The Heartbreaking Civil War Ballad of “Paddy’s Lament” (Part I)

Recently, during a visit to Dublin, I got a surprise at my first Irish pub—and no, it wasn’t a glass of whiskey or a pint of Guinness. It came in the form of a traditional Irish ballad sung by a local musician. I thought I’d be taking a break from my Civil War research while I was in Ireland, but that night I heard the song “Paddy’s Lament” for the first time. The emotionally charged lyrics definitely tore at my heartstrings and got me wanting to know more about both the song and the role Irish immigrants played in the Civil War. 

If you’re not familiar with the song, it describes a young Irishman – “Paddy” or “Patrick” – who leaves Ireland, where he faces hunger and poverty, to go to America, where he hopes to make his fortune. Instead, upon his arrival, he is given a gun and told to “go and fight for Lincoln.” He soon finds himself fighting for a man named “Meagher,” who promises his troops that “if they get shot or lose [their] head” in battle, they will be given a pension. After “hard fighting” and losing his leg, all Paddy gets is “a wooden peg,” and he curses America. He wishes he were “home in dear old Dublin,” and he warns others not to come to America, for “there is nothing here but war and the murdering cannon’s roar.”

General Thomas Francis Meagher, leader of the Irish Brigade [1]
While many artists have covered this song, often with slight variations in the lyrics and title, the oldest known version was printed on a broadsheet in London sometime between the Civil War and 1899 titled “Pat In America.” Two copies are preserved in the ballad sheet collection at the University of Oxford’s Bodleain Library and are available at Broadside Ballads Online. The ballad opens with the singer urging his audience to “hush” and listen carefully to the warning he is about to give them. The original version opens with the line “Arragh, bidenahust my boys,” which is likely “a corruption of the Gaelic phrase Bí i do thost, meaning be quiet. So ‘by the hush’ … seems a reasonable English translation.” [2]

Bodleian Library’s original broadside for “Pat in America” [3]
It was not until 1957 that the song “By the Hush, Me Boys” was first recorded. Canadian folklorist Edith Fowke traveled to Ottawa, Canada, to meet with 85-year old Oliver John Abbott, who sang for her this version of the song he had learned from a Mrs. O’Malley, the wife of an Ottawa valley farmer, for whom he worked back in the 1880s. As Fowke explained in her Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs, “O.J. Abbott was an exceptionally fine traditional singer with an extensive and unusual repertoire. Born in England in 1872, he came to Canada as a young boy. He learned his many songs from Irish families living on farms in the Ottawa valley and from men in the lumber camps.” [4]

The song, which was seemingly unknown in the United States at the time, appeared on the 1961 album Irish and British Songs from the Ottawa Valley, with lyrics as follows: 

Oh, it’s by the hush, me boys, and sure that’s to hold yer noise,
And listen to poor Paddy’s sad narration;
I was by hunger pressed and in poverty distressed,
So I took a thought I’d leave the Irish nation.


Here youse boys, do take my advice;
To Americay I’d have youse not be coming.
There is nothing here but war where the murdering cannons roar,
And I wish I was at home in dear old Éirinn.

Then I sold me horse and plow, me little pigs and cow,
And me little farm of land then I parted;
And me sweetheart Biddy McGee I’m afeard I’ll never see,
For I left her that morning broken-hearted.

Then meself and a hundred more to Americay sailed o’er,
Our fortune to be making we were thinking;
When we landed in Yankee land, they shoved a gun into our hand,
Saying, “Paddy, you must go and fight for Lincoln.”

General Meagher to us said, “If you get shot or lose your head,
Every mother’s son of youse will get a pension.”
In the war I lost me leg, all I’ve now is a wooden peg;
On my soul, it is the truth to you I mention.

Now I’d think meself in luck to be fed upon Indian buck
In old Ireland, the country I delight in;
And with the devil I do say, “Curse Americay,”
For I’ve sure I’ve got enough of their hard fighting. 

For five days in the summer of 1957, folklorist Edith Fowke recorded over eighty songs performed by O. J. Abbott, an octogenarian native of Ottawa. [5]
More recent versions have been recorded by Mary Black and Sinead O’Connor, as well as by Linda Thompson for the movie The Gangs of New York. O’Connor, who died July 26, called this ballad “the best anti-war song ever made” and said “the ghost of the man speaking through the song is so present that I feel I could reach out and touch him and he’d be flesh and bone.” [6]

Two days after hearing this song at the pub, my husband and I visited Dublin’s EPIC Irish Emigration Museum, toured the Jeanie Johnston “famine ship,” and viewed sculptor Rowan Gillespie’s Famine statues, which stand on Customhouse Quay as a memorial to the many who suffered and died during Ireland’s Great Famine of 1845-1849. All three sites serve as a huge reminder of why so many Irish men and women emigrated to the United States in the years before the Civil War, desperate to start a new life and willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve it.

Near the museum entrance, visitors are greeted with this statistic: “In the ten years following the Great Famine (1845-1850), 1.5 million Irish emigrated to the U.S. and 340,000 to Canada.” Just outside at the docks sits a replica of the Jeanie Johnston, which carried 2,500 of those emigrants on 16 transatlantic voyages to North America during the famine years. Remarkably, none of the Jeanie Johnston’s passengers died – largely due to frequent health checks, a capable doctor on board, the provision of basic foods, 30 minutes on deck each day breathing fresh air, and cleaning procedures. [7]. 

This was in sharp contrast to other ships. As explained on the Jeanie Johnston website: “Famine ships of the time were particularly grim places and were often referred to as ‘Coffin Ships’. They saw many deaths due to their unseaworthy nature, overcrowding, lack of clean drinking water, unsanitary conditions and the rampant spread of disease. Cholera and Typhoid were common on these ships and many had death rates of 20%, with some even as high as 50%. It is estimated that up to 100,000 people died on board these ships.” [8] 

Dublin’s adjacent Famine Memorial includes statues of four men and two women, as well as an emaciated dog, to commemorate these individuals. Dressed in rags, clutching their belongings and children, they walk along the River Liffey toward the docks, where they hope to board a ship to a better life. They look hungry, gaunt, weary, anguished, and desperate.

Famine Memorial in Dublin – photo by Tonya McQuade, 9 July 2023

The Great Famine, or the “Great Hunger” as they called it in Ireland, was the result of a potato blight that began devastating Ireland in the second half of 1845, causing a partial failure of the potato crop on which so many depended for food. It returned in 1846 with even more severe effects, creating “an unparalleled food crisis that lasted four years and drove Ireland into a nightmare of hunger and disease. It decimated Ireland’s population, which stood at about 8.5 million on the eve of the Famine,” as Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States Daniel Mulhall explained in 2018 at the premiere for Black ’47, a film set during the Great Famine of 1845-49.

 “It is estimated that the Famine caused about 1 million deaths between 1845 and 1851 either from starvation or hunger-related disease. A further 1 million Irish people emigrated. This meant that Ireland lost a quarter of its population during those terrible years. The Famine’s impact was most severe in the west of Ireland where some counties lost more than 50 per cent of their population.… 6 million people left between 1841 and 1900. This figure exceeded the total population of Ireland at the beginning of the 19th century. By 1901, Ireland’s population had been cut in half, to just 4.4 million,” and the population has still not returned to its pre-famine high. [9] 

Two-thirds of those Irish immigrants landed in the United States, with most settling in large cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, where they often faced significant prejudice due to their poverty, Catholic beliefs, cultural practices, and language. They were viewed by many as a threat to the established order, resulting in deadly riots on several occasions and pervasive discrimination in work and housing. Many of those new Irish immigrants, however, chose to fight in America’s Civil War , where they “fought bravely and thus became part of the fabric of modern America, contributing to, and benefiting from, America’s economic transformation in the closing decades of the 19th century.” [10]

Both realities are depicted in this scene from The Gangs of New York, where nativist William (Bill) “the Butcher” Cutter (based on the historical figure Bill Poole and portrayed by actor Daniel Day Lewis) expresses his contempt for the Irish as they step off the boat and flood into New York. At the same time, Irish immigrants are warmly greeted by another man in a top hat and suit, who says to them, “That document makes you a citizen, this one makes you a private in the Union army. Now go fight for your country.” In the background, freshly uniformed Union soldiers say goodbye to their loved ones as they board a ship bound for Tennessee, while rows of coffins are unloaded from that same ship as “Paddy’s Lament” plays in the background. [11]

So, how accurate is this ballad in its portrayal of the Irish immigrant experience as it relates to the Civil War? Find out more tomorrow in Part II of this post: “Paddy’s Lament & the Irish Brigade in the Civil War.”



  1. “Genl. Meagher at the Battle of Fair Oaks Va., June 1st, 1862.” Published by Currier & Ives, 1862.  Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division, Digital ID cph.3b50307,
  2. Taylor, Andy, “O.J. Abbott | A Folk Song a Week.” A Folk Song a Week, 1 July 2016,
  3. “Pat in America.” Originally published by Bodleian Libraries, BOD21649, Roud Number V7332. Broadside Ballads Online, 9 March 2019,
  4. Taylor, Andy, “O.J. Abbott | A Folk Song a Week.” A Folk Song a Week, 1 July 2016,
  5. “Irish and British Songs from the Ottawa Valley | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.” Smithsonian Folkways Recordings,
  6. O’Connor, Sinéad. “Liner Notes – Paddy’s Lament” (2002, CD).” Discogs, 3 August 2023,
  7. “16 Atlantic crossings, 0 lives lost and 1 baby boy: The Jeanie Johnston famine ship in numbers.” Jeanie Johnston,
  8. “The Famine.” Jeanie Johnston,
  9. Mulhall, Ambassador. “Black ’47 Ireland’s Great Famine and its after-effects.” Department of Foreign Affairs, 4 December 2018,
  10. Mulhall, Ambassador. “Black ’47 Ireland’s Great Famine and its after-effectseffects.” Department of Foreign Affairs, 4 December 2018,
  11. “Paddy’s Lamentation – Gangs of New York (6/12) Movie CLIP (2002).” Youtube, 27 Sept 2011,


2 Responses to The Heartbreaking Civil War Ballad of “Paddy’s Lament” (Part I)

  1. I’ve read both posts: well done!

    The potato blight was the approximate cause of the famine and its consequences, but Ireland exported food the entire time of the famine. Like many famines, its ulitmate cause wasn’t biological, but political.

    1. Yes – knowing that food was being exported while the people starved definitely adds to the heartbreak.

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