The Drogheda-based ballad maker, John Sheil, was celebrated by local singers on a special walking tour, on July 6 led by community historian, Brendan Matthews (pictured above), to mark the 150th anniversary of the writer’s death in July 1872.
Among the local singers who took part in the event were Gerry Cullen, Pat Carolan, Stuart Carolan, Ruth Campbell and David O’Connor along with Seán Faulkner. Sheil’s songs – which range from the parochial – Sweet Dooley Gate, The Rose of Ardee, Sweet Baltray, Hannah Healy the Pride of Howth – through the romantic and the satirical to the overtly political – The Rights of Man and Sweet Liberty – are still heard at singing sessions around Ireland to this day.
In particular, Sheil is credited with playing a pivotal role in the transition between Gaelic song and Hiberno-English song during the nineteenth century, in which the melodies and sound-patterns of Gaelic song were frequently imprinted onto the new songs appearing in the English language. Sheil’s prolific output provide a number of examples of this development.
Born in 1784 possibly in or near Lurgan in Co. Armagh, Sheil spent most of his life in Drogheda – a weaver by trade who supplemented his earnings by his facility with words. At a time when the creation and sale of ballad sheets was a thriving trade, Sheil was commissioned to write ballads by local printer, Patrick Kelly of West Street, who later went on to establish the Drogheda Argus newspaper.
The ballad sheets were then distributed to ballad-mongers or sellers who would tour the country seeking any large gatherings like fairs or sporting events where there might be an audience for the songs. Sheil was advised in advance of the target markets of the balladmongers and therefore, often wrote songs to order with references to specific places or indeed events. In this sense, he could be described as a commercial songwriter.
The trade in ballad sheets proved to be very lucrative for the ballad-mongers, who, it is claimed, had incomes ten times the average agricultural wage – assuming, of course, they managaed to avoid having their earnings and ballad sheets confiscated by the constabulary. One such ballad-monger George Faulkner from Ardee, who, being blind, was escorted on his travels by his wife, seems to have been arrested many times in various parts of the country for singing seditious songs. The ensuing police reports along with the confiscated ballad sheets were forwarded to Dublin Castle).
As well as wiritng for ballad sheets, Sheil also arranged for collections of his compositions to be printed in song books like Sheil’s Love Songs and Sheil’s Shamrock – an anthology of patriotic and political songs.
Radical in his politics, it is believed that Sheil’s father was active in the Society of United Irishmen at the time of the 1798 rebellion and that the young Sheil accaompanied his father to Killala in Co. Mayo where he may have witnessed the French landing. He was present at Daniel O’Connell’s Monster Meeting in Tara in 1843 having travelled with the Drogheda Harp Society and many other organisations and individuals from Drogheda marching behind their resplendent banners,
He is also reported extensively in a local newspaper as the spokesperson for the weavers of Drogheda at a political meeting in the Linen Hall in Drogheda in 1847 to consider the forthcoming Parliamentary election.
Following his death in 1872, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Drogheda’s Cord Road cemetery. Sheil had written his own epitaph – which, in the absence of a definitive grave, was finally placed at the entrance to the cemetery in 2018 following a joint initiative by the Louth Archaeological Society and the Old Drogheda Society – and unveiled by the late Seán Corcoran – singer, musician, song collector and researecher – and the then Mayor of Drogheda, Frank Godfrey.