In the rich tradition of Irish folksongs, no genre is simultaneously more popular and more controversial than the rebel songs. These songs celebrate Ireland’s long and dismal struggles against imperial oppression and lionize the men and women who fought in them, and are a thrilling reminder of hard-won freedom. However, they provide a legitimizing link from ancient battles against the English to the recent Troubles, and rebel songs both ancient and modern tend to whitewash brutality on the Irish side. So rebel songs are a mixed bag, being both overly simplistic and carrying great weights of complex historical baggage.
These three songs exemplify these issues. Foggy Dew is about the failed Easter Rising of 1916 that was the catalyst for eventual Irish freedom in 1922. Not mentioned in the song is the extreme unpopularity of the rising with most Irish people, whose sons were fighting in the First World War.
The Rising of the Moon is about another failed rising of 1798, where the Irish were so short of weapons they had to be armed with pikes (basically, long spears). The song makes no mention of the sectarian atrocities between Catholics and Protestants.
Finally, The Minstrel Boy is about a young musician going off to fight in the 1798 rebellion, and became very popular in the American Civil War. While the boy’s indomitable spirit is very moving, it is also a reminder that nations always ask their youngest and ablest to make sacrifices for the rest.