“Johnny” and the anti-war stanza

A rock of fact in a sea of speculation: the stanza was added in the 1950s by buddies of Pete Seeger.

My speculation that the final explicitly anti-war stanza to “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye” was a later addition seems to have been correct, though I was a decade off in guessing the date.

Reader Joseph Ruby supplies the key fact:

According to posts at the Mudcat Cafe, a terrific site for folk music, the “antiwar” verse to “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” was added in the 1950s by Les Pine and Betty Sanders. Sanders sang with a group called the Hooteneers, and appears to have recorded with Pete Seeger and the Weavers. None of the versions collected in the 19th century had the verse.

“Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” is one a number of Irish “anti-recruiting” songs. These are comic songs that were intended to discourage potential recruits from joining the British army. They’re not anti-war. They’re anti-English.

They’re supposed to be funny- imagine the line, “Ye’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg” roared out in a pub. Or this, from “The Kerry Recruit”:

All dyin’ and bleedin’ I lay on the ground,

With me arms, legs and feet all scattered around.

Says I to meself, “If me father was nigh

He would bury me, sure, just for fear I might die.”

Or this, from “Mrs McGrath”:

Were you drunk or were you blind

when you left your two fine legs behind?

On Ceylon- there were a series of British campaigns, beginning in 1795 and not ending until 1818. The Sinhalese capital of Kandy didn’t fall until 1815 and guerilla war continued for another three years.

He adds:

“When Johnny Comes Marching Home” is not a pro-war song. It’s a pro-peace song. When it was written in 1863 both North and South were sick of the slaughter and both sides saw no end to it. WJCMH is mothers and sons clinging to hope that is slipping away. WJCMH says, “Bring the boys home now.” It played into the Democratic peace platform in the election of 1864, which called for a negotiated end to the war, even if that meant accepting secession.


Joseph Ruby adds:

I went too far in calling WJCMH a “pro-peace” song. It was written by a US Army Band Master named Patrick S. Gilmore- he was the head of all the Army bands- and I have no reason to think that he was anything but completely supportive of the war effort. What I was trying to say is that the song looks forward to peace, and there’s no glorifying of war in it- no mention of victory or conquest or triumph or anything like that. Intentionally or not, Gilmore wrote a song that touched a chord of war-weariness. The upbeat melody and optimistic lyric made it an acceptable way for people to give voice to their yearning for peace without saying anything that might imply a lack of support for the war.

Fascinating! For some reason, I’d always associated “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” with the Confederacy.

Another reader offers some of the relevant literary and political history of “Johnny” and the Rising of ’98:

The song, in its modern form, seems to have several sources, including Septimus Winner’s “Johnny is Gone for a Soldier” which has the same closing chorus as your version of “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye.” The former is actually Irish, and concerns itself with the 1795 campaign, though most of the pages I’ve found it link it to “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye” as well as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.”

The answer to your question about the song and the ’98 is that they are approximately interrelated. There’s a long, complicated answer I’m liable to fudge, given I’m off without my books.

The shorter answer goes something like this: Glorious Revolution and Protestant Ascedency comes to an end, of sorts, during the American Revolutionary War. Once France and Holland entered, and drew up plans for a cross-Channel Invasion, the British Government had a fit of panic and asked its citizens to volunteer in Militias to defend against foreigners.

Catholic Irishmen ended up providing quite a few warm bodies, though their militias didn’t go anywhere during the American Revolutionary War. However, they did try to dicker with the British Government to get a better deal, repealing some of the uglier anti-Catholic legislation.

Offhand, I’m not sure which Irish units were involved in the campaign on Ceylon. Britain was in one of its stranger years at war with France. It’s still early in the Revolutionary-Napoleonic Cycle, during, IIRC, the War of the First Coalition. France rolled into Holland in March and set up the Batavian Republic, and Britian responded by snapping up Dutch colonies across the globe, including Ceylon. Britain had traditionally used their East India Company to fumble into gradual expansion, which makes Ceylon a bit of an oddity in the region, though the Napoleonic campaigns are strange, and Raffles may well have inspired that particular campaign.

So, in 1797, there’s a fair number of Irish veterans returning home; in part from Ceylon, and in part from the winding down of British [direct] engagement against France in Europe and her allies across the globe.

Ceylon, while owned by the British government, was administered by the average EIC subalterns and the like.

The rising that occured in 1798 was in part a response to more Irish blood being spilt for Empire, and a demand for more rights; an after-effect of the French Revolution. In addition, France tried to invade Ireland. Hoche, the Directorate’s coolest general, came up with the plan, in combination with Wolfe Tone, the grandchild of Jacobite exiles. The Irish rose, and the French came late; they did manage to defeat the British at Castlebar Races, which gained its name for the British sprint away from the fight.

The British brought the French force to heel shortly thereafter, and defeated further French invasion attempts with the RN. Hoche died, the product floundered, and Napoleon rose to power. Ceylon was the only Dutch colony not returned at Amiens; its coastal regions were made a Crown Colony shortly before the treaty was signed.

The Rising of ’78 led, more or less directly, to the Act of Union in 1801, which Pitt hoped would suppress Irish revolutionary fervor until after Napoleon was defeated. Instead, it prolonged the Crisis of Catholic Emancipation, nearly bringing about a civil war in 1827, but that’s another story for another time.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com