REMEMBERING RODDY McCORLEY IN SONG

A short series exploring some of the figures from history immortalised in song and covered by all your favourite Folk and Celtic-Punk bands. You’ve sung the song but do you know the rich history behind the words? Today we celebrate Roddy McCorley, a young man executed back in 1800. He has been immortalised in both the written word and song and 200 + years after his death we are still here celebrating his life with the many versions of the great song written about him.  

The Rody McCorley Memorial, Toome. “I gcuimhne Ruairí Mhic Thoirealaigh, a chrochadh annseo as a bheith páirteach i nÉirigh-Amach 1798. Iad siúd a d’éag ar son na hÉireann go mairidh a gcliú go deo.” “In memory of Rody McCorley who was hung here for his part in the 1798 uprising. May the honour of those who died for Ireland last forever.”

Roddy McCorley was the son of a miller and was born near Toome in the parish of Duneane, Co Antrim. and was a participant in the 1798 rebellion led by the United Irishmen. A few years before the rebellion Roddy’s dad was executed for stealing sheep. These charges are believed to have been politically motivated in an attempt to remove a troublesome agitator at a time of great social unrest. Following his father’s execution, his family were evicted from their home. There is uncertainty as to whether McCorley was actually actively involved with the Presbyterian United Irishmen or the  Catholic Defenders.

(the version that brought the song back into Irish folklore)

After the rebellions defeat, he joined a notorious outlaw gang known as Archer’s Gang, made up of former rebels and led by Thomas Archer. Some of these men had been British soldiers (members of the Irish militia) who changed sides in the conflict, and as such were guilty of treason and thus exempt from the terms of amnesty offered to the rank and file of the United Irishmen. This meant that they were always on the run in an attempt to evade capture.

(The Dubliners version in their own inimitable style as sung by Ciaran Bourke) 

These were treacherous times and Roddy McCorley paid the price when betrayed by an informer he was arrested and tried by court martial in Ballymena on 20 February 1800. He was sentenced to be hanged “near the Bridge of Toome” in the parish of Duneane. His execution was carried out on 28 February 1800. His body was then dismembered and buried under the gallows, on the main Antrim to Derry road. A letter published in the Belfast Newsletter a few days after McCorley’s execution gave an account of the execution and how McCorley was viewed by some. In it he is called Roger McCorley, which may have been his proper Christian name.

“Upon Friday last, a most awful procession took place here, namely the execution of Roger McCorley who was lately convicted at a court-martial, to the place of execution, Toome Bridge, the unfortunate man having been born in that neighbourhood. As a warning to others, it is proper to observe that the whole of his life was devoted to disorderly proceedings of every kind, for many years past, scarcely a Quarter-sessions occurred but what the name of Roger McCorley appeared in a variety of criminal cases. His body was given up to dissection and afterwards buried under the gallows…thus of late we have got rid of six of those nefarious wretches who have kept this neighbourhood in the greatest misery for some time past, namely, Stewart, Dunn, Ryan, McCorley, Caskey and the notorious Dr. Linn. The noted Archer will soon be in our Guard-room.”

In 1852, McCorley’s nephew Hugh was foreman of the construction of a new bridge across the River Bann at Toome. Hugh recovered his uncle’s body and on 29 June 1852, buried him at Duneane parish graveyard.

(one of the best recorded versions of the song by American folk legends The Kingston Trio)

See the fleet foot host of men
That speed with faces wan,
From farmstead and from fishers cot
Along the banks of Bann,
They come with vengeance in their eyes
Too late too late are they.
For young Roddy McCorley goes to die
On the bridge of Toome today.

Up narrow street he steps
Smiling, proud and young.
About the hemp rope on his neck
The golden ringlets clung
There was never a tear in his blue eye,
Both sad and bright are they,
For young Roddy McCorley goes to die
On the bridge of Toome today.

When he last stepped up that street,
His shining pike in hand,
Behind him marched in grim array
A stalwart, earnest band.
For Antrim town, for Antrim town,
He led them to the fray,
And young Roddy McCorley goes to die
On the bridge of Toome today.

There was never a one of all your dead
More bravely fell in fray
Than he who marches to his fate
On the bridge of Toome today.
True to the last, true to the last,
He treads the upward way,
And young Roddy McCorley goes to die
On the bridge of Toome today.

Ethna Carbery

Roddy’s role in the 1798 rebellion was passed down by word of mouth and it was in a poem/song written 100 years after the rebellion by Ethna Carbery that he was claimed to have been one of the leaders at the Battle of Antrim. The song was published in 1904 two years after Ethna’s death as part of a collection of poems titled The Four Winds Of Erin. Despite this lack of evidence Roddy McCorley became a major figure in nationalist-republican martyrology due to this song. Recently evidence has been unearthed by historian Guy Beiner as to his involvement in the rebellion that had been hidden due to the change in the  Presbyterian faith from nationalist to unionist. 

(as with everything Irish music related their is always a link to the great Shane MacGowan)

The song was re-popularised in the 1950’s when it was recorded by giants of the Irish folk scene The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and The Dubliners. In the folk music revival of the 1960’s it was recorded by the The Kingston Trio and many more up until Shane MacGowan and The Popes recorded a version for The Snake in 1994 and it’s popularity has blossomed since then being recorded by several bands with in the Celtic-Punk scene with a knowledge of their history and roots.

(the latest version as recorded by Irish-American band The Templars of Doom on this years Hovels Of The Holy album)

The Roddy McCorley Society   Irish Music Daily  Irish Folk Songs

( there’s even a Psychobilly version from the great psycho German band Pitmen!)

  • If the tune is familiar but not the song that may be because the melody for Roddy McCorley was recycled in 1957 for the more familiar song ‘Sean South Of Garryowen’.
  • If you are even just the tiniest bit interested in Irish history and culture then it is essential that you subscribe to Stair na hÉireann/History of Ireland. An absolutely fantastic resource for all aspects of Irish history including the daily ‘What Happened On This Day’ and covering a wide range of Irish History, Irish language, Irish Diaspora, The Great Hunger, Arts & Music, Culture, Archaeology, Literature, Photography, Mythology & Folk Culture.
  • REMEMBERING HUGH THE GREAT O’NEILL IN SONG  here
  • REMEMBERING FIACH MacHUGH O’BYRNE IN SONG  here

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One thought on “REMEMBERING RODDY McCORLEY IN SONG

  1. Nick August 1, 2019 at 11:03 am Reply

    Reblogged this on raggededgehouse.

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