Song of the Week 50: Arthur McBride – Paul Brady

A young Paul Brady

This week I’m going to talk about another Irish folk song, Arthur McBride, sometimes known as Arthur McBride and the Sergeant, and the definitive version, by Irish singer songwriter Paul Brady that got Bob Dylan’s attention.

My dad put me on to this tune today. I’ve heard it before, and I’m a fan of Paul Brady’s songwriting. As I said before, Ireland’s a small world, and Dublin is like a little village in many ways. Mr Brady is another you see knocking about.

My dad isn’t always the most reliable source on song trivia, as he often forgets the name of the singer and has only a vague idea of some of the lyrics. “Something about a ´tree´ and a ´horse´ I think. His name is James something or other.” Yeah, Google needs a bit more than that, dad. 🙂 Anyhow he had no trouble remembering this one. He asked me to “fax” it to him after I’ve finished. A slip of the tongue. Ha ha. If you’re reading this: Howya, dad!

Right, I’m not a big fan of rebel songs and the like, being a pacificist at heart, and thankfully there’s a lot more to Irish music than that. This song, Arthur McBride is an anti-war song, more specifically an anti-recruitment song, and what early 60s Dylan fans would have referred to as a protest song.

These types of songs (other examples are Mrs McGrath, Johnny I Hardly Knew You and The Kerry Recruit) became popular in Ireland in the 19th century, where recruiting sergeants were seeing as hate figures, putting shillings in to the hands of impoverished young Irish men who had little choice but to go to war to make their living, but Arthur McBride is most likely much older than that.

It was first collected in 1840 in Limerick by Patrick Weston Joyce Irish historian, teacher, writer and music collector from Ballyorgan on the border between Limerick and Cork. Joyce was a native Irish speaker, who started his education at a hedge school. It was also collected in Donegal by George Petrie, an Irish painter, musician, antiquary (collector of ancient artefacts) and archeologist of the Victorian era.

McBride was a popular name in Donegal, so many researchers believe the song originated there. It’s also a common Scottish name, and the song became popular there and in England during the 19th Century.

It stands out from some other anti-recruiting songs, because of the polite, calm nature of the lyrics, or at least that’s how it starts out!

The song was little known after the mid 19th century. It was only until progressive Irish folk group Planxty (of whom Paul was a member) covered it in 1973, and then Paul Brady tuned his guitar to open G, and made what many consider the definitive version of it in 1976, that it became a standard of the Irish folk scene once again.

Brady’s use of innovative arrangements in alternative tunings revolutionised guitar playing in the traditional Irish traditional music scene of the time. He used intricate finger picking and unexpected harmonic progressions that were more reminiscent of an uilleann piper or a fiddler than a guitarist.

The song mentions being “sent to France”, so it’s thought it’s roots date back to 17th Century Ireland.

1688 was the year of The Glorious (or Bloodless) Revolution in England and also the beginning of The Nine Years War. The Williamite War also took place between 1689 and 1691 in Ireland and culminated in the departure of the Irish Jacobite army to France, the famous Flight of the Wild Geese, as agreed in the Treaty of Limerick on the 3rd of October 1691.

The story goes like this. Two cousins are taking a walk along the beach, when they’re approached by three British Military recruiters, a sergeant, a corporal and a young drummer, who extol the virtues of serving the King, having money to spend, good clothes to wear, good food and an all-round “fine life”, no doubt accompanied by a “charming wife”.

Well, the narrator and his cousin aren’t sold on the Sergeant’s spiel and Arthur addresses the trio thusly.

“But” says Arthur “I wouldn’t be proud of your clothes

For you’ve only the lend of them as I suppose

But you’re dare not change them one night for you know

If you do you’ll be flogged in the morning

And although that we’re single and free

We take great delight in our own company

We have no desire strange places to see

Although that your offers are charming.

“And we have no desire to take your advance

All hazards and dangers we barter on chance

For you’d have no scruples for to send us to France

Where we could get shot without warning”

The clever McBride sees through the talk of freedom and calmly, but firmly counters that the soldiers are not free at all, and are effectively enslaved by their uniforms.


The recruiters take offence, calling the pair “spalpeens” (derived from the Irish word for rascal or lay-about) and the Sergeant threatens to cut off their heads in the morning. A ruckus ensues where Arthur and his cousin batter the bejaysis out of the pair with their fists and a shilellagh (or walking stick), flatten the young drummer boy’s hat, and throw his drum (his rowdy dow dow) and the pair of swords into the sea.

Check out this literal reading of the song filmed on Gormanstown beach north of Dublin, in a video made by a namesake, Tiernan McBride.

“Long gathering dust on a shelf this is Tiernan McBride’s 1977 film of Paul Brady’s song ‘Arthur McBride’. A wonderful document of a wonderful song.”

This little scrap was a while before Daniel O’Connell, the great Irish liberator, and emancipator of catholics, was endorsing non-violent resistance, which went on to inspire the American poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau’s ideas on Civil Disobedience, and Mahatma Ghandi’s Satyagraha (from sanscrit satya meaning “truth” or “love” and agraha, “holding firm to”) against that very same British Empire (who would in turn inspire Nelson Mandela). So we’ll forgive the shillelagh-wielding peace lovers. Ah, shillelagh’s come in handy from time to time. And the phrase “the fightin’ Irish” has a bit of truth to it too, I won’t lie to you. On the subject of shillelaghs letting fly, I’ve a good mind to write about The Rocky Road to Dublin one of these days too. And come to think of it, why shouldn’t Messrs Bush and Blair get a kick in the behind after all they’ve done? That being said, I do not endorse the kicking of political leaders in their arses… in general. Time for a Father Ted video methinks.

But back to the anti-war idea.

Dear John: Lennon wasn’t a believer in Timothy Leary’s “Tune in, turn on, drop out” doctrine mentioned in last week’s SOTW. He believed in staying in and changing the system within. There’s a quote from him in 1968 that I think Arthur McBride himself would have applauded.

“I think our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. And I think that’s what I sussed when I was sixteen and twelve, way down the line. But I expressed it differently all through my life. It’s the same thing I’m expressing all the time. But NOW I can put it into that sentence that I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends, you know. If anybody can put on paper what our government, and the American government, and the Russian, Chinese… what they are all trying to do, and what they THINK they’re doing, I’d be very pleased to know what they think they’re doing. I think they’re all insane. But I am liable to be put away as insane for expressing that, you know. That’s what is insane about it. I mean, don’t you agree?”

“All we are saying is…”

Give Peace a Chance

Yep, I think war is a throwback to the early days of the human race, when one caveman picked up a stick and hit another on the head, and the other caveman came back with a bigger stick, and here we are now, able to destroy the world twenty times over, and that’s progress folks!

Lennon also said “If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.”

Of course, that was before The Wire, Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire, and flatscreen TVs, but his point still stands. People sure do like TV.

The justification behind the spread of the British Empire was that it was a great civilising movement. Well, history tells a different story. Ghandi, when asked what he thought of Western Civilisation, said: “I think it would be a good idea.”

And now an anecdote on the same subject. Carl Jung me a Native American Chief Mountain Lake in New Mexico in 1922, and although the encounter was brief, the Big Chief’s candid appraisal of the restless Western Man had a profound impact on his thinking.  It concerns living the difference between living in the heart and living in the head.

See how cruel the whites look, their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by folds. Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are all mad.”

Jung asked why he thought that and Chief Mountain Lake replied, because “they say they think with their heads.”

“’Why of course, says Jung, ‘What do you think with?’

“’We think here,’  said the Chief, pointing to his heart.

“After this exchange, Jung fell into a deep meditation. The Pueblo Chief had struck a vulnerable spot. Jung saw image upon image of cruelties wreaked by his forebears: the Roman eagle on the North Sea and the White Nile, the keenly incised features of Julius Caesar,…Charlemagne’s most glorious forced conversions of the heathen… the peoples of the Pacific islands decimated by firewater, syphilis and scarlet fever carried in the clothes the missionaries forced on them.”

Well, I think Lennon was on to something. Insanity.

“Chief Mountain Lake had shown Jung the other face of his own civilization: it was ‘the face of a bird of prey seeking with cruel intentness for distant quarry…”

The following quote brings to mind an image of the first Europeans reaching the New World with their novelty mirrors and worthless trinkets looking to barter them for gold and other riches. The Europeans had something more than friendly interaction in mind.

They were in it for what they could get out of it. Not much has changed these days, has it? To borrow a phrase from today’s song of the week singer  it’s “Nothing But The Same Old Story”. Click on the link to hear Brady’s classic edgy meditation on being an Irish immigrant over the Irish Sea at the beginning of The Troubles.

So, what about Mr Brady?

Well, he was born in May 1947 in Stradbane County Tyrone in Northern Island on the border with County Donegal Republic of Ireland.His father was a music teacher and he went to school in County Derry and then college in UCD, my own alma mater.

He began learning piano at age 6 and by age 11 he started playing guitar, learning every Shadows and Ventures song recorded and was also strongly influenced by Chuck Berry.

He started off professionally as a hotel piano player in Bundoran, Donegal, and performed in a string of R&B groups.

Adelphi Cinema Dublin

He can be seen in the film about The Rolling Stones Charlie is My Darling waiting outside Dublin’s Adelphi Theatre for The ‘ Stones to turn up for their concert in 1965.

During his time in Dublin, Ireland began to see a huge rise in the popularity of traditional music. He joined the popular Irish band The Johnstons (who formed out of the Irish Showband Scene) in 1967 after Michael Johnston left earlier that summer. They moved to London in 1969 and then New York in 1972 in a bid to expand their audience. There’s a low-budget short documentary on youtube. Less than 6 minutes long…

Despite considerable success and attention from musical bigwigs like Dylan, he decided to return to Ireland in 1974 and joined the much-loved Irish folk band Planxty, which would launch the solo careers of Andy Irvine, Liamòg O’Flynn, Dónal Lunny and Christy Moore. Andy sang the song on this occasion. Here’s their version of Arthur McBride.

After the group split, he teamed up as a duo with Irvine from 1976 to 1978 producing the album Andy Irvine and Paul Brady to great critical acclaim. He became known as a great interpreter of traditional Irish songs. His versions of Arthur McBride and The Lakes of Ponchartrain are considered definitive.

1978 saw the release of his first solo album, Welcome Here Kind Stranger, which won Melody Maker Folk Album of the year, but this would be his last venture into traditional folk music. From then on, he ploughed the field of pop and rock, the first of which was 1981’s Hard Station.

It took the public a while to catch on, and reviews were mixed at first, but by the end of the decade he was widely respected as a songwriter and performer. His songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Santana, Dave Edmunds, and Tina Turner who recorded Paradise is Here for her Breaking Every Rule album in 1986. By this time he was being acknowledged in the press by Bob Dylan and Bonny Raitt, who dueted with him on his 1991 album, a remixed collection of earlier songs, Trick or Treat and she would go on to include two of his songs on her album Luck of the Draw, including the title track.

He’s also collaborated with Richard Thompson, Mark Knopfler, Tanita Tikaram, Curtis Stigers, John Martyn, Marianne Faithful, Patti Smith, Ron Wood, Keith Richard, and Charlie Watts and many others.

Dylan famously name-checked him in the booklet for his 1985 box set Biograph. “People get too famous too fast these days, and it destroys them. Some guys got it down- Leonard Cohen, Paul Brady, Lou Reed, secret heroes, John Prine, David Allen Coe, Tom Waits.” Pretty illustrious company if you ask me… “I listen to more of that stuff than whatever is popular at the moment. They’re not just witchdoctoring up the planet, they don’t set up barriers…”


After hearing Paul Brady play Arthur McBride, Dylan was impressed. Brady recalls that Dylan asked him years later “what guitar tuning do you use on Arthur McBride?”

It’s in open G, a tuning Dylan was already familiar with. It inspired his change of musical direction on 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. Dylan would go on to play Paul’s arrangement of the song on his 1992 covers album Good as I Been to You. As usual it’s difficult to find Dylan songs online, but you can click the link here if you want to check it out on Spotify.

Brady had already been performing the song for several years when he got around to recording it for the ‘Andy Irvine and Paul Brady’ album in 1976. For Brady it was just another track, but for many it went on to define him as an artist in the early period before he’d released his own original material.

Brady had to cross the Atlantic to learn the song, which may have originated just a few miles west of where he was born. A friend showed him a copy of a book called A Heritage of Songs while he was in the U.S. in 1972. He became taken with the song and started performing it.

Here’s Paul himself performing the song live in all its glory.


And here are the lyrics…

Arthur McBride

Oh, me and my cousin, one Arthur McBride
As we went a-walking down by the seaside
Now, mark what followed and what did betide
For it being on Christmas morning…
Out for recreation, we went on a tramp
And we met Sergeant Napper and Corporal Vamp
And a little wee drummer, intending to camp
For the day being pleasant and charming.

“Good morning ! Good morning!” the sergeant did cry
“And the same to you gentlemen!” we did reply ,
Intending no harm but meant to pass by
For it being on Christmas morning.
But says he, “My fine fellows if you will enlist,
It’s ten guineas in gold I will slip in your fist
And a crown in the bargain for to kick up the dust
And drink the King’s health in the morning.

For a soldier he leads a very fine life
And he always is blessed with a charming young wife
And he pays all his debts without sorrow or strife
And always lives pleasant and charming…
And a soldier he always is decent and clean
In the finest of clothing he’s constantly seen
While other poor fellows go dirty and mean
And sup on thin gruel in the morning.”

“But”, says Arthur, “I wouldn’t be proud of your clothes
For you’ve only the lend of them as I suppose
And you dare not change them one night, for you know
If you do you’ll be flogged in the morning.
And although that we are single and free
we take great delight in our own company
And we have no desire strange faces to see
Although that your offers are charming
And we have no desire to take your advance
All hazards and dangers we barter on chance
For you would have no scruples for to send us to France
Where we would get shot without warning”

“Oh now!”, says the sergeant “I’ll have no such chat
And I neither will take it from spalpeen or brat
For if you insult me with one other word
I’ll cut off your heads in the morning”
And then Arthur and I we soon drew our hods
And we scarce gave them time for to draw their own blades
When a trusty shillelagh came over their heads
And bade them take that as fair warning

And their old rusty rapiers that hung by their side
We flung them as far as we could in the tide
“Now take them out, Divils!”, cried Arthur McBride
“And temper their edge in the morning”.
And the little wee drummer we flattened his pow
And we made a football of his rowdey dow dow
Threw it in the tide for to rock and to row
And bade it a tedious returning

And we having no money, paid them off in cracks
And we paid no respect to their two bloody backs
For we lathered them there like a pair of wet sacks
And left them for dead in the morning.
And so to conclude and to finish disputes
We obligingly asked if they wanted recruits
For we were the lads who would give them hard clouts
And bid them look sharp in the morning.

Oh me and my cousin, one Arthur McBride
As we went a walkin’ down by the seaside,
Now mark what followed and what did betide
For it being on Christmas morning

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12 thoughts on “Song of the Week 50: Arthur McBride – Paul Brady

  1. Great piece, the way you wove it all together, the Irish, Lennon, Dylan, Jung and the Native American viewpoints (I live in New Mexico). I found it especially interesting as I just finished reading something about the Flight of the Wild Geese. And then, I always enjoy being exposed to music (and history!) I’m not familiar with (like Paul Brady, and The Johnstons). Thanks! This may be some sort of blasphemy to a music person such as yourself, and an Irish one to boot, but the Johnstons brought to mind the early, early Abba songs. Forgive me if I know not of what I speak. 😉

    1. Hey there. Thanks for the comment. Not blasfemy at all. 🙂 I’m just listening now. The female singers of both have very pure clear voices, so you might have a point, and there’s a kind of innocence and enthusiasm to the music of both groups. If you like that kind of voice, you should check out Vashti Bunyan’s first album. She had a wonderful singing voice. I may do a song of the week on her at some stage too. It was produced by Joe Boyd who’s come up in a couple of posts, and the arrangements were put together by Robert Kirkby who also worked with Nick Drake. She abandoned the music business for three decades after the album failed commercially. Another lost classic. Enjoy…

      1. I do like that kind of voice and I will check it out. Thanks!

        I think you should compile all of these posts into a book (with an accompanying DVD/CD ?) called Padraig O’Connor: Music Sleuth – Uncovering the Mysteries and Tragedies Behind Lost Classics. 🙂

        Here’s one for you, not a lost classic, I don’t think…but I listened to this beautiful song called I’ll Be By done by Hall & Oates, from an album called Back in Love Again (?), and I was curious if it was an old song, one they wrote or someone else, basically where it came from. Couldn’t find anything on it. Are you familiar with it?

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  3. Hi, I enjoyed this (some years after you wrote it).

    “The song was little known after the mid 19th century. It was only until progressive Irish folk group Planxty (of whom Paul was a member) covered it in 1973…”

    It’s worth noting that Arthur McBride (or a version of it) was not uncommon on the UK folk circuit by the time Planxty recorded it. Martin Carthy had recorded it in 1969 and a Scottish band called The Exiles in 1966, and there are a few other versions. Paul Brady may say he got it (and the extra words) from the US but it was definitely around and available and I’m aware Brady himself did live in London for a period – do we know exactly when? Although we are on different islands there is always cultural currency between the two. I still think his later version is the best, though.

    1. Hi, thanks for reading Toby. Fair point! It’s possible Brady wasn’t that familiar with the song until he discovered it, or maybe he just came across the extra verses. We’d have to ask him. 🙂 Do you have a youtube link to any of the other versions? I’d be interested to hear them. I agree. We have more in common than not. And both islands have played their part in enriching the other. Not to mention we have had similar reasons for writing protest songs down the years.

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