The Battlefield Band

I thought that I would write my first post on the Battlefield Band, a Scottish folk group whose music I enjoy. As somebody who likes to listen to both traditional folk songs and fiddle tunes, as well as music written by new songwriters, I like the Battlefield Band because they play both original compositions and traditional music. Those of you who have read the Robert Burns post below might be interested to know that they have also composed tunes to some Robert Burns poems.


The current Battlefield Band. (photo from

The Battlefield Band was foundedin 1969 in Battlefield, outside Glasgow, although the lineup of musicians has changed since then. Currently, it includes Sean O’Donnell (voice/guitar), Ewen Henderson (fiddle/bagpipes/whistles/piano/voice), Alasdair White (fiddle/whistle/bazouki/highland and small pipes), and Mike Katz (highland and small pipes/whistles/bass guitar/guitar). When I saw them in the United States in 2009 and 2010, the last original member of the band, Alan Reid, was still with them, and Henderson had not yet joined.

I’ve listened to three different albums from this group, and my favorite thus far is called The Road of Tears. The Road of Tears is focused on songs of immigration and emigration, whether that be forced or voluntary. As the album’s webpage says, it includes music and song, contemporary and traditional that show how the issue of ‘Immigration’ has always been as relevant as it is today.”

The title track, written by Alan Reid, has verses commemorating the highland clearances in Scotland, the Irish coffin ships, the Cherokee Trail of Tears, and the displacement of people due to war, especially US invastions. A recording of the band singing the song is here:

Another song on the album is a version of Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse”:

A third song on the album I thought would be worth mentioning is “The Emigrant”, a traditional song told from the perspective of an Irish emigrant to the United States who gained his citizenship but lost his leg fighting for the union in the Civil War. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a youtube link for that one.

“Be at a hush, boys. Take my advice.

To America I’ll have yous not be coming.

For there’s nothing here but war, where the murderous cannons roar,

and I wish I’d stayed at home in dear old Ireland.”

The album also contains many instrumental tracks, both traditional and contemporary. I was unable to find full recordings of many of the tracks, but you can check the album out on itunes.

More links: (the band’s webpage) (The Road of Tears webpage)

Jack Butler Yeats, 1871-1957

433px-Jack_Butler_YeatsJack Butler Yeats was six years younger than his brother William, and probably didn’t see much of him growing up, because when the family moved rather suddenly to London when he was six or seven, they left him with his grandmother in Sligo for the next eleven years. Apparently, it was a better place for a little boy to grow up. It doesn’t seem to have harmed young Jack, who loved Sligo and painted it until the very end of his life.

He came by his artistic talent naturally; his father had abandoned a career in the law to become a portrait painter–this was perhaps the one rare family in which deciding to become a poet probably sounded perfectly reasonable.

Yeats studied art in London, started out as an illustrator, working for a variety of publications in London and later Dublin presses. Here is a broadside from 1902:

broadsheetidxAfter returning to Ireland in 1910, he devoted himself primarily to painting, and was inspired by the landscapes of Sligo throughout his life. The painting below, titled Returning from the Bathe, shows the seacoast near where he grew up.JYeats_Returning_from_Bathe

And this is Two Travellers.JYeats_Two_TravellersThere’s an entire gallery in the National Gallery in Dublin devoted to Yeats’ paintings. I like them a great deal, but I wonder whether W.B. did? They are hard to reconcile with the line about painting in “Under Ben Bulben”: “after that/ Confusion fell upon our thought.”

For more on Jack Yeats, see the National Gallery website, and this nice essay by Colm Tóibín in The Guardian.

Welsh Heritage

Over the years at family dinners I’d heard snippets of anecdotes about our Welsh roots from my grandmother, Mary Jean (Smith) Madigan.  The information I learned was intriguing, but I never really had paid much attention to figuring out littler details like who married who, and who came from exactly what city, and so on.  Now, since I’m going to be engaging with Welsh poetry so closely, I suddenly became entirely compelled to have a straightforward conversation with my grandmother about our Celtic lineage.

Briefly, this is what I learned from my grandmother:

My Welsh great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann (nee Rees) Smith was born on March 6 1881, in Pontypridd, which was then County Glamorgan.  Pontypridd was known for its coal mining within the Rhonda River Valley, located north of a town called Cardiff.  Mary Ann had two sisters, Sarah and Blodwyn, and a brother, Gordon.  Their family emigrated to Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, around 1890.  This was where Mary Ann Rees married my great-great-grandfather, Robert Murray Smith, with whom she had 13 children.

Here’s where Pontypridd is located:


This is the “Old Bridge” of Pontypridd.


Pontypridd, or “Ponty,” as its locals have nicknamed it, is Welsh for “bridge by the earthen house,” a reference to the Old Bridge (pictured above) for which it is known.  And my grandmother’s recollection was spot on: sure enough, Pontypridd is mostly known for its coal and iron mining.  It is also the a center for coal transportation between the surrounding valleys, therefore making use of the port at Cardiff, the city that my grandmother mentioned. (Source:

Robert Murray Smith was born in 1871 in Cleator Moore near Penrith, in the North of England, which was a center for iron mining south of the Lake Country and Scottish border of Glasgow.  (His mother, Isabelle Campbell, was Scottish.)  The Smiths emigrated to Nanticoke in the late 1880s.

Here’s Cleator Moore on the map:


It turns out that my great-great-grandfather’s town of Cleator Moore was situated in a rich history.  In the 1870s, for instance, Cleator Moore experienced sectarian turmoil between supporters of the Protestant Orange Order and supporters of Irish Catholics when Cleator Moore miners invaded Whitehaven, a nearby town, to attack the Anti-Popery leader William Murphy.  Then, on July 12, 1884, the Orange Lodges of Cumberland marched through Cleator Moore to commemorate the 1690 Battle of the Boyne in a rebuttal against the Catholics.  (The Battle of the Boyne was fought by the Catholic King James on one side and the Protestant King William on the other; William’s victory helped Protestants gain power in Ireland). (Source: &

My grandmother grew up in Nanticoke among a large Welsh population in the mining towns close by.  She sang in a Methodist church junior choir and remembers how the church’s Welsh director took the choir to sing in the Welsh Eisteddfod, a song and music competition, at the Edwardsville, PA, church.

Interestingly enough, Nanticoke’s history links to some of the Celtic economic and commercial trends.  For instance, Nanticoke’s economy centered heavily on coal mining in the late nineteenth century, for which it used Welsh immigration labor.  It seems that my family joined the surge of Welsh immigrants a little on the later side, for, according to the town of Nanticoke’s historical records, many Welsh came in the 1840s.  Additionally, Nanticoke saw an influx of Irish immigrants during the Potato Famine. (Source:

Finally, I did a little research into what, exactly, an “eisteddfod” is.  The Eisteddfod is a music festival taking place in Wales (North one year and South the next) to promote Welsh culture.  (Source:  Eisteddfod refers to a group of people “sitting together;” in ancient times this gathering of people meant a group of bards performing in a search for patronage from nobles.  Clearly, then, the Eisteddfod has been around for a very long time: it was first held at Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd’s castle in Cardigan in 1176!  By the end of the nineteenth century, the eisteddfod was not only poetry but also a variety of folk celebration.  The first National Eisteddfod was held in Aberdare in Mid Glamorgan in 1861, and in 1880 the National Eisteddfod Association was founded with the mission to make the Eisteddfod an annual event.  (Source:

The Eisteddfod my grandmother attended was most likely the Cynonfardd Eisteddfod, held annually since 1889 in Edwardsville, as she remembers.  In fact, many other Eisteddfods take place throughout the United States as well as the world!  To me, this reflects not only the presence of the Welsh language globally but also the effort to champion it.  (Source:

I looked around YouTube for a little while to find some samples from Eisteddfods in the past few years.  The song this choir sang at the Genedlaethol Eisteddfod in 2013 was pretty catchy:

And here’s a bit of Welsh folk dancing at the Swansea Eisteddfod in 2006:

YouTube has tons more of Eisteddfod samples, should you want to explore more.  Enjoy!


Rabbie Burns Day

Some people, on seeing this “January 25: Robbie Burns Day. You should drink whiskey and eat haggis tonight” on the syllabus, must wondered what Robbie Burns day was. Who was Robbie Burns? Why did he have a holiday? And why, why, would you eat haggis and drink whiskey on this day?

So in response, I’m writing this blog post to explain. The website Robert Burns is a famous Scottish famer-turned- poet, born on January 25, 1759 in Alloway in County Ayr, Southwest Scotland to a simple tenant farmer (Which, if you are interested in military history, is two months, nine days, and thirteen years since Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite forces were defeated at the Battle of Culloden, ending his attempt to reclaim the throne of Scotland). The house Burns was born in is a historic landmark today.

Map of Ayr

Burns has quite the rags-to-riches story. He spent most of his childhood and young adult in poverty, moving from failing farmstead to failing farmstead, but by the age of twenty-seven his poetry was well-known in the fashionable circles of Edinburgh, and by the time he died in 1796 he had made a place for himself in Scottish History and Culture as the Scottish Bard. His poetry was particularly interesting for its unabashed use of the Scots dialect. Some of his best known poems are “Tam O’Shanter”, the tale of a rather drunk man who finds himself an unfortunate witness to a fairy dance and must ride for the safety afforded by the river (the poem can even be found engraved on a chair in Holyrood House in Edinburgh) “To a Mouse”, “To a Haggis”, “Holy Willie’s Prayer” and one of Scotland’s famous patriotic ballads, “Blind Harry” (the tale of William Wallace, of Braveheart fame).


His poetry also makes appearances in many pieces of famous literature today, including Catcher in the Rye and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the title of which was taken from the following lines from the seventh stanza of Burn’s famous poem “To A Mouse.”

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft angley”


Today, people all over Scotland celebrate Rabbie Burns day as an act of nationalistic pride. The event starts with the organizer welcoming his guests to the feast and explaining the purpose. The Scottish Selkirk grace is then read, and the meal begins with soup.

Nest, the Haggis enters. The entrance of the Haggis to the celebration is traditionally prefaced by a reading of the poem “To a Haggis”, the poem in which Burns professes Haggis to be the “chieftain of the pudding race” (line 2) and a bagpiper playing in an event known as the “Piping of the Haggis”.  The reader of the poem then has the honour of cutting the haggis for the assembled company. A toast is then made to the haggis and dinner continued.

*This second image is a haggis up close. It’s delicious, despite how it looks.

A proper Rabbie Burns celebration also includes the reading of the poet’s works and singing of his songs (preferably while enjoying the refreshments, to add to the truly Scottish character of the event) by all involved, in a communal reading that brings the oral culture still largely seen in the Scotland of Burns to inhabit the modern world. Elegies to Burns are also traditionally seen.The evening ends with the singing of one of the most well-known bits of Burn’s work, “Auld Lang Syne.”

So, I encourage you to go forth and celebrate! I know this post comes late, but there’s never a bad time to celebrate the works of a great national poet!

Here are some sites you can visit to learn more about the things I mentioned here:

I also recommend Robert Burns, a Very Peculiar History by Fiona McDonald, and am willing to lend my copy to anyone who is interested!


Yeatsian Geography

As a child, Yeats spent his summer holidays in beautiful (if damp!) County Sligo, in the West of Ireland. It was there that he met Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Markiewicz (née Gore-Booth); “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz”, a late poem, is a lament for lost beauty and lost innocence. The sisters lived at Lissadell House, which still stands, although it has recently been the subject of extended (and fairly incomprehensible) legal disputes. Lissadell

Another of the great houses Yeats knew well, Lady Gregory’s Coole Park, was not so lucky; damaged during the Civil War, it was destroyed in the ’40s and survives now only as a national park, but once it looked like this:


Yeats himself returned to Sligo upon his marriage, buying a very different sort of house, Thoor Ballylee, a Norman tower which inspired “The Tower.” It doesn’t look like a comfortable place to live, but I have visited it, and it is surprisingly snug inside.

balleythoor-ballylee3This is the “winding stair.”

Yeats is buried in Sligo, in Drumcliffe Churchyard, “under Ben Bulben” as he had requested. A “ben” (or a “pin” in some parts of the country, is a mountain, or what passes for a mountain in Ireland.

BenbulbenmountThe inscription on Yeats’ gravestone consists of the last few lines of his last poem, “Under Ben Bulben.” My favorite English teacher in college used to claim that when first he visited Yeats’ grave, a single black crow feather fell softly down from the sky to lie upon it; he kept it as a page marker in his collected Yeats. I’m not entirely sure that story is true (he was a great teller of tales!) but I certainly hope so.



Please think of this blog as a space where you can muse about whatever you like… tomorrow’s readings, haggis, the difficulty of deciphering Welsh pronounciation, your favorite band with some claim to being Celtic. If you are desperate for a prompt, email me and I’ll send you one, but these may be idiosyncratic at best! Add pictures, media files, whatever you like.

I’ll make the first post, so no one else has to…