‘A Little Bit of Irish and a Wee Bit of Scotch’: Using a Four Nations Approach to Transnational Identity Studies

‘A Little Bit of Irish and a Wee Bit of Scotch’: Using a Four Nations Approach to Transnational Identity Studies

This week, Catherine Bateson (University of Edinburgh) argues for a Four Nations approach within a transnational framework to examine soldiers’ songs from the American Civil War to the First World War. 

If you had been wandering around the Union Army encampments of the war-torn United States in 1862, you would have heard the sounds of military life, including soldiers singing around campfires. Songs and music from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century British Isles are the unsung heroes of identity dissemination in Four Nations cultural history. Irish, Welsh, Scottish and in the case of the American colonies, original English-settler diasporas carried local, regional and national ethnic musical heritage traditions to new migrant homelands. The issue of individuals expressing their ethnic identities and nationalities is the underlining thread that pulls my research into Irish American Civil War songs and music together. While there is a danger of falling into the trap of simply pointing out particular moments and references to ethnic national differences solely for the sake of noting examples that are Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English without much distinct analysis, using Four Nations history as a methodological approach within a transnational history framework can provide a way of analysing how national identities were articulated.

One song heard around American wartime campfires was the aptly named “Songs of the Camp”, written by Bayard Taylor in 1862. Set to the tune of “The Girls We Left Behind Us” – a derivative of the eighteenth century Irish ballad “The Girl I Left Behind Me” – Taylor’s lyrics describe how soldiers guarding their position on the battlefield ‘grew weary of bombarding’ and shouted to their fellow companions on the front line to ‘give us a song!’ The soldiers ‘sang of love and not of fame…each heart recalled a different name, But all sang ‘Annie Laurie’ – a Scottish song from the 1830s with lyrics dating from the previous century. One of the song’s verses reveals an interesting insight into the ethnic background of the Union Army soldiers singing the song:

They lay along the battery’s side,

Below the smoking cannon –

Brave hearts from Severn and from Clyde,

And from the banks of the Shannon.[i]

The Severn, the Clyde and the Shannon – the rivers of Wales, Scotland and Ireland – nations that provided both American Union and Confederate armies with brave-hearted fighting men during the conflict.[ii]Taylor was as much a diplomat and travel writer as he was a poet and songwriter, who had toured the British Isles and Europe in the antebellum period, so it is likely he had seen these rivers and knew of their importance to the respective home nations.

The description of separate four nations regions in “Songs of the Camp” is noteworthy because when Celtic nations are mentioned in Civil War ballads, only one is usually referenced.[iii] In 1899, nearly thirty five years after the American Civil War ended, a similar rare multi-home nation reference appeared in a song by Myles McCarthy called “A Flower from Irish Soil”, which sang of how ‘flowers from England, from Scotland…Are emblems of honour and daring’; the chorus included reference to ‘a sprig of Irish shamrock green’.[iv]

Of course the First World War pulled together soldiers from the homeland four nations to a far greater extent than the American Civil War had done. Yet it is interesting to observe how the practice of songs drawing on the separate countries of the United Kingdom, similar to Taylor’s style in “Songs of the Camp”, continued into the twentieth century. The 1915 British wartime song “Ev’ry Tommy’s Got a Girl Somewhere” by Tony Lloyd and Bert Lee has a stylistic chorus which American soldiers some fifty years previously would have no doubt found familiar:

 Taffy’s got his Jennie in Glamorgan,

Sandy’s got his Maggie in Dundee,

While Michael O’Leary thinks of his dearie

Far across the Irish Sea.

Billy’s got his Lily up in London,

So the boys march on with smiles,

For every Tommy’s got a girl somewhere

In the dear old British Isles.

Aside from lyrical comparisons referencing specific areas of the four nations, this particular First World War song also had its own intriguing multiple identity transition that demonstrates how the ties of musical ethnic cultural heritage between Britain and the United States were still prevalent in the early twentieth century. The song was also sold in America under the title “Taffy’s got his Jennie in Glamorgan” and was popular thanks to its recognisable tune. It was set to “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! (The Prisoner’s Hope)”, an 1864 Civil War song and musical melody written by George F. Root. His American tune became the foundation for several Canadian songs written after failed Irish Fenian invasion attempts across the American-Canadian border in the late 1860s. The tune became very popular in Canada as a result, and also became the basis for pro-British military songs during the Boer War and anti-German songs during the First World War.

This American-originating song went on a reverse diasporic musical dissemination journey comparable to how migrants had transported songs and tunes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, travelling this time from America to the wider British Empire. The tune also adopted a separate Irish identity, as the nationalist T.D. Sullivan used “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!” as the tune for his anthemic hymn “God Save Ireland” in 1867.[v]Therefore just as lyrics about the four nations in American songs reflected dual identity expressions in the nineteenth century, musical tunes such as “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!”/“God Save Ireland”/“Taffy’s got his Jennie in Glamorgan” could be seen to have – particularly when using a wider Four Nations transnational approach – American/British/Irish/Irish American/Canadian/British Empire identities.

The lyrics of one post-First World War American song are pertinent here: ‘We need a little drop of Irish and a wee bit of Scotch, To keep the pep in dear old Yankee Land’.[vi]The 1919 song highlights the continual importance of Irish, Scottish and indeed Ulster-Scots heritage and descendents in American society. Its argument can be extended to the place of Four Nations history within a transnational framework. Transnational history, especially relating to ethnic identities and migrant homeland heritage cultural dissemination of Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English diasporas, needs ‘a little drop’ of a Four Nations approach, if only to emphasise that separate national ethnic identities were prevalent in nineteenth century contemporary societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Simultaneously however, Four Nations history also needs ‘a little drop’ of transnationalism, broadening its focus to include the wider British Empire and Commonwealth (past, present and current) as an extension of the home nations themselves.

From the stance of looking at the main nation territories beyond their mid-nineteenth century borders – in other words including Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English global diasporas as part of the home nations’ ethnic and cultural heritages – it is possible to explore how such identities were voiced in American songs from the Civil War era to the First World War. This example also provides a model for how a Four Nations approach can, in the case of ethnicity studies, work within transnational and diasporic frameworks, helping historians appreciate the contemporary identity understandings of those who gathered around campfires singing songs from the lands of their birth in their new national homeland.

[i]“Songs of the Camp”, Bayard Taylor, “The Camp Fire Songster” (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1862), 65.

[ii] The River Severn is listed here as a Welsh river on account of it rising in the Cambrian Mountains in Mid-Wales, though England can claim part of the river as its own.

[iii]The sole exception is when England is referenced in Irish American/Fenian songs that sing of Irishmen returning from America to fight for independence. In these examples ‘England’ appears more than ‘Britain’ as the main region of Irish opposition.

[iv]“A Flower of Irish Soil”, Myles McCarthy (1899). The song does not mention Wales, but does included France alongside England and Scotland.

[v] “Canadian Variations of a Civil War Song”, Midwest Folklore 13:2 (1962), 101-104.

[vi]“A Little Drop of Irish and a Wee Bit of Scotch”, Alfred Bryan & Harry Carroll, (1919).

Catherine Bateson is a second year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, funded by the AHRC. She researches the sentiments expressed in Irish songs from the American Civil War, evaluating how they formed part of an Irish American cultural diaspora. Catherine already feels she’s adopted a Four Nations approach to her doctorate as a Welsh student working on Irish transnational history at a Scottish university. You can follow her on Twitter @catbateson.

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