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Falls soldier's song betrays complexity of Irish nationalism

'She is the pride of Liscarroll, is sweet Kitty Farrell, Cheeks as red as roses, teeth as white as pearl. And the neighbours all pity the colleen so pretty, And oh, how we all love the blind Irish girl.'

By Gail Walker

Published 07/04/2015

Belfast Telegraph Editor Gail Walker
Belfast Telegraph Editor Gail Walker

The other day we all heard history. Real history. Not history in the blaring of headlines. Not history in the vacuous speeches and PR-spun releases of our politicians. Not even history in the accumulated wisdom (or blah blah blah) of the commentariat.

No, this was history in the shaky, rather tremulous, voice of Private John McCrory, of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, singing a rather trite sentimental ballad.

And yet here was a voice that ran like an electrical charge down through the century since it was recorded.

Private McCrory lived in Belfast's Conway Street, one of the warren of streets running onto the Falls Road. Born in 1881, he must have been quite some character. You just know it. Within days of the outbreak of the Great War, here was a man - then in his early to mid-thirties - who volunteered to go to the front. No hesitation. He stepped forward to do his duty and headed off into battle. Taking his chances.

His time on active service was relatively brief - he was captured at Caudry, near Le Cateau in France, on August 27, 1914. Perhaps, as one family member speculated last week, paradoxically this was to prove a lucky break, with Mr McCrory being sent to the relative safety of a prisoner-of-war camp in Giessen, north of Frankfurt.

All of which led to his voice being recorded three years later by the German linguist Wilhelm Doegan. The academic collected samples of languages, dialects, accents and scraps of traditional folk song and lore, and one of those captured for all time is John McCrory's distinctive, gentle burr.

As we listened to the recording, which had lain unnoticed in German archives for 98 years, what we heard was not just the sound of one of our own, out of time, back from the dead, but also the sound of an upbraiding to the certainties, the hand-me-down dogmas of official Northern Ireland history.

For here was a Falls Road Catholic - and presumably a nationalist of some hue - who had, like thousands of other men, joined the British Army at the outbreak of hostilities. Did he feel less Irish than those who rose two years later in Dublin?

The thing is, John McCrory's subversion of history has proved to be more subtle than that.

For starters, when he was asked to sing, not for him a northern song. No, on September 27, 1917, starting at precisely 10.25am, John stepped up to the microphone and sang The Pride of Liscarroll, a song whose roots lie more in the direction of the River Lee than the River Lagan.

Even in the tone and timbre of his voice there seemed to hide - to these ears anyway - a slightly countrified lilt. It wouldn't be easy to place, but maybe there was something of the slow drawl of the Antrim glens? Certainly, there wasn't much to indicate the harsh, fast accent of Belfast legend.

And that in itself makes John McCrory and his recording a salutary reminder that perhaps even Belfast wasn't always the Belfast of fixed stereotype. No, it was once a young city, growing from the strength and vitality of rural Ulster men and women, drawn towards it by the lure of work and, no doubt, the prospects of a better life.

What is certain is that John McCrory was here once - and there he is again, alive and singing. An individual caught - but still swimming - in the great currents of history.

Unsurprisingly, his grandchildren told BBC NI, who reported the story, that they have been moved to tears after hearing the audio, which has been stored in Humbert University. This was a figure who had died in 1947 and whom they knew only from the reminiscences of others brought back to life; the fellow with the fabled "carefree attitude to life"; the "rascal".

As part of Wilhelm Doegen's recording, John McCrory also read the story of the prodigal son from the Bible. There it is again, making the hairs on the back of the neck stand up, his voice coming through against the crackle of the recording: "But this, your brother, was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found."

I wonder if John McCrory chose the passage? We will never know. But nearly 100 years later, it takes on a greater significance.

Last week, Private John McCrory was returned to us all in fine voice and with wondrous stories to tell. Belfast should celebrate his return. And learn from it.

Belfast Telegraph

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