Frank Molloy, ‘Thomas Campbell’s “Exile of Erin”: English poem, Irish reactions’ [a paper submitted to Ricorso, c.2004]

 In an essay for The Nation entitled “Irish Music and Poetry”, Thomas Davis lamented what he regarded as an infiltration into Irish culture of second-rate English and European songs.1 We should not abandon our extensive musical repertoire, he argued, while admitting to a paucity of native lyrics which might compete with these imports. He explained, ‘there are in Bunting but two good sets of words - “The Bonny Cuckoo” and poor Campbell’s “Exile of Erin”.2 Davis did not elaborate on his choice of epithet for the Scottish poet. Why was Campbell considered ‘poor’? Presumably not for monetary reasons, and we might speculate that it was an acknowledgement of his misfortune at finding his poetic reputation attacked in Ireland at various times in the preceding twenty years. And all on account of that ballad, a literary ballad in an English tradition, yet one widely performed in Ireland, and judged as ‘the most beautiful of lyrics’,3 the “Exile of Erin”. Written in Germany two years after the 1798 rebellion, it evoked the heartache of exile, specifically the dilemma of a Dundalk organiser of the United Irishmen then living in Hamburg, who had been charged with high treason in Dublin and so unable to return to his native land.4 Following its performance in Ireland and Scotland, the song became more popular than its author could have dreamt of—or wished for—and retained its popularity down to Davis’s own time. The concern of this paper is to assess the reasons for its appeal as well as the progress of a controversy which arose indirectly as a result of the affection and esteem in which it was held for many years.

For the principal facts of the ballad’s composition we are indebted to a number of sources, especially William Beattie’s biography of the poet.5 Beattie sets out a detailed account of Campbell’s visit to Germany in 1800 to meet German writers and learn the language. The poet paused briefly in Hamburg in June, meeting Frederich Klapstock, and then journeyed southwards. However, his travels were interrupted by various engagements in the Franco-Austrian war, and he was forced north again to Hamburg by October. It was there that he composed the “Exile of Erin”, and Beattie quotes Campbell’s own recollections from the 1820s of the circumstances:

While tarrying at Hamburg I made acquaintance with some of the refugee Irishmen, who had been concerned in the rebellion of 1798. Among these was Anthony McCann—an honest, excellent man—who is, still I believe alive—at least I left him in prosperous circumstances at Altona (a suburb of Hamburg) a [1] few years ago. When I first knew him, he was in a situation much the reverse; but Anthony commanded respect whether he was rich or poor. It was in consequence of meeting him one evening on the banks of the Elbe, lonely and pensive at the thoughts of his situation, that I wrote the “Exile of Erin”.6

Other accounts do vary regarding details. Another biographer, Cyrus Redding, believed the poem was composed during Campbell’s first visit to Hamburg,7 and the Irish antiquarian, George Petrie, recalled hearing that Campbell had dined with a number of Irish exiles one night, and afterwards, being unable to sleep, sat at his table and wrote the ballad. It was shown to his dinner companions the next morning.8

Campbell sent the poem, along with others written in Germany, to James Perry, the editor of the London Morning Chronicle, and it was published on the 28 January 1801 with the following preface:

The meeting of the Imperial Parliament, we trust, will be distinguished by acts of mercy. The following most interesting and pathetic song, it is to be hoped, will induce them to extend their benevolence to those unfortunate men, whom delusion and error have doomed to exile, but who sigh for a return to their native homes.9

The poet, it is clear, sympathized with the individuals, not their politics, and after some months in their company, wanted to plead their case-unsuccessfully as it happened. This was, nevertheless, just one more occasional poem, and there is no evidence that he bestowed on it any special significance or further sought to promote it.10

However, its ‘publication’ was not restricted to a London newspaper. Another, more haphazard yet highly effective means of dissemination was under way in Ireland, even before it appeared in print. George Petrie understood that following the poet’s reading of the work to the Hamburg Irish, copies were made and sent to Ireland.11 Probably the words had already been set to music, to the traditional air “Savourneen Deelish”. It may even have been written with this air in mind. Combined with lyrics to which popular feeling responded, the song caught on. As was customary, it would be sung at gatherings-street corners, fairs, meetings of various kinds-and memorized by ballad singers who would already be familiar with the air.12 Thus it would spread from district to district throughout the country, existing in a very different discourse from that envisaged by the editor of a London newspaper. However, it also appeared in print in Ireland—initially as a broadside, and without any acknowledgement to Campbell. In 1824 Crofton Croker referred to ‘such poetical effusions [passing] into print, and in the shape of penny ballads obtain[ing] considerable circulation.’13 Later, its publication by  Edward Bunting in his Ancient Music of Ireland, the collection referred to above by Thomas Davis, was testimony to its appeal, and a further means of publicizing the lyrics and music.14

So why did this ballad prove such a perennial success? The attractiveness of the music, described by one commentator as ‘the national air of Ireland, par excellence, and the most plaintive of all its melodies’15, may well have been one reason, and one that is difficult now to comment on. However a ‘plaintive’ melody together with the lyrics were particularly apt for the times: the aftermath of a failed rebellion. As we can see,16 the predominant tone is elegiac and wistful. The exile is presented as a lonely figure, wandering along a deserted beach on a chilly evening. Once he may have sung ‘the bold anthem of Erin go bragh’,17 but now his disposition is one of sadness and sighing. As he reveals his thoughts, it is memories of family and friends which are foremost, with Campbell employing a conventional motif of the exile visiting familiar places in dreams which are denied to him in reality. There is a sentimental element here, emphasized by his apostrophes to ‘cruel fate’ and to his ‘sad heart’ which is resigned to being forever removed from the joys of the past. This mood does lift in the final stanza with the expression of more hopeful thoughts. As in similar Campbell poems of exile,18 the final thoughts turn away from despair, but it is difficult now to detect any revival of his political commitment. Rather, in a soft almost maudlin manner, he bestows a blessing on his native land while envisaging harp-striking bands singing ‘aloud with devotion: / Erin mavournin—Erin go bragh!’

Undoubtedly, Campbell was drawn to the pitiable condition of a particular refugee and did not perceive him as symbolic of any rebel political agenda. But he had no control over the reception of his verses in Ireland where, as William Allingham documented,19 ballads deemed political were readily associated with current events. In the late eighteenth century such ballads had incited the population to join radical groups, stirred up feelings of injustice and proclaimed that liberty was within reach. They became a potent method of disseminating the ideals of the middle class throughout the peasantry, and James Hope went so far as to claim that ballad singing ‘infects a whole country and makes [the people] half mad; they rejoice and forget their cares.’20 The impact of ballads led to many being composed. “The Shan Bhean Bocht” is a surviving example: it’s a rousing call to action and confidently declares that certainty of liberty through revolution typical of the 1790s. Optimism and defiance inevitably waned after 1798, and Campbell’s exile became an emblematic figure for that torpor which settled on the national psyche in the early decades of the nineteenth century. He can be seen as representative of the defeated: a lonely wanderer drifting aimlessly in a hostile environment, the morning of hope replaced by the evening of defeat, youthful promise by the sadness of experience. But even at the moment of lowest esteem—on a national as well as personal level—a glimmer of hope remained. So, the final stanza in particular could be seen to contain a political message. While a modern audience finds that tableau of a deathbed blessing on Ireland somewhat melodramatic, two hundred years ago the reception would be more positive. The expression of hope, together with the repeated assertion of the 1790s slogan “Erin go bragh!” with its exclamation mark suggesting a lusty delivery—would remind an audience that liberty was not forever beyond reach.

We must question Campbell’s judgement in including this slogan if he wanted to stress the personal rather than the political. Possibly he gave the issue little thought, and it is likely the poem was hurriedly composed, or he believed that art could be divorced from politics. Richard Madden, who knew him in later life, revealed the poet’s opinion that while rebel songs of the 1790s did contain references ‘to past sufferings or traits of heroic courage or mistaken patriotism, [they] had no application to our times, and what was censurable in them, […] had ceased to be mischievous’.21 This was indeed a naive view, given the political atmosphere throughout Britain and Ireland at this time, but perhaps these thoughts did influence the writing of the “Exile of Erin”. Certainly, its theme may be the sufferings of an individual, with ‘mistaken patriotism’ implied, but the sentiments in the final lines could be interpreted as ‘mischievous’, especially that cry, “Erin go bragh!”. In the early 1800s the repetition of this slogan, in a non-critical  manner, would give courage to many Irish described as ‘disaffected’22  people well aware of the pedigree of these three simple words. They had reverberated throughout the 1790s as an assertion of pride in nationhood. They were adopted as a motto of the United Irishmen, heard everywhere during the tumultuous events of 1798, and quoted in ballads of the time associated with defiance and resistance to British ‘tyranny’. While the “Exile of Erin” could not be construed as openly seditious, these three words carried a great deal of baggage, and many would think well of the exile for uttering them.

Campbell was not unaware that there were sentiments in the “Exile of Erin” which had popular appeal. On his return to Edinburgh in April 1801 he was surprised, and initially appalled, to hear the ballad being sung on the streets, and not by people who ever read the Morning Chronicle. He may however have known little about its reception in Ireland, and certainly nothing about a political environment which could result in his authorship of the work being questioned. Items began appearing in Irish newspapers asserting that the ballad had been composed by one George Nugent Reynolds, described as a gentleman of ‘poetical talents of considerable merits’23 Reynolds, a member of the gentry in Leitrim, had died in 1802 but a claim was made that his sister had a copy of the verses in his handwriting. The accusations were published in The Times on 17 June 1830, and Campbell was forced to respond. Charges of plagiarism were not unusual then or now—and often aroused public interest. Some years earlier, he had been accused of borrowing from Byron for his poem “The Last Man”.24 That matter had been aired for months in The Times and literary magazines. On this occasion, the accusations were totally without foundation, and Campbell based his case on the London publication of the poem in 1801, where he had been acknowledged as author, and on information relating to Reynolds. He established that in the fifteen months after publication, Reynolds had been in England, yet had made no claim to be the author or take up the issue with anyone.

Public opinion in England seemed to be satisfied, but not in some quarters in Ireland. The claim for Reynolds would surface from time to time, occasionally in print. One work, entitled Memoranda of Irish Matters by obscure men of good intentions, published in Dublin in 1844, contained an account of the “Exile of Erin” with the comment: ‘the fame of having produced this most beautiful of lyrics is restored to Ireland’.25 In the face of evidence to the contrary, the continued pursuit of the Reynolds authorship may seem puzzling, but a number of factors were at work. Firstly, not everyone in Ireland would have been aware of Campbell’s defence in literary outlets with limited circulation. Especially in the west, where most people still spoke Irish, there would be few readers of The Times. Secondly, there was a widely-held belief that only an Irish poet could have written verses so appealing to Irish people. A priest told Richard Madden, who investigated the claim, that ‘a Scotchman could not have written a song so peculiarly Irish in imagery, Irish in its terms of domestic endearing tenderness and Irish too in its expression of enthusiastic patriotism’.26 The priest’s conviction alarmed Madden, and the fact that he came from Leitrim suggested a further explanation for support for Reynolds. This gentleman had served the western districts well, and his reputation as a poet was revered there. On this basis some were prepared to accept that he could have written such a patriotic ballad. More generally, there was a disposition to believe that the Irish, so long mistreated on various issues, could well be deceived over poetic composition. Any assertion that British, or Scottish, perfidy was triumphing over Irish creativity was bound to attract adherents.

Madden’s investigation was thorough, and he published his explanation for supporting Campbell’s authorship in Ireland. He concluded that the Irish claim was based on confusion and faulty memories rather than on maliciousness. George Reynolds had indeed composed a ballad in the 1790s entitled “The Exiled Irishman’s Lamentation”. This was a tale of a refugee from evictions in Armagh, and its anti Orange Order theme made it popular in the years leading up to the Rebellion. It too was sung to the air “Savoumeen Deelish”, the verses were in the same metre as the “Exile of Erin”, and the phrase ‘Erin go bragh’was often repeated. Both ballads had been published in a song book, Paddy’s Resource, released in 1803, and both had circulated as broadsides. After a lapse of over thirty years, many people simply confused the two poems, or accepted that Reynolds had composed both. Since evidence of the “Exile of Erin” in Reynolds’ handwriting was never produced, Madden deplored the tendency of his fellow countrymen to rely on oral testimony, and criticized their willingness to lay ‘grave charges against honourable men’27 without checking for accuracy.

He did not however completely exonerate Campbell, arguing that the poet probably knew the Reynolds song, had adapted the subject matter for his own ballad, used some of its phrases, and wrote it with the same air in mind. In today’s terms, this would amount to a situation not far from plagiarism, and it is important here to add some further points in the poet’s defence. His mastery of the ballad genre had already been well established by 1800, and he did not depend on Reynolds for form or content. A successful song in the same metre as the “Exile of Erin”, “The Wounded Hussar” had been published in 1797 and widely performed throughout Scotland.28 The Irish phrases, for example ‘Erin go bragh’, ‘Erin mavournin’, were in common use and no line in the two poems is identical. Furthermore, the lot of the two exiles is very different. Reynolds’ Armaghman is far from despondent. On the contrary, he remains defiant and openly calls on his countrymen to take up arms, proclaiming:

Too long have we suffered and too long lamented
By courage undaunted, it may be prevented.
No more by oppressors let us be affrighted
But with heart and with hand let’s be firmly united
For by Erin go bragh it is thus we’ll be righted.29

Such martial sentiments, emphasized by first person narration, are in sharp contrast with the largely melancholic disposition of Campbell’s refugee, and as a result the tone of the two ballads is completely different.

We can also demonstrate that if Campbell relied on any source, it was on his own state [of mind] at the time of the ballad’s composition. That wistful mood owed much to his own feelings as an exile, feelings evident in correspondence and in other work written in Germany where often the focus is on a single individual beset by loneliness. “The Soldier’s Dream”, for example, portrays a young Bavarian infantryman dreaming of warmth and friendship at home, which is all the more attractive when set against the pain of military service abroad?30 This German’s mood is almost identical to the Irish exile’s. Similarly, “Lines Written on Visiting a Scene in Argyleshire” features a melancholy narrator wandering alone through ancestral ruins dwelling on present desolation and recalling past joys. This poem shares a similar emotional development to the “Exile of Erin” in that it concludes with the emergence of more positive thoughts. Interestingly too, it was begun in Scotland but completed in Germany, confirming that Campbell was then in the fame of mind to work on such material.31

Richard Madden did not hesitate in acknowledging that Campbell was a ‘lyrical poet of extraordinary pathos’,32 and that term ‘pathos’ does sum up critical opinion on the “Exile of Erin” throughout the nineteenth century, its use indicating approbation. This of course was a literary judgement, and what this paper has implied is the likelihood of a variety of responses. There is not time here to assess the poem’s place in contemporary English verse, nor to review readers’ responses. Instead, I will conclude by speculating on how audiences might have reacted to hearing the verses spoken or sung. For many people, in Scotland especially, the singing of the lyrics in public would arouse sympathy for those afflicted by misfortune. But for most listeners, the response would be limited to the personal and to the moment. While the poet’s friendship with the Hamburg Irish did lead to some awkward questioning in Edinburgh on his return, there is no evidence that the poem was given a political colouring. In Ireland, on the other hand, many audiences must have identified with the exile’s condition. The prevailing mood was in harmony with their own, and with national feelings: defeat, resignation, yet the light of liberty not completely extinguished, and the whole imbued with a gentle patriotism. Reactions generated were far from transient; the widespread circulation of the ballad-it was even translated into Irish33—and the esteem in which it was held for decades are testimony to its continuing affinity with collective emotions. As we have seen, its essential Irishness even resulted in a belief that a Scot could not have written the lyrics, a belief which still surfaced from time to time decades after Campbell’s death.

Inevitably, literary fashions change. The “Exile of Erin” no longer appears in collections of Irish ballads or poems, and even ‘Savourneen Deelish” is not well known. Like Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies, with which this ballad shares an elegiac and nostalgic tone, it became associated with a national state of mind which many wanted to change. At a time when Thomas Davis was full of praise for the “Exile of Erin”, another contributor to The Nation was writing scathingly of such ballads with their ‘whining lamentation over our eternal fall’35 and twenty years later the Fenian movement was ridiculing their sentimental patriotism. Ballads again became martial in theme and tone, and continued to be so into the twentieth century. Yet the “Exile of Erin” deserves a better fate than obscurity or ridicule. Perhaps now, as the second centenary of its composition approaches, new audiences will be given an opportunity to read or listen to it, and in doing so gain a greater appreciation of a personal and national mood two centuries ago.

1] ‘Reprinted in Thomas Davis: Selections from His Prose and Poetry, n.d., 205-08., ed. T. W. Rolleston, Dublin: Phoenix Pub.
2] Davis, 206. Campbell’s ballad was not, strictly speaking, Irish since the author was a Scot.
3] R. R. Madden, “The Exile of Erin”, in Literary Remains of the United Irishmen, Dublin: James Duffy, 1887, 336.
4] His name was Anthony McCann, see below. For details of his life, see Madden, 329-54.
5] Life and Letters of Thomas Campbell, 3 vols., London: Edward Moxon, 1849.
6] Beattie, 331.
7] Literary Reminiscences and Memoirs of Thomas Campbell, London: Charles J. Skeet, 1860, 50.
8] Redding described the ballad as ‘that gem in pathetic poetry’. Madden, 334-35.
9] Beattie, 339-40.
10] The poem did not appear in book form until 1809, in Gertrude of Wyoming.
11] Madden, 335.
12] See Georges-Denis Zimmermann, Songs of Irish Rebellion, Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates, 1967, 23.
13] Quoted by Zimmermann, 23.
14] A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland, Dublin: Hodges Smith, [1809], 65. In this collection the title was already altered to “There came to the beach a poor exile of Erin”.
15] Madden, 329.
16] Copies of the poem were available during the reading of the paper at the conference. 17] Poem reprinted in Thomas Campbell: The Poetical Works, London: Edward Moxon, 1837, 90-91.
18] For example, “Lines Written on Visiting a Scene in Argyleshire”, and see below.
19] “Irish Ballad Singers and Irish Street Ballads”, Household Words, IX, 94 (1852), 361-68.
20] The 1798 Rebellion in Ireland, Exhibition Catalogue, Belfast: Ulster Museum, 1998, 290. On James Hope, see A. T. Q. Stewart, The Summer Soldiers: The 1798 Rebellion in Antrim and Down, Belfast; Blackstaff Press, 1995, esp. 60-68.
21] Madden, 341.
22] A term used by government officials for potentially rebellious subjects. See Thomas Pakenham, The Year of Liberty, London: Panther Books, 1972.
23] Madden, 329.
24] See Mary Ruth Miller, Thomas Campbell, Boston, Twayne, 1978,104-05.
25] Madden, 336.
26] Madden, 337.
27] Madden, 354.
28] Reprinted  [in] The Poetical Works, 197-98.
29] Madden, 331.
30] Thomas Campbell: The Poetical Works, 198-99.
31] See Beattie, 332. Poem reprinted in The Poetical Works, 242-43.
32] Madden, 353.
33] See H. Shields, Narrative Singing in Ireland, Blackrock: Irish Academic Press, 1993, 201.
34] See, for example, a discussion in the [Sydney] Freeman’s Journal, March 1911.
35] Zimmermann, 77.
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