Joyce’s Ballad Sheets

In his published collections Patrick Weston Joyce occasionally makes disparaging remarks about Irish traditional songs in the English language – which he calls ‘Anglo-Irish Peasant Songs’ or the ‘Peasant or Folk Songs of Ireland written in English’. The words of particular songs are ‘very rude and worthless’ or ‘not worth printing’. He thought them as a class ‘very inferior to those in Irish; for the good reason that the song-writers were only imperfectly acquainted with English, while they were quite at home in Irish’.

But the English-language songs were also part of his fond childhood memories; he had heard them sung by his father and neighbours. His conflicted feelings about them are to be seen in his comments on the first item he published in his first collection of 1873: ‘Both the air and the words of this ballad appear to me to possess much simple beauty and feeling… the words are still sung… though so very much corrupted as to be quite barbarous… I have amended several corrupt stanzas’. His final statement on these songs, made in his last published collection of 1909, can be taken to reflect his true feelings when he quotes another writer on their ‘simplicity, directness, and force’ and on the ‘charm’ that ‘recommends strains so rude and naked to the most cultivated minds. These ballads have done what the songs of our greatest lyric poets have not done – delighted both the educated and the ignorant’.

Further proof of his true taste can be seen in a little-known part of Joyce’s musical legacy: his large personal collection of some 770 original Irish ballad sheets in the English language (with some few in Irish in a phonetic orthography, and some macaronic in Irish and English). He acquired this collection over some decades in the second half of the nineteenth century, probably from street sellers, and diligently pasted them into two surviving scrapbooks, sometimes annotating them.

These scrapbooks were acquired by the Dublin City Library and Archive, Pearse St, Dublin 2, by purchase in 2001. By kind permission of the Dublin City Library and Archive, ITMA staff were faciltated in digitising the scrapbooks, and further permission was given to freely publish them in facsimile here, online as part of the ITMA Joyce Microsite.

The scrapbooks are presented here page by page so as to represent them as artefacts created by Joyce, and to preserve their rough chronology as created by him. Scans of the individual ballad sheets are also available online within the Dublin City Library and Archive, where the original scrapbooks can also be seen. The sheets have a great intrinsic interest as part of the story of Irish traditional song, and they also throw light on Joyce’s editing of traditional song texts.

For its generous cooperation on this joint project, ITMA is grateful to the Dublin City Library and Archive, and in particular to Dr Máire Kennedy, Divisional Librarian in charge of Special Collections, Dublin City Libraries; and to Ms Margaret Hayes, Dublin City Librarian.

ballad sheets

ballad sheets
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