DIVERSION 15: Many people will know that Dunlavin was the scene of a mass execution (The Dunlavin massacre) in 1798, and that there is a ballad about the event. Today’s illustration of the incident is taken from the interpretative panel in Dunlavin’s market square (outside Tynte House). Many singers have recorded the ballad… but did you know that there are (at least) four versions of this ballad? Here they are:
The ballads of Dunlavin Green.
1.) The standard (most commonly used) form of this ballad is as follows:
In the year of one thousand seven hundred and ninety eight,
A sorrowful tale the truth unto you I’ll relate.
Of thirty-six heroes to the world were left to be seen,
By a false information were shot on Dunlavin Green.
Bad luck to you, Saunders, for you did their lives betray;
You said a parade would be held on that very day,
Our drums they did rattle-our fifes they did sweetly play;
Surrounded we were and privately marched away.
Quite easy they led us as prisoners through the town,
To be slaughtered on the plain, we then were forced to kneel down,
Such grief and such sorrow were never before there seen,
When the blood ran in streams down the dykes of Dunlavin Green.
There is young Matty Farrell, has plenty of cause to complain, Also the two Duffys, who were shot down on the plain, And young Andy Ryan, his mother distracted will run For her own brave boy, her beloved eldest son.
Bad luck to you, Saunders, bad luck may you never shun! That the widow’s curse may melt you like snow in the sun,
The cries of the orphans whose murmurs you cannot screen, For the murder of their dear fathers, on Dunlavin Green.
Some of our boys to the hills they are going away,
Some of them are shot, and some of them going to sea,
Micky Dwyer in the mountains to Saunders he owes a spleen, For his loyal brothers, who were shot on Dunlavin Green.
2.) The Library of Trinity College, Dublin contains the following version, printed as a broadside ballad:
A LAMENTATION ON THE HEROES WHO WERE SHOT ON DUNLAVIN GREEN
In the year of one thousand seven hundred and ninety eight
A sorrowful ditty to you I am going to relate
Concerning those heroes both clever and rare to be seen
By false information were shot upon Dunlavin green.
Woe to you Saunders, disgrace me you never shall
That the tears of the widows may melt you like snow before the sun;
Those fatherless orphans! Their cries nor moans can’t be screened,
For the loss of their fathers, who were shot upon Dunlavin Green.
Some of our heroes are ‘listed and gone far away,
There are some of them dead, and some of them crossing the sea;
As for poor Andy Ryan, his mother distracted has been
For the loss of her son, who was shot upon Dunlavin Green.
As for Andy Farrell, I’m sure he has cause to complain
And likewise the two Duffys, I’m sure they may well do the same;
Dwyer on the mountain, to the orange he owes a great spleen,
For the loss of his comrades, who were shot upon Dunlavin Green.
They were marched from the guard house up to the end of the town, And when they came there the poor fellows were forced to kneel down, Like lambs for the slaughter that day it was plain to be seen, Their blood ran in streams on the dykes of Dunlavin Green.
That we may live happy the joyful tidings to hear ,
When we will have satisfaction for the murders they did in that year ;
There were thirty-six heroes, both clever and rare to be seen,
Both Loyal and United, shot one day on Dunlavin Green.
Now to conclude, and finish my mournful tale,
I hope all good Christians to pray for their souls will not fail.
Their souls in white pigeons, a-flying to heaven were seen
On the very same day they were shot upon Dunlavin Green.
3.) Maynooth University holds an alternative version of the ballad, recorded locally by Fr. John Francis Shearman in the 1860s:
Of the year seventeen hundred and ninety-eight, A sorrowful ditty and I am going to relate: Of thirty-six heroes whose like were never seen, Who by false information were shot on Dunlavin Green.
They were marched from the market house and up through the town And coming to the green they were ordered to kneel down.
Oh such horror and such terror, the like were never seen,
When those heroes lay bleeding in the dykes of Dunlavin Green.
When the sad news came to each village and each town, Some were a sowing and more were a mowing
And more were following the ploughs, While their wives were a spinning and milking the cows.
They gave up the sowing and mowing and creeping stealthily along, Their briars and their ditches and leaping o’er walls so strong,
They came to the green and to their grief were seen
The heroes lying in their gore in the dykes of Dunlavin Green.
I am sure Nancy Ryan has reason to complain, And the two late Duffys can in sorrow do the same,
And Mat Byrne whose fine son distracted had he been
At the slaughter of the heroes shot on Dunlavin Green.
My curse on you Saunders, bad luck may you never shun, May the tears of widows and orphans melt you like the snow before the sun, May poverty and sorrow on you and yours be seen
For the slaughter of those heroes in the dykes of Dunlavin Green.
4.) There is yet another version in existence. This fourth version was sung by Mr. Ned Dunne, and an audio recording of the piece is extant in the National Folklore Collection in U.C.D. Mr. Dunne’s lyrics were as follows:
From Dunlavin to Blackhill is the road you stroll up
On a clear Summer’s day to a sunny hillside.
A wide panorama of country lies there
From the Garden of Ireland to the County Kildare.
The misty ridge peaks and Offaly in the distant blue haze
As o’er Narraghmore to the west you will gaze
And just as you feel peaceful, calm and serene
Like the village of Dunlavin and her hills thirty-three.
It was here in the year Seventeen Ninety-Eight
That thirty-six men marched to their fate.
They were shot as they knelt down their last prayers to say
Many widows and orphans were made on that day.
T’was the informer that whispered to Saunders and said
You have United Irishmen wearing the red.
Then Saunders he turned to his men and he said
In Dunlavin tomorrow we’ll hold a parade.
It being market day and a big crowd was there
When Saunders assembled his men on the square.
He told them he knew all their names that were there
Who were United Irishmen under his care.
But if they’d step forward their guilt to admit
Their lives he would spare and their pardon permit
Thirty-six men stepped forward but the pardon they got
Was to march to the fair green and there to be shot.
Forty-two Ancient Britons stood on the high ground.
They levelled their pieces and shot them all down.
But one man left standing ‘Save the King’ he did call,
And he got many acres near the Glen of Imaal.
There were fourteen from Baltinglass and Hacketstown.
Poor Kearney and Keating their lives they laid down.
While poor Biddy Kirwan knelt down midst the dead,
In the lap of her apron her two brothers heads.
It was later Anne Hayden heard Prendergast call.
She bound up his wounds with her apron and shawl.
She sent to Pat Dwyer and in a cartload of straw
They brought him back to his homestead in Ballinacrow.
When Saunders he heard that his man was not dead,
He went to the homestead; to the mother he said
‘Hand over your son for he’s no use to you
And we’ll finish the job that we set out to do’.
But the neighbours they gathered and Saunders took flight
So they brought Prendergast off to safety at night.
T’was many years after she joined him as his wife,
The girl who that day in Dunlavin saved his life.
All the versions of the ballad contain slightly different information. In some ways, the very differences in the versions illustrate why ballads are suspect as historical sources. The changes in lyrics are indicative of a certain poetic licence, which allows the balladeer to develop the piece over time. As this development occurs the story within the ballad is altered and the facts change. Before one entirely dismisses these ballads however, one must place them in the context of their tradition. Ballads provided a means of keeping a story alive within a populace whose literacy levels were often low. In fact, ballads provide some additional information, for example the fourth ballad above names two women present in Dunlavin on the day of the massacre. The traditional audience for ballads was the ordinary people, and it is quite possible that details such as the names of these women have survived in the folk memory of the area, even though they were not officially recorded elsewhere. Hence, ballads such as these can actually add to the historical narrative if approached with caution.
[1 Matthew Hodgart (ed.), The Faber Book of Ballads (London, 1965), p. 202.
 T.C.D., White collection, OLS-X-1-530, no. 31.
 Russell Library, M.U., Shearman papers, xvii, f. 127v.
 National Folklore Collection, U.C.D., Tom Munnelly Collection, Audio recording TM 0363/B.]