“Foggy Dew” by The Chieftains and Easter Rising of 1916

It has been a little while, but now I’m back with some cool information about a historical event I randomly decided to do research on because of my intrigue in a particular song. As usual, I have stumbled on some information I found interesting enough to write about and share on my blog. I didn’t plan on it, but I will be boasting a whopping 2 posts to show for the year 2021! Sometimes I forget I have a blog, but it comes in handy when I want to post something on Twitter and then realize I want to write more than Twitter recommends. So here we are.

This time, it’s the song “Foggy Dew” by The Chieftains and the historical event that inspired the penning of the lyrics.

Who are The Chieftains?

The Chieftains are a traditional Irish band that started in Dublin in 1962, winner of 6 Grammy awards and performing across many different cultural events. The musical group was at the forefront of the revival of traditional Irish music as they helped to popularize Irish music worldwide, and were honored by the Irish government as “Ireland’s Musical Ambassadors.”

I grew up listening to The Chieftains. Listening to their album “The Wide World Over” on repeat during family car trips initiated my interest in Irish music in general and a couple years of Irish dancing also helped increase my love for the obscure and underrated music genre. As a kid, their song “Foggy Dew” wasn’t a favorite, but listening to it recently, I realized how emotional the ballad is with an ironic mix of themes of war and loss and hope. Not only that, but in my decision to break down the lyrics, I learned that it is a very political, nationalist song written in the wake of a historical event that I was never even aware of.

The song “Foggy Dew”

Written by Canon Charles O’Neill, a parish priest of County Down in Ireland, “Foggy Dew” is his recount of the events of the Easter Rising. Though the song was written about an event in Irish history where the Irish lost in their battle against the repression by the British, and therefore holds the bittersweet feeling of a war lament, it is also, as Scott Regan calls it in his analysis of the song, a “reveille”––French for “wake up,” associated with a bugle call or pipes and drums to alert military troops during war. There have been many, many different recordings and versions of this Irish war ballad, but it is reasonable to conclude that The Chieftains’ 1995 version of the song is the best. Before we dive into the history behind the song, I present the lyrics:

As down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I
There armed lines of marching men in squadrons passed me by
No pipes did hum, no battle drum did sound its loud tattoo
But the Angelus Bell o'er the Liffey's swell rang out in the foggy dew

Right proudly high over Dublin Town they hung out the flag of war
'Twas better to die 'neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud-El-Bar
And from the plains of Royal Meath strong men came hurrying through
While Britannia's Huns, with their long range guns sailed in through the foggy dew

'Twas England bade our wild geese go, that small nations might be free
Their lonely graves are by Suvla's waves or the fringe of the great North Sea
Oh, had they died by Pearse's side or fought with Cathal Brugha
Their names we'd keep where the Fenians sleep, 'neath the shroud of the foggy dew

Oh the bravest fell, and the Requiem bell rang mournfully and clear
For those who died that Eastertide in the spring time of the year
While the world did gaze, in deep amaze, at those fearless men, but few
Who bore the fight that freedom's light might shine through the foggy dew

Back through the glen I rode again, my heart with grief was sore
For I parted with those valiant men that I'll never see more
But to and fro in my dreams I go and I kneel and pray for you
For slavery fled, O glorious dead, when you fell in the foggy dew

Going by the lyrics alone, without knowledge of the history behind it, we know that the song was written in lament over the soldiers who died––soldiers who gave their lives for freedom and, though they died, that spirit of and hope for freedom lived on to ignite the flame for the Irish War of Independence later on. Take the very last verse in the song, and the irony in the choice of words: “For slavery fled, O glorious dead, when you fell in the foggy dew.”

Not only that, but if you listen to the song, you’ll feel that bittersweet victory in freedom, achieved by the loss of the Irish against the British in the musical composition. The instruments used and the style of the ballad recommends itself to the height of quality characteristic of a major film soundtrack––which is honestly probably why I started listening to it on repeat in the first place.

What was the Easter Rising of 1916?

It began on Easter Monday, April 24th.

The first thing I learned about the Irish in 1916 was that 200K of them were fighting alongside the British in World War I. But what you may not have learned in your American history books is that the Irish and British were fighting their own battle during, yet apart, from the events of WWI. Though the Irish lost the Easter Rising, the battle served as a catalyst for the events of the war of independence soon afterwards, as is clear in the lyrics from “Foggy Dew.” The Irish rebels purposely chose this time to rise up; England had been ruling Ireland for 800 years prior to the Easter Rising (The Act of Union in 1800 merged the two nations to become the United Kingdom of Great Britian and Ireland), and as soon as England was involved in the first world war, Ireland decided to go to war against the British government for their freedom. The insurrection was planned by a few members of Irish Republican Brotherhood (or the Irish Volunteers) who declared their intent to launch the Irish Republic. They took up arms and fortified the city of Dublin as British troops entered to snuff out the spark for freedom.

Interestingly enough, these Irish insurrectionists hoped that the German military would come to their aid, but not even their people of the Irish public supported the rebellion (until later in 1920 during the Irish War of Independence which finally did lead to freedom and the republic in 1949). This makes sense as 200K Irish soldiers joined forces with Britian in WWI, and 140K of these troops were volunteers. Yet the lyrics “‘Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud-El-Bar” points to how the rebels would rather die fighting for their own country’s independence than in a far off country for the crown of Great Britian in the world war.

In the battle of the Easter Rising, 1250 Irish rebels rose up against 16,000 British troops. The battle lasted only a week. “Foggy Dew” is a political song, both a war lament and a call to arms. It reminisces on the events of the Easter Rising––not just a failed military disaster, but also as the beginning of a hope for the future of Ireland’s freedom and inception of the independent Irish Republic. “Foggy Dew” is also a tribute to those fallen; The leaders of the Easter Rising were aware of the overwhelming potentiality of their demise, yet they carried on in the spirit of liberation and for the future wellbeing of their nation past their own deaths, “who bore the fight that freedom’s light might shine through the foggy dew.”

If you’d like to learn more about this song and the historic events that inspired O’Neill to write the war ballad, check out these links I used as references:

Analysis of “Foggy Dew”

How 800 Years of British Rule Led to Irish Rebellion

Ireland the First World War

Easter Rising : Brittanica

As doing my research on The Chieftains, I stumbled on the news that Paddy Moloney, the piper for The Chieftains, died at age 83 not even a month ago this past October 2021. I did not plan for this post to be a tribute to this legendary musician, but as he was the front of the band and helped lead the Irish musical renaissance, I find it fitting to mention it here.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, appreciated a new favorite song, and learned something new about Irish history. Feel free to leave a comment and share!


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