Historic America

Civil War Ballads: Paddy’s Lamentation

I first heard this song in the movie Gangs of New York (2002). It’s played during a great scene where Irish immigrants are recruited into the Union Army as they come off the boat. One asks, “Where’re we going?” The man behind him replies, “I heard Tennessee.” “Where’s that?” As they walk onto the cargo ship in uniform, coffins are being lowered into a line on the dock. That probably never happened because it would devastate morale, but it creates a stirring visual. From what I can gather, the song is popular in Canada and is considered an Irish-Canadian folk song. It may date from 1870 or 1880.

Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher, commanded the Union “Irish Brigade”

Well it’s by the hush, me boys, and sure that’s to hold your noise
And listen to poor Paddy’s sad narration
I was by hunger pressed, and in poverty distressed
So I took a thought I’d leave the Irish nation

Here’s to you boys, now take my advice
To America I’ll have ye’s not be going
There is nothing here but war, where the murderin’ cannons roar
And I wish I was at home in dear old Dublin

Well I sold me ass and cow, my little pigs and sow
My little plot of land I soon did part with
And me sweetheart Bid McGee, I’m afraid I’ll never see
For I left her there that morning brokenhearted

Well meself and a hundred more, to America sailed o’er
Our fortunes to be made [sic] we were thinkin’
When we got to Yankee land, they shoved a gun into our hands
Saying “Paddy, you must go and fight for Lincoln”

General Meagher to us he said, if you get shot or lose your head
Every murdered soul of youse will get a pension
Well meself I lost me leg, they gave me a wooden peg,
And by God this is the truth to you I mention

Well I think meself in luck, if I get fed on Indian buck
And old Ireland is the country I delight in
With the devil, I do say, it’s curse Americay
For I think I’ve had enough of your hard fightin’

This folk song is also known as “By The Hush,” with the following lyrics. Notice only slight variation (Erin instead of Ireland, Biddy McGhee instead of Bid McGee, horse and plough instead of ass and cow). I think this is the earlier version. By the hush is an English corruption of the Gaelic Bí i do thost, meaning “be quiet.”

It’s by the hush, me boys,
I’m sure that’s to hold your noise,
And listen now to Paddy’s lamentation.
For I was by hunger pressed,
And in poverty distressed,
And I took a mind to leave the Irish nation.

Regimental flag of the 69th NY Infantry

So, here’s you boys, and do take my advice;
To America I’d have you not be goin’.
For there’s nothing here but war,
Where the murd’ring cannons roar,
And I wish I were at home in dear old Erin.

I sold me horse and plough,
Me little pigs and cow,
Me little farm of land and I parted.
And me sweetheart, Biddy McGhee,
I’m sure I’ll never see,
For I left her there that morning, broken hearted.

It was me and a hundred more,
To America sailed o ‘er,
Our fortune to be making, we were thinking;
But when we landed in Yankee land,
They shoved a gun into my hand,
Saying, “Paddy, you must go and fight for Lincoln.”

General Meagher to us said,
“If you get shot or lose your head,
Every murdered soul of you will have a pension.”
As for me, I lost me leg
All I’ve now is a wooden peg;
And boys, it is the truth to you I mention.

Now I’d thought meself in luck
To be fed upon Indian buck
In old Ireland, the country I delight in;
And with the devil I do say,
“You can curse Americay,”
For I’m sure I’ve had enough of their hard fighting.

It’s estimated between 175,000 and 200,830 Irish immigrants served during the American Civil War. The most famous of these units was the Irish Brigade, consisting of the 63rd New York Infantry, 69th New York Infantry, 28th Massachusetts Infantry, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry, and 88th New York Infantry regiments. It was first commanded by Colonel Michael Corcoran, then Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher (who is mentioned in the song), and finally Colonel Patrick Kelly. It experienced one of the highest casualty rates in the Civil War. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, its strength was reduced from roughly 1,600 men to 256.

Irish immigrants also fought for the Confederacy, though much fewer in number. A notable unit was the 24th Georgia Volunteer Infantry, which served in Brigadier General Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb’s brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia. Cobb was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg. In the movie Gods and Generals (2003), the 24th Georgia is shown fighting the Irish Brigade at Marye’s Heights. It suffered only 36 casualties. General Robert E. Lee ordered them to be replaced during the battle because he didn’t want them fighting their fellow Irishmen.

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