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  • Print and Oral Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Irish Ballad
  • Julie Henigan (bio)

Adam Fox states the obvious when he comments that the implications of literacy “vary between societies and over time” and “depend upon the particular circumstances of their dissemination and use.”1 Thus, although printed balladry in Ireland initially depended almost entirely on imports from Britain (London in particular), it increasingly displayed cultural, linguistic, and literary qualities of its own—qualities that in turn came to exercise a strong influence on printed ballads in Britain. Moreover, despite the fact that Irish printed ballads embraced a broad linguistic and artistic spectrum, there is ample evidence to indicate that the audience for these songs became increasingly heterogeneous during the course of the century, reflecting not only growing literacy but also dynamic social interaction. This interchange belies the notion that the educated classes and the peasantry inhabited two wholly discrete cultural worlds, one literate and the other oral.

Unfortunately, as Hugh Shields notes, “The ballad press of the eighteenth century, so far as we know it, gives a patchy view of song repertory, for sheets and songbooks are unevenly preserved.”2 Despite early allusions to ballads, few ballad sheets or either prose or song chapbooks (of either British or Irish provenance) survive in Ireland from before 1700—indeed, not in any numbers until the latter part of the eighteenth century. We [End Page 161] know from several references that ballads were reasonably widespread in Ireland from at least the late seventeenth century. Limerick-based Dáibhí Ó Bruadair disparaged sráidéigse (“street poetry”) and, in a poem from 1675 or ’76, he took aim at “aos órtha an fhuairsceidill” (“the chanters of the frigid sheets”).3 In 1692, a poet—possibly Cormac Ó Luinín—addressed Sir Richard Cox (Lord Chancellor of Ireland from 1703–07) thus:

Ná raibh tú et cailleach an hata Ag crois margaidh lá geimhriota, Is caimbeul ort go suighe do chluais, A’ bollsaireact bailéd go chrithfhuar.4

May you not find yourself and the hag with the hat At the market cross on a winter’s day, Grimacing from ear to ear, Bawling ballads, and shivering with the cold.

Other indirect evidence of the early Irish ballad trade exists in the form of newspaper reports and printers’ advertisements. Of the former, perhaps the most interesting is a piece in the Dublin Gazette of 1712/13, which mentions the Dublin printing of two murder ballads, both in the Palatine, and while refuting their validity, relates their contents. The first title is especially designed to pique prurient interest:

A true Discovery of this Barbarous and Bloody Murder on the Body of Sarah Walker, by a Palatine innkeeper in the County of Kildare, who is suspected to make it his common way of devouring and trappaning of several men and women that pass’d that way. Together with the manner of his Salting their Bodies in Barrels, and made use of the same for eating.5

Meanwhile, an advertisement by a ballad-singer named John Hicks, of “Smoke-Alley” (Smock Alley) appears in the Dublin Flying Post of 6 July 1708, recommending “all sorts of the Newest Song Books and Ballads” to “Country Chap-Men” and others. The Reindeer at Mountrath Street is mentioned several times: in c. 1722, as the publisher for “The Weaver’s Lamentation”; in the same year, for the “Printing and Selling a Seditious Ballad,”6 in 1723, in relation to the piracy of a speech “learnedly compil’d and Publish’d 3 Months ago by the Ingenious Society of Ballad-Singers of Mountrath Street; and later still, in connection with Goldsmith’s putative youthful ballad-making in the 1740s. It is thus clear that the Mountrath establishment was a site of ballad-printing for several decades,7 and the [End Page 162] dearth of surviving sheets probably reflects the ephemerality of such “low-grade publications” rather than a lack of trade.8 Ballad sheets in the Gilbert Library in Dublin from the 1720s (albeit of the more upmarket variety) contribute a number of printers’ names, including George Faulkner in Pembroke-Court Castle-street, Elizabeth Sadlier, on Blind-Key, S. Powell in Crane-lane, Tho...


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