do

“Ah, were you lame or were you blind
When you left your two fine legs behind?
An', o, Mahone, you were a silly youth
That you didn't run away from the Frenchman's shoot.”

“I was not drunk or neither blind
When I left my two fine pins behind,
When up came a bloody great cannon-ball,
Shot away me sea-boots, oilskins and all.”

“And now I'll cross the raging main
To the King of France and the Queen of Spain,
And I'll make them rue the time
That they shot away the legs of a child of mine.”

Tim Hart and Maddy Prior sing My Son John

My son John was tall and slim
And he had a leg for every limb.
But now he's got no legs at all,
For he run a race with a cannonball.
    With my rue dum dah, fol de riddle dah
   Whack fol de riddle with my rue dum dah

“O were you deaf, were you blind
When you left your two fine legs behind?
Or was it sailing on the sea
With your two fine legs right down to the knee?”

“I was not deaf, I was not blind
When I left my two fine legs behind,
Nor was it sailing on the sea
With my two fine legs right down to the knee.

“For I was tall, I was slim,
I had a leg for every limb,
But now I've got no legs at all,
They were both shot away by a cannonball.”

Martin Carthy sings My Son John

My son John was tall and slim
He had a leg for every limb.
But now he's got no legs at all
'Cause he ran a race with a cannonball, a cannonball,
He ran a race with a cannonball.

Jack the lad, he went off to war,
He waved bye-bye as he ran out the door.
Says, Bye bye John when I see you again,
You'll be back from Iraq, from Afghanistan, from the Taliban,
You'll be back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

I sat down, down on the shore,
For the space of seven long years or more
Till a big transport come across the sky,
I shouted aloud, Will you clear the way, clear the way.
I shouted aloud, Will you clear the way.

I shouted aloud till the Captain said,
Are you here with the living, are you back with the dead?
Do you see anything of my son John?
Is the boy living or is he gone, is he gone?
Is the poor boy living or is he gone?

Up comes John and he's got no legs,
Got carbon fibre blades instead.
She smiled, she kissed him over the [lore?],
Bet you run quicker than you did before, you did before.
Bet you run quicker than you did before.

O were you deaf, were you blind,
When you left your own two legs behind?
Or did you go walking upon the sea,
To shrink your two legs down to the knee, down to the knee.
To shrink your two legs down to the knee?

No I wasn't deaf, I was not blind,
When I left my own two legs behind.
But a thundering landmine jumped in the way,
Wore these legs right down to the knee, down to the knee,
Wore these legs right down to the knee.

I was tall, I was slim,
I had a leg for every limb.
The chicken-ox come knocking at the door,
Cruel Britannia call for war, she calls for war
Cruel Britannia call for war.

Cruel Britannia call for war,
When all those chicken-ox stood at the door.
So cluster bombs [liked you to call?],
You better stay away from the harvest home, the harvest home,
You better stay away from the harvest home.

My son John was tall and slim
He had a leg for every limb.
But now he's got no legs at all
'Cause he ran a race with a cannon ball, a cannon ball,
He ran a race with a cannon ball.