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The Foggy Dew Meaning and Lyrics: The History of an Irish Rebel Song

A History, The Process of Change, the meaning and Lyrics of The Foggy Dew


"…Oh, had they died by Pearse ’s side, or fought with Cathal Brugha.

Their graves we’ d keep where the Fenians sleep, ’neath the shroud of the foggy dew."


The rebellion of Easter Rising, in 1916, was one of the most dramatic events of the Irish Revolution. In most European countries, songs were inspired by political events, but few of them, if any, were retained by tradition. Sometimes, however, particularly when a fight for independence had been a long and hard one coinciding with a strong current of folk singing, a certain number of such songs or ballads survived. Ireland is one of the countries where patriotic and political songs have been for a long time peculiarly popular, and perhaps influential (Zimmermann 1967:9).

The Irish rebel songs which refer to the Easter Rising are often emotional and sometimes romantic. They “captured” the emotions of the common people, so that when the songs would be performed, the events that the songs describe would never been forgotten. It is safe to assume that this growing repertoire of rebel songs impacted greatly upon the attitude and mindset of the Irish people:


…They were effect and cause at the same time: expressing strong collective emotions, they could profoundly affect in shaping a common memory, of some events and in binding the Irish together. (ibid:10)

A song is more than a text and a melody which can be recorded or printed, examined and criticized. It is the result of a communal state of mind and it depends on the conjunction of an inspired singer, a receptive audience, and various circumstances creating a favourable mood. (ibid:12)


A highly significant song, associated with this important part of Irish history, giving significance to the events of the day, is the famous rebel song called, “The Foggy Dew”: 


As down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I
There armed lines of marching men in squadrons passed me by
No pipe did hum nor battle drum, did sound its dread tattoo
But the Angelus bell o’er the Liffey ’s swell
Rang out in the Foggy Dew


Right proudly high over Dublin town they hung out the flag of war
‘twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud-El-Bar
And from the plains of Royal Meath strong men came hurrying through
While Britannia’s Huns, with their long range guns sailed in through the foggy dew


‘Twas England bade our wild geese go, that “small nations might be free”;
Their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves or the fringe of the great North Sea.
Oh, had they died by Pearse’s side or fought with Cathal Brugha
Their graves we’d keep where the Fenians sleep, ‘neath the shroud of the Foggy Dew.


Oh the night fell black, and the rifles’ crack made perfidious Albion reel
In the leaden rain, seven tongues of flame did shine o’er the lines of steel
By each shining blade a prayer was said, that to Ireland her sons be true
But when morning broke, still the war flag shook out its folds the foggy dew.


Oh the bravest fell, and the requiem bell rang mournfully and clear
For those who died that Easter tide in the spring time of the year
And the world did gaze, in deep amaze, at those fearless men, but few,
Who bore the fight that freedom’s light might shine through the foggy dew


As back through the glen I rode again and my heart with grief was sore
For I parted then with valiant men whom I never shall see more
But to and fro in my dreams I go and I kneel and pray for you,
For slavery fled, O glorious dead, when you fell in the foggy Dew.

 The Foggy Dew Meaning

According to some sources, this song has been attributed to Peadar Kearney who also wrote “Amhran na bhFiann” (The Soldier’s Song), the national anthem of the Republic of Ireland - but most often is attributed to Canon Charles O’Neill. The song chronicles the Easter Rising of 1916, encouraging Irishmen to fight for Ireland, and not for Britain (many Irish men fought for Britain during World War I). “The Foggy Dew” is sometimes alternatively called “Down the Glen”. Despite numerous songs which refer to the Easter Rising in their lyrics, “The Foggy Dew” is considered to be the most representative of the Easter Rising. The expressive style, not only gives the song a legendary and heroic touch, but also makes good use of symbolic imagery, such as the “Wild Geese” which refers to the emigration of the Irish armed forces after the surrender of Limerick in 1691.

Specifically, the song compares two types of Irishmen both fighting for freedom. The first type joined the British army to fight on mainland Europe, in Africa and Asia on the battlefields of the First World War, while the second, fought as Oglaigh na hEireann, Volunteers of Ireland, in the Easter Rising of 1916. The inspiration for this song came from a parish priest from Kilcoo in Co.Down, Canon Charles O ‘Neill who attended the first sitting of the new Dail Eireann (The Irish parliament), in Dublin in 1919. As the names of the elected members were called out, he was moved by the number of times the names were answered by “faoi ghlas ag na Gaill” (prisoner of the foreigners). O’ Neill was so moved by this experience that on his return journey, he composed the lyrics. The music preexisted ; it belongs to an old love song whose original manuscript of the words and music are in the possession of Kathleen Dallat of Ballycastle (we can’t be sure in which of the two counties Ballycastle is referring to, Co. Mayo or Co. Antrim). The manuscript names Carl Hardebeck as the arranger. The above information can be found in the book of significance written by Cathal O’ Boyle, entitled “Songs of the County Down”. John McCormack sang this love song in 1913, under the title “The Foggy Dew”, in his album “Where the River Shannon Flows”.

In the song, Suvla is the Suvla Bay, in the Gallipoli Peninsula, in Turkey. Sud-el–Bar (Sedd el Bahr) refers to Dardanelles fort, a major British position in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of 1915-1916. Pearse or Pádraig Pearse (1879-1916) was an Irish Nationalist and poet; one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising and one of the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. He was executed for his part in the rebellion. Cathal Brugha (1874-1922) was an Irish nationalist who was jailed for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising. He was also Minister for Defense in the first Republican government under Eamon De Valera. De Valera is sometimes mentioned in place of Cathal Brugha in some renditions. Brugha stood in strong opposition to the Anglo - Irish Treaty and fought against the Irish Free State.

The mood of the lyrics is very positiveat the beginning of poem, referring to the men as strong, proud and ready for war. However, as we already know, the Rising failed and we can see this from the negative mood with which the song ends. The whole poem refers to the men who died as heroes and legends. This is shown particularly in the last lines of the song. The “martyrs” of Easter Rising have become glorious, valiant men who battled bravely for freedom and independence, thus being an inspiration to the people of Ireland. It is quite apparent, if we use this song as an example to examine rebel songs and Irish literature, that the landscape of Irish traditional music and literature itself would never have developed in the manner that they did, without the occurrence of this unparalleled event in 1916.

We must remember that, poor as these ballads may seem on paper, a number of them assume unexpected dimensions when sung by a genuine Irish singer in the right surrounding (Zimmermann 1967: 12). “The Foggy Dew” is one of the most popular and beloved songs in the Irish Traditional Music, among performers. I dare to disagree with G.D. Zimmermann when he talks of "genuine Irish singer and right surrounding". Many different performers have recorded the song either instrumentally, accompanied, or unaccompanied; certainly the majority of them being natively Irish.

Although many diverse performers made their mark upon the song, the song itself didn’t change through time, but the arrangements, the “right surroundings” and the performers did. The melody is in A B A form; the key varying from B to E minor. The melody makes use of the pentatonic minor scale. The time signature varies between 2/4 or 4/4. What is changing constantly is the use of the harmony and the tempo or the rhythmic pattern. Usually the piece is played like a polka or a march. Many performers though, like to see it as a slower piece; thus making it more emotional and evocative.

In total, there are approximatelyabout 150 different recordings of the song through the years. Amongst them, are 68 prominent recordings in my opinion (see appendix). Only two performers have performed the same melody with completely different lyrics and these are Sinead O’ Connor’s and Caroline Lavelle’s rendition of a song entitled “Moorlough Shore”. This song has alternate lyrics, but shares the same melody as “The Foggy Dew”, sometimes trying to give the impression of a variation in the melody. Both of the two artists have performed this song in a very contemporary way, using electronic sounds.


Sinead O’ Connor has recorded “The Foggy Dew” with the Chieftains; Sarah Mc Lachlan accompanied by the Chieftains, performed the song in concert. Artists such as John Mc Cormack (whom is attributed with the 1st commercial recording of the song, but with alternate lyrics, as mentioned above),The Wolfe Tones, The Dubliners, The Clancy Brothers, Liam Clancy, Eugene O’ Donnell and Paddy O’Connor to mention but a few of the performers that have performed the tune.

There is something unique present in the melody and the harmony of this song, as well as the powerful lyrics which act as an incentive to performers. It is performed almost everywhere in Ireland now and in many different settings around the world. At the time when it was composed, we could assume it would have been sung secretly as a mark of rebellion; a response to the difficult times endured by the people. But with the passage of time, the song developed a character of its own which is apparent from the varied recordings dating back to 1920 and continuing to the present day.

One encounters several problems when attempting to interpret “The Foggy Dew”. In what context should the song be sung? Should it be like a polka, a march or a free flowing piece? It is my opinion, after careful study of the lyrics and close examination of the melody and harmony structure, I feel one could formulate an interpretation that would be deemed appropriate to the lyrics themselves. The performer has the option to begin playing the piece in a march tempo, then perhaps transitioning gradually to a slower tempo, there by making it more free flowing. With regard to the dynamics, performers might choose to become softer towards the end.

Predominantly, the song has been performed by men; women have tended to be less inclined to perform it. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to heara woman singing it also; an example being Sinead O’ Connor or Sarah Mc Lachlan whom the Chieftains chose as a female voice instead of a male for their live performance in America.

In the recordings of this piece I have studied, it appears that the majority of the male performers prefer to sing it in the tempo of a fast polka, trying to capture and emulate through their voices and accompaniment, the bravery of these men. It is also evident from these recordings that several alternate versions of the lyrics and melodic variations - not to speak of the harmony, the instrumentation, the tempo the rhythmic pattern - are in existence. However, there aren’t many recordings in which the song is performed with a contemporary interpretation. Some performers with modern renditions are Paddy O Connor, Wild Mountain Thyme, Penny Kerr, The Volunteers, Hugh Morisson, The Rain Troubadours, Fathom, The Fenian Sons, Will O’ the Wisp, Bub Rowe, Saint Bushmill’s Choir, Brothers 3, Roger Drawdy, and Keltik Kharma.