SONG: Cato Boys (After Irish Jig-Gary Owen c 1780)

Cato Boys song (After Irish Jig, 'Gary Owen)
Peter Daniel
Cato Boys (After Gary Owen Irish Jig)

When WCRAG looked for songs to bring alive the Cato Street Conspiracy for our participating schools, we researched popular songs from the Regency era.  One of the songs we found was Gary Owen, a rebellious Irish jig, which we adapted to fit with the story.  We thought it would fit perfectly with the events of February 23rd, 1820, as if events had followed the course that Arthur Thistlewood had planned, then the Irish would have played a decisive role.  Thistlewood believed that the success of his plan depended on the help of the Irish Nationalist community that lived in ‘Little Ireland’ in the notorious St Giles Rookery.

Deceived by an Irish spy

Arthur Thistlewood had decided to press ahead with the attack on Lord Harrowby’s house on 23rd February 1820, because he had been convinced by Thomas Dwyer, an unemployed labourer, that the Irish in St Giles would rise up to support his revolution.  What Thistlewood did not realise was that Dwyer was another of Lord Sidmouth’s spies.

As is so often the case, new immigrants to London needed to live centrally for work, but this meant living in slums like St Giles.  Peter Ackroyd in London: A Biography wrote a damning description of the St Giles Rookery where Dwyer lived:

the Rookeries embodied the worst living conditions in all of London’s history; this was the lowest point which human beings could reach.

The St Giles Blkackbirds

It wasn’t just the poor Irish that lived there.  A free Black community, the St Giles Blackbirds’ took hold in St Giles.  One of this community was Robert Wedderburn, a leading member of the Spenceans.  Wedderburn, like William Davidson, was a former Royal Navy sailor from Jamaica. He had gained a reputation as a fiery Methodist preacher, who was an angry critic of slavery in his native West Indies.  On the night of the 23rd February, 18209 he was noticeable by his absence.  The reason being that his outspoken preaching had led to his arrest for seditious libel, and he was locked away in prison on that fateful night.  His bold oratory on the streets of Soho almost certainly saved his life.

Gary Owen

When we decided to look for songs to bring alive our story for our participating schools we researched popular songs from the era.  One of these songs was Gary Owen, which is a rebellious Irish jig that fits well with the cataclysmic plans of the Cato Street Conspirators for the night of 23rd February 1820.The word garryowen is derived from Irish, the proper name Eóin and the word for garden garrai – thus “Eóin’s Garden”. The song emerged during the late 18th century, when it was a drinking song of rich young roisterers in Limerick. An alternate title is “Let Bacchus’ sons be not dismayed”.

Let Bacchus’ sons be not dismayed
But join with me, each jovial blade
Come, drink and sing and lend your aid
To help me with the chorus:
chorus: away with spa, we’ll drink brown ale
And pay the reckoning on the nail;
No man for debt shall go to jail
From Garryowen in glory.
We’ll beat the bailiffs out of fun,
We’ll make the mayor and sheriffs run
We are the boys no man dares dun
If he regards a whole skin.
Our hearts so stout have got no fame
For soon ’tis known from whence we came
Where’er we go they fear the name
Of Garryowen in glory.[2]

Sung to the tune “Auld Bessie”, it obtained immediate popularity in the British Army through the 5th (or Royal Irish) Regiment of Dragoons  It was published with additional lyrics in Thomas Moore‘s 1808 “Irish Melodies”. Beethoven composed two arrangements of the song during 1809–1810 (published 1814–1816 with the title, “From Garyone My Happy Home”).  It is thus a song that was contemporary to the time of the Cato Street conspiracy.

Popularity in the British Army Following the Peninsular War

John Harrison was just one of the conspirators who served in the British Army during the Peninsualr War, when Garyowen became popular amongst the rank and file. A very early reference to the tune appears in the publication The Life of the Duke of Wellington by Jocquim Hayward Stocqueler, published during 1853. He describes the defence of the town of Tarifa during the Peninsular War, late December 1811. General H. Gough, later Field Marshal Hugh Gough, 1st Viscount Gough, commanding officer of the 87th Regiment (Later the Royal Irish Fusiliers), under attack by French Grenadiers, drew his sword, tossed his scabbard, and called on his men to stand with him until the enemy should walk over their bodies. The troops responded with the “Garryowen”. It was used as a march by the 88th Regiment of Foot (Connaught Rangers) during the Peninsular War.

Garryowen was also a favourite during the Crimean War and the US Civil War.

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