Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Dónal O'Connor (left) and Gerry Beirne (right)) After the absence of live…
The Traditional Song Forum’s Broadside Extra one-day conference was held in Dublin for the first time on October 15. The TSF’s focus on broadsides, brings together researchers, performers and enthusiasts to explore the fascinating field of cheap print and street literature of the past: including broadsides, chapbooks, last dying speeches, catchpennies, garlands and news sheets, penny histories and children’s books, popular prints, pedlars, jobbing printers. ballad-singers, and so on.
Chaired jointly by Steve Roud and Catherine Ann Cullen, the conference at the Technological University Dublin benefitted from international participation – both in person and remotely via livestream. A total of nine tightly focussed papers were delivered during the course of the day with opportunities for questions and comments from the audience in the hall and online.
The opening paper, entitled The Burthen of Her Song”: Glimpses of Women Ballad Singers, Writers and Printers in 19th Century Ireland was delivered by poet and researcher, Catherine Ann Cullen, who noted that although women were writing, singing, selling and printing ballads in nineteenth century Ireland, there is little record of them either in printed ballads/broadsides or in extant research. When they appear, they are frequently unidentified, like Samuel Lover’s “female ballad hawker” or “old dowager” who “wheezed out… the burthen of her song”(1831). They may be known by a nickname, but unlike “Zozimus” (Michael Moran), the real names of “Ranting Sal”, “Warbling Biddy” or “Limping Kitty” have yet to emerge through the mist of history.
So Cullen’s continuing mission has been to uncover as many as possible of the names and works of neglected women using sources including newspapers, civil and church records and reminiscences – like Catherine Haly, who carried on the family printing business in Cork from the 1840s, although her first name does not appear on her work; Mary Madden, a blind woman from Limerick and a source of
songs in Irish for George Petrie’s Ancient Music of Ireland (1855); and other women who fell foul of the courts and/or suffered physically and mentally for their occupation. One such was Anne Dunne, who collapsed on the street in Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) in 1874: a doctor diagnosed epilepsy aggravated by the hardships endured as a poor wandering singer. Another attempted suicide in a Belfast cell after being charged with drunkenness.
original ballad and the subsequent burlesque with the chracteristic
tune that gave rise to a proliferation of songs using the same air found
in Britain and North America – including, for example, Master McGrath and The German Clockwinder in Ireland.
In his paper, The Dead Man Come To Life Again, or, Edward Albert’s Life Story, song researcher, Oskar Cox Jensen, recalled the story of the crossing-sweeper, Edward Albert, who was mentioned by name in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Although Albert considered himself a mere beggar having abandoned his true vocation as a pastry-chef, he was both an autobiographer and songwriter, responsible for the pamphlet, Brief Sketch of the Life of Edward Albert or the Dead Man Come to Life Again, of which only a single copy is extant. A Black Briton descended from Jamaican slaves, Albert’s story included a horrifying assault off Cape Horn after which he lost both legs after being left for dead. In his paper, Jensen considered the pamphlet in terms of the links between cheap print and identity in early Victorian London, as well as examining its intriguing elements – multiple printers, images, interpolated official documents, prose account and song.
One of Britain’s foremost authorities on street ballads, David Atkinson presented Old Ballads in England, c.1730–c.1780 – in which he surveyed the large broadsides printed during the period with between eighty and two hundred lines. Noting that some of the titles had originated in the previous century, he added that others were newer and apparently of eighteenth-century origin. Beginning with the catalogues issued in 1754 and 1764 by the firm of William and Cluer Dicey, later Cluer Dicey and Richard Marshall, located in London, it has been possible to compile a list of the core repertoire, amounting to some 500 titles. Of these ‘old ballads’, less than fifty are included in Child collection, and of those almost twenty are Robin Hood ballads.
The ‘old ballads’ deal with topics including domestic tragedies and murders, as well as more humorous stories, historical and legendary subjects, along with religion and popular theology. Several were collected at a later date, in one form or another, as folk songs. The ‘old ballads’ provided eighteenth-century citizens with a modest kind of imaginative literature, with its own narrative, poetic, and melodic traditions and conventions. As William Gifford wrote, they provided the ordinary people with “much curious knowledge” from outside of their daily experience.
In her presentation, A Hand-Coloured Broad Sheet, poet and scholar, Jane Robinson, discussed the 24 hand-coloured broadsheets edited and designed by the Irish artist, Jack B. Yeats, initially in collaboration with the American artist and mystic, Pamela Coleman Smith, and published monthly by Elkin Matthews, in London for the years 1902 and 1903.
These monthly broadsheets, measuring 15 by 20 inches and printed on one side, each contained several original woodblock-style illustrations alongside poems from contributors including W. B. Yeats, George Russell (AE), John Masefield, Douglas Hyde and the blind poet Raftery (both translated by Lady Gregory), alongside traditional ballad translations. They had high production values and were intended for sale to the friends and supporters of the artists and writers involved, many of whom were influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris.
Prompted by the renewed interest in the song, No Irish Need Apply, popularised by the late Pete Seeger, retired librarian and ongoing folk music and song enthusiast, Martin Nail, not only identified the two nineteenth century songs from which Seeger blended the narrative from one with the chorus from the other, he found three more songs with the same title in American and English (and one Irish) broadsides and songsters from the second half of the nineteenth century.
While the antecedents of Seeger’s song are set within a distinctly American context, the two songs from this side of the Atlantic set the narrative in Britain with one written in a female voice describes the subject as looking for work in domestic service.
In opening his presentation on John Sheil: Weaver, Political Firebrand and Songwriter, Inishowen-based song collector and researcher, John Moulden, noted that ballad sheets and song books printed in Ireland in nineteenth century very rarely included the name of the song’s author since to do so could invite prosecution – especially if the songs were considered to be politically controversial. So, it was remarkable that one prolific song-writer – responsible for well over 400 songs – not only proclaimed his romantic compositions under the title of Sheil’s Love Songs but also promoted his political works under the title: Sheil’s Shamrock. His work circulated in little books and on ballad sheets. A number of John Sheil’s songs survived into twentieth century oral tradition, with his adopted home town of Drogheda playing an important role in their preservation – especially the Usher and Carolan families.
A weaver by trade, most likely born in county Armagh, Sheil was influenced by the Society of United Irishmen, among whose ranks was his father. He is believed to have accompanied his father to Killala in 1798 at the age of fourteen. Vilified by the local Tory press in Drogheda. Sheil became a prominent spokesman for his fellow weavers in matters of trade and politics. He engaged with a partnership og sorts with local printer, Patrick Kelly, who later founded The Argus newspaper. Sheil began to write songs for sale by ballad-sellers (on themes appropriate to places or events along the sellers’ routes) alongside his more political songs like the iconic Rights of Man or the lesser known but even more direct Sweet Liberty. By contrast the extremely verbose but also very bawdy Cuckoo’s Nest has also been attributed to Sheil.
While Sheil was identified by the late Seán Corcoran as playing an important role in the literary transition from the old Gaelic poets to the emergence of English language writers, the facility of his song construction alongside the richness of his vocabulary – not to mention the prolific nature of his output – has led others (with John Moulden among them) to suggest that Sheil is probably the best writer of his class and perhaps superior to the more educated poets of nineteenth century Ireland; and thus one of those responsible for “the best Irish-English poetry before Yeats,” to quote poet and academic, John Hollowa
In the final presentation of the conference, Down the Bibliographical Rabbit Hole: Documenting Cheap Print and Women’s Labour, publishing researcher, Sara Penn, examined the prolific English chapbook publisher, Ann Lemoine (fl.1786–1820), and her anonymous chapbooks to reflect on literary history’s biases against cheaply produced material and against work originated by women. Predominantly considered lowbrow productions in both their material form and textual content, Lemoine’s cheaply bound booklets covering recipes, songs and tales were widely disseminated among the late eighteenth-century’s working-class. By combining archival research and digital humanities, Penn outlined how the study of Lemoine and her chapbooks encapuslates several of the bibliographical challenges facing researchers into eighteenth-century British book history. Of the 20% of Lemoine’s books that have been digitized, there are noticeable inconsistencies in the ways her chapbooks are attributed, collected, and categorized. How can we accurately capture attribution when most chapbooks are anonymous? Are they collected in the same way as codices? How should we categorize chapbooks in terms of form and genre? A bibliographical analysis of Lemoine’s books that answers such questions will not only inform a broader understanding of how cheap print is treated in book history but will also exemplify the disruptions that cheap print imposes on bibliography.
The Traditional Song Forum’s Broadside Day conference has been held every February for almost 20 years, but whenever possible the TSF likes to add a second event – Broadside Extra – in the autumn, in partnership with other institutions and organisations. The partners for the Dublin conference were the School of Media and Centre for Critical Media Literacy at the Technological University of Dublin, the Irish Traditional Music Archive and An Góilín Traditional Singers, Dublin.