Custer’s Last Tune – Frank McNally on the dubious history of the ballad Garryowen

Garryowen, or a version of it, became a regimental anthem on both sides of the Atlantic

Near the Korean border recently, we passed what used to be “Camp Garryowen”, once part of the US army’s first of line of defence against an invasion from the north.

The name commemorates not so much the eponymous Limerick neighbourhood as the jig and marching song of the same title, much beloved of British and American military regiments.

Teddy Roosevelt once described that as “the greatest fighting tune in the world”, an opinion broadly shared by General Custer, whose 7th Cavalry used it as their battle cry.

But for the same reason, it was less popular with the “Plains Indians”, who were on the receiving of Custer’s 1860s/70s campaign and called the tune “devil’s music”.


The relationship between “Garryowen” and Native Americans has been likened by one commentator to that between “Deutschland Über Alles and the Jews”, a subject to which we’ll return.

Originally an Irish or Scottish jig, sometimes called “Auld Bessy”, the tune does not easily lend itself to lyrics.

“Sometimes there is found a traditional air that seems to be the despair of the poets,” lamented Irish American music collector Josephine Patricia Smith.

“It seems that the melody contains some wild rakish element that refuses to be tied down ... The finished product remains an unbalanced and more of less unsingable song.”

Hence what she called the “feeble attempt” by Thomas Moore to turn Auld Bessie into a love ballad called “We May Roam Through This World” (later rearranged by Beethoven).

Of another attempt, elsewhere, Smith wrote: “Some obscure balladist tried his hand at making ‘Garryowen’ a song in praise of Bacchus, but it proved to be a ribald effusion that reflected no credit on historic Limerick.”

The ballad she was talking about is a celebration of, among other things, vandalism, as in this verse:

“We are the boys that take delight in/Smashing the Limerick lamps when lighting/Through the streets like sporters fighting/And tearing all before us.”

But it was this, or a version of it, that became a regimental anthem on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps tellingly, in the 1941 Western They Died with Their Boots On, Errol Flynn’s General Custer learns it from a stage Englishman, “Queen’s Own Butler”.

The two are old friends from the Civil War and when Custer asks what he’s been doing since and why he’s here now, Butler explains: “Become quite a bally yankee, sir. Rode after you at Hannover and rather fancied I’d see a bit of sport with you out west.”

Custer then sits him down at the piano to play again an old tune that has haunted him since their first days together, whereupon Butler hammers out a verse from Garryowen.

In one of the film’s more dramatic sequences, this solo performance quickly multiplies into the singing of the song by larger and larger groups of soldiers until eventually the tune accompanies the 7th Cavalry as it marches to glory.

As romanticised by wartime Hollywood, the adoption of Garryowen as an anthem is central to Custer’s success in turning his men from a rabble into a disciplined fighting force.

Custer’s war against the Indians, however, included such events as attack at the river Washita in Oklahoma in 1868, which is still described variously as a “battle” or a “massacre”, depending on your politics.

Garryowen was played before that too, as it would be eight years and many battles/massacres later, when Custer and his men left camp for the last time, en route to Little Bighorn.

A century after Washita, in 1968, descendants of the 7th Cavalry commemorated the event along with relatives of the defeated Cheyenne, during which they exchanged symbolic gifts.

As recorded by Niall O’Dowd in an article for the Irish Central website some years ago (which also included the Garryowen/Deutschland Über Alles parallel), a Cheyenne representative gave the cavalry descendants a blanket that had just been wrapped around the coffin containing the remains of a child killed in a battle and long stored in a museum before, a century later, being buried.

A man wearing the uniform of a 7th Cavalry captain, meanwhile, gave the Cheyenne a regimental badge with the name “Garryowen” and vowed the song would never again be played by the cavalry’s descendants.

It was probably also the ballad rather than the place, by the way, that James Joyce echoed in Ulysses, when he gave his fiercely nationalist “Citizen” a dog called Garryowen (although that was borrowed from a real-life Red Setter owned by Joyce’s in-laws).

But back in Korea, at another US camp, there is, or used to be, a military dog of the same name too. According to a 2013 article for an army magazine, the catch cry “Garryowen” was still then being used by a local division of the 7th Cavalry.

In recognition of this, a camp dog was known as “Command Sergeant Major Echo Garryowen”. The animal had some border collie in him, to judge from pictures. Otherwise, a bit like the ballad, he was of uncertain breeding.