Thursday, March 12, 2015

Tipperary and the Troops

"It's a long way to Tipperary" is remembered as a song of the First World War, although it was composed before the war in 1912 for British music halls.   In August of 1914, a British news correspondent heard the Irish Connaught Rangers singing the song as they marched through  France on their way to the front lines, and after his report, the popularity of the tune spread, especially after it was recorded by tenor John McCormack (click here for a recording). 

Much like "Keep the Home Fires Burning," another popular song of the First World War, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" is not a fight song.  As the war wore on, it may have become harder to sing about martial glory, and easier to sing about home and a nostalgia for what the soldiers had given up when they joined the war. 
It's a long way to Tipperary,
It's a long, long way to go.
It's a long way to Tipperary
To the sweetest girl I know.
Goodbye Piccadilly,
Farewell Leicester Square,
It's a long, long way to Tipperary,
But my heart lies there.    

According to Imperial War Museum historian Matt Brosnan, the song was catchy enough that it was sung even by French, Russian, and German troops.  William Yorke Stevenson, in his memoir At the Front in a Flivver, describes a 1916 vaudeville show that American ambulance drivers hosted for battle-weary French troops outside Verdun.  He writes, "They asked—no, really begged, us to sing "Tipperary."  Well, we sang it, of course" (149).   The song was everywhere, and so it's not surprising that a poem was written about it.   

Singing 'Tipperary' by William Kersely Holmes

We’ve each our Tipperary, who shout that haunting song,
And all the more worth reaching because the way is long;
You’ll hear the hackneyed chorus until it tires your brain
Unless you feel the thousand hopes disguised in that refrain.

We’ve each our Tipperary – some hamlet, village, town,
To which our ghosts would hasten though we laid our bodies down,
Some spot of little showing our spirits still would seek,
And strive, unseen, to utter what now we fear to speak.

We’ve each our Tipperary, our labour to inspire,
Some mountain-top or haven, some goal of far desire—
Some old forlorn ambition, or humble, happy hope
That shines beyond the doubting with which our spirits cope.

We’ve each our Tipperary—near by or wildly far;
For some it means a fireside, for some it means a star;
For some it’s but a journey by homely roads they know,
For some a spirit’s venture where none but theirs may go.

We’ve each our Tipperary, where rest and love and peace
Mean just a mortal maiden, or Dante’s Beatrice;
We growl a song together, to keep the marching swing,
But who shall dare interpret the chorus that we sing?

Holmes' poem admits that the song has become an earworm that is hackneyed and tires the brain, but beneath its trite sentimentality and bouncing rhythm lie a "thousand hopes disguised."  For the marching soldiers, the song provides a way of giving voice to individual dreams that "now we fear to speak."   "Tipperary" has become a stand-in not only for all the places left behind in the past, but also for the various futures that men despair of never having an opportunity to reach. 

From mountain top to haven, from fireside to star, the poem asserts the differences in the men who have been asked to give up not merely the comforts of home, but their very individual selves.  As they march in step together, it is as a collective noun – a company, a regiment, an army.  Yet the poem invites us to listen beneath the music to the frustration of individuals who must "shout" and "growl" a song together. 

Mayo Peace Park, Castelbar, Ireland
In its closing line, the poem goes one step further and cautions against broad interpretations of soldiers' individual motivations and dreams.  It reminds us that each soldier, whether serving in the Somme or Normandy or Korea or Vietnam or Afghanistan -- or any other place or time -- deserves to be remembered with dignity as an individual, and not as an idealized or homogenized cog in the machinery of war.   


  1. A very fine contrast could be a comparison of this poem with singer-songwriter June Tabor's wistful twin song "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" / "The Making of Tipperary". Especially the latter of these creates a very fine (but quite ominous) time context. Both are to be found on June's CD A Quiet Eye.

  2. I'm always grateful for these suggestions and have just ordered a copy!