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Story Behind the Song: The Ballad of Joe McDonnell

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“The Ballad of Joe McDonnell” is the focus of this week’s Story Behind the Song Column as we mark 40 years since his passing. The Story Behind the Song Column is a weekly feature on The Gaelic American where we examine the true meaning and stories behind Ireland’s most iconic songs.

Oh me name is Joe McDonnell 

From Belfast town I came

That city I will

Never see again

For in the town of Belfast

I spent many happy days

I love that town in oh so many ways

For it’s there I spent my childhood and found

For me a wife

I then set out to make

For her a life

But all my young ambitions met with bitterness and hate

I soon found myself inside a prison gate

 

And you dare to call me a terrorist

While you looked down your gun

When I think of all the deeds that you had done

You had plundered many nations divided many lands

You had terrorised their peoples you ruled with an iron hand

And you brought this reign of terror to my land

 

Through those many months internment

In the Maidstone and the Maze

I thought about my land throughout those days

Why my country was divided, why I was now in jail

Imprisoned without crime or without trial

And though I love my country I am not a bitter man

I’ve seen cruelty and injustice at first hand

So then one fateful morning I shook bold freedom’s hand

For right or wrong I’d try to free my land

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And you dare to call me a terrorist

While you looked down your gun

When I think of all the deeds that you had done

You had plundered many nations divided many lands

You had terrorised their peoples you ruled with an iron hand

And you brought this reign of terror to my land

 

Then one cold October morning trapped in a lion’s den

I found myself in prison once again

I was committed to the H-blocks for fourteen years or more

On the Blanket the conditions they were poor

Then a hunger strike we did commence for the dignity of man

But it seemed to me that no one gave a damn

But now, I’m a saddened man I’ve watched my comrades die

If only people cared or wondered why

 

And you dare to call me a terrorist

While you looked down your gun

When I think of all the deeds that you had done

You had plundered many nations divided many lands

You had terrorised their peoples you ruled with an iron hand

And you brought this reign of terror to my land

 

May God shine on you Bobby Sands

For the courage you have shown

May your glory and your fame be widely known

And Francis Hughes and Ray McCreesh who died unselfishly

And Patsy O Hara and the next in line is me

And those who lie behind me may you’re courage be the same

And I pray to God my life is not in vain

Ah but sad and bitter was the year of 1981

For everything I’ve lost and nothing’s won.

 

The Ballad of Joe McDonnell was written by Brian Warfield as a tribute to the fifth hunger striker of 1981. The song is an excellent example of storytelling through song, as it charts the life of a young man growing up in The Troubles, “trapped in a lion’s den”. It also points out the hypocrisy of the British government, a foreign power holding six counties captive by physical force while condemning those who use physical force to defend their communities. Joe McDonnell experienced sectarian discrimination growing up and was later interned, influencing his decision to join the republican movement upon his release. He was arrested alongside Bobby Sands and others, being given 14-year sentences for the possession of a single handgun in the car they were in. He died after 61 days on hunger strike to regain political status for his comrades, leaving behind his wife and two children in an act of selfless sacrifice. He is buried in Milltown Cemetery, Belfast, alongside Bobby Sands.

 

By Micheál Ó Colm. Micheál is an alumnus of Iona College and serves as Chief Financial Officer of The Gaelic American.

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