by Michael McGowan - February 14, 2020
Irish music can be patriotic, sentimental, and incredibly moving. At its best, the folk music of Ireland tells a powerful story evoking time and place, specific events and people, and often of terrible hardship and loss. Their songs tell the story of their race, and their appreciation for all who have come before -- their deeds, misfortunes, and their love of Ireland. Something of the Irish character is revealed in how much these songs are revered.
One of the greatest examples is "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," originally a poem, written in 1861 by the Limerick-born writer Robert Dwyer. As a young Irishman is saying goodbye to his true love to fight for Ireland’s freedom in the 1798 Rebellion, shots ring out around them, and she is killed. He holds her in his arms one final time while she dies "as soft winds shake the barley" in the fields surrounding them both. He takes her into a secluded spot in the woods and buries her, knowing he “soon will follow.”
The story is about more than a doomed couple in a tragic situation. It is about the existence of true love in impossible circumstances, the incredibly difficult decisions Irish people faced at the time, and the slim hope of success they had against the English. However, the most powerful lyric in the song is also both in the name and the chorus - "The Wind that Shakes the Barley.”
Irish soldiers in the 1798 rebellion were known to carry barley and oats in their pockets for sustenance during wartime. As the rebellion failed, thousands of dead rebels were buried in unmarked "croppy graves" all over the southeast of Ireland, and the barley from their pockets took root. Every spring, for years after the rebellion failed, barley would grow up through the soil, providing an incredibly powerful image of Irish strength and resilience to the generations who followed. Seamus Heaney's famous poem "Requiem for the croppies" is a short but devastating recollection of these events.
Who could ignore the sight of the swaying barley, and all that it meant? Who could accept a life of oppression and slavery, when constantly reminded of the sacrifice of prior generations?
This one line could be the most powerful ever written to describe the Irish desire for freedom at all costs, over hundreds of years, refusing to quit, willing to accept even the most awful fate for even being willing to try. The "Wind That Shakes the Barley" is the soul of Irish independence. The powerful stirring of pride, rage, love, loss, and determination to fight, to honor the sacrifice of ancestors. How can you defeat a people who will never give up, and will never forget those who died trying? Who will instead memorialize them in song and poem, and sing of their loss and of their hope for freedom?
The song went on to achieve great acclaim in a time when the Irish people were starved and dying and the Rebellion of 1798 was a distant memory. The spirit within the song led the Irish to never accept rule by a foreign power, to rebel in every single generation over 800 years, and to ultimately succeed in achieving freedom in the 20th century.
The next time you are in Ireland, particularly in the southeast near Wexford, think of the rebels who had the courage and pride to fight despite impossible odds, and think of the country as it is today, free at last. It is the spirit of these brave men and women that made it impossible to conquer the Irish and that will shake the barley for generations to come.