Frank McNally: The bitter grapes of Vinegar Hill

An Irishman’s Diary about the Boys of Wexford, alcohol and JFK

I see that a musical commemoration of John F Kennedy, in the National Concert Hall tomorrow, will include an orchestrated version of The Boys of Wexford. And I'll come back to that shortly. But in the meantime, mention of the ballad reminds me of my recent suggestion (Irishman's Diary October 23rd) that some qualified person should write an alcohol-themed history of Ireland.

The idea, to recap, was for a history that would explain past (and maybe some present) events in the context of whether decision-makers were drunk or hungover at key moments. My fear was that reliable witnesses – and evidence in general – would be hard to find. But I'm more optimistic now because, as the The Boys of Wexford testifies, the story of alcohol as a player in Irish history is not entirely unrecorded.

If anything, the song overstates its influence on the events of 1798. Thus it says: “We bravely fought and conquered at ’Ross and Wexford Town/And if we failed to keep them, ’twas drink that brought us down”. Whereas, drink aside, it’s well known that the Boys of Wexford were also undone by – if you’ll pardon the musical pun – their lack of orchestration.

The song mentions this too, lamenting: "And if for want of leaders, we lost at Vinegar Hill/We're ready for another fight and love our country still". Nevertheless, in his Concise History of Ireland (1909), PW Joyce did see fit to mention (twice) the extent to which the Wexford rebels "fell to drink", while celebrating victories, as a factor in their ultimate defeat.


Maybe this is what GK Chesterton meant when he wrote that "the great Gaels of Ireland were the men that God made mad/For all their wars were merry and all their songs were sad". Yet even the paradox-loving Chesterton's paradoxes might have been nonplussed by the The Boys of Wexford, whose overall tone is cheerful, despite being about a military defeat and massacre.

It's not the only Irish ballad to mention drink as a decisive factor in events, either. And the other one I can think of, The Boyne Water, is also cheerful, but more understandably so, because it was written by the winners.

They identified alcohol – brandy in particular – as a powerful ally on the day, hence the verse: “Prince Eugene’s regiment was the next, on our right hand advanced/Into a field of standing wheat, where Irish horses pranced;/But the brandy ran so in their heads, their senses all did scatter,/They little thought to leave their bones that day at the Boyne Water”.

This too was based on fact although, contrary to what the lyrics suggest, the Irish horses had not been drinking, only the soldiers. King James approved a judicious allocation of spirits on the eve of battle. But the drink was too-freely consumed and, in the process, about 1,000 of his soldiers were rendered legless.

Now I know there’s nothing uniquely Irish about armies drinking. While drunkenness is not an ideal state in which to face the risk of violent death or dismemberment, neither – as King James knew – is complete sobriety. Consequently, even the Battle of Waterloo was characterised as a contest between “wine and beer” (in fairness, the historian was referring to the clash of drinking cultures, rather than immediately-previous consumption).

But I suspect it would be a much more persistent theme in this country’s history. As Vinnie Byrne, a rebel of a more recent era (the 1920s) implied, it was among the many logistical challenges with which even Michael Collins had to cope. “[Collins] was a marvel,” he said. “If he hadn’t done the work he did, we’d still be under Britain. Informers and drink would have taken care of us.”

Anyway, I look forward to a definitive work on the subject, eventually. In the meantime, as I was saying, The Boys of Wexford will feature in JFK commemoration at the NCH tomorrow night: an early instalment of events to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.

Presented by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, the programme will be predominantly American, ranging from Leonard Bernstein's inauguration theme, via Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, to Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. John Williams also features while, alongside The Boys of Wexford, Tchaikovsky will fly the flag for Europe.

JFK, by the way, was not a big drinker – maybe that’s how he won the US presidency. But I note with poignancy that inclusion of the Irish ballad tomorrow night is meant to represent one of the happier episodes in his life: the June 1963 home-coming to his ancestral county where, among other things, he joined his Wexford cousins for “a tea party”.