Sunday, July 04, 2010

Introductory overview of Irish ballads

By Rick Ring, special collections librarian, a brief intro to "Irish Ballads" for the Notes for Bibliophiles website of the Providence (R.I.) public library on March 17, 2009.
Happy St. Patrick's Day! In honor of the day, I offer here a short history of Irish ballads, taken from various sources. We have almost 1,100 of these in the Potter & Williams Irish collection, and I'm digitizing them when I find the time.

Street singers were known all over Europe. For centuries in Germany, Italy, France, and other countries they sold broadsheets dealing with the same topics popular today—love, crime, geniuses and freaks, disasters, famous outlaws, and politics. The trade flourished in England since the sixteenth century, and it was imported to the English-speaking eastern towns of Ireland in the late seventeenth century. Before printing their own ballads, the Anglo-Irish sang British ones. In the early part of the nineteenth century the broadside ballads became popular in the Irish countryside. In the poorest houses they might be pasted on the walls, under the effigy of a saint or a portrait of Napoleon or some national hero.
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Who wrote them? Some of the best ballads were taken from a traditional fund of anonymous ballads, often modified to address the moment. The topical songs were generally written by a staffer (some would say a hack poet) in the print shop, for pay. Some of the better writers like Oliver Goldsmith apparently wrote ballads in their youth anonymously. Some ballads were simply contributed by people who had something to say—rather like a blog is used today—a short burst from a personal platforrm, widely circulated and often soon forgotten. A number of them were written by teachers in small towns and villages, sometimes called “hedge schoolmasters,” in memory of the Penal Days when Catholic schools were forbidden, and had to be kept secretly in remote places. Often these teachers were, next to the landlord and the priest, the most important people in the parish.

Other writers of ballads were amateur poets, who like today’s vanity or self-publishers, would pay to have their own texts printed and circulated. They could easily afford copies of their own work—the average ballad went for 10 pence per dozen in the 1860s, or a halfpenny apiece. In fact, it was a lucrative source of revenue for printers, and some of them lived entirely on ballad production in cities like Dublin, Cork, and Belfast. Most of the ballads in our collection were gathered in Cork & Belfast in the mid-1860s, and sent to the donor of the collection, Alfred Williams, in 1879.
There's more, altho' not much. Still a very good starting place.

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