Saturday, December 12, 2015

Thomas Moore - Ireland's Minstrel Boy

by Arthur Russell

Thomas Moore is remembered as the man who brought Irish music and Irish melodies to the world. He was a man of small stature with a sweet tenor voice who graced and entertained in many aristocratic drawing rooms of late Georgian and early Victorian England, bringing with him many tunes and lyrics learned during his Irish childhood. Early in his career as an entertainer he made a successful tours to the east coast of United States and Canada.

Thomas Moore (National Gallery of Ireland)
Thomas Moore was born in 16 Aungier Street in Dublin on May 28th 1779, eldest son of grocer and wine merchant John Moore, a native Irish speaker from Kerry, and Anastasia Codd from Wexford. By the standards of the times, the Moores were a well off family. As Catholics, they were reasonably well positioned to benefit from the relaxation of the so called Penal Laws which had for more than eighty years, excluded Catholics from many professions and civil rights. This allowed young Thomas to be given a relatively good education in Trinity College Dublin where he was befriended by Robert Emmett and Arthur O’Connor, both of whom espoused the principles inspiring the wave of liberalism washing across Europe. 

Because of his acquaintances on campus and some of his writings which had drawn attention while he was a student in Trinity; he was subjected to a sworn interrogation in 1794 from a visiting committee from the nearby Dublin Parliament concerned about the "new fangled" Republican ideas that had been unleashed in the aftermath of the American War of Independence (1776) and the more recent French Revolution (1789). These were the radical ideas that were finding fertile ground among many young minds on campus attracted to the principles of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity as expounded in the writings of Thomas Paine (The Rights of Man), as well as a host of French writers who challenged the old worn out social and economic certainties of the time. While he counted several close friends among the newly formed United Irishmen being targeted by the government inquisitors, Moore was never a member of the organisation. Along with Robert Emmett, the avid United Irishman; he befriended Edward Hudson who introduced him to Edward Bunting’s recently published “A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music”, which inspired his own later published “Irish Melodies” – the work that essentially still defines him and his place in history. These Irish Melodies were to become what he chose to call his enduring “little ponies” that ensured his fame and his income during difficult days ahead.

Moore's interest in music and literature, buoyed up by his natural gregarious nature saw him publishing his first book at the age of 21 years. This was the Odes of Anacreon in 1799 by which time he was attending the Middle Temple in London studying law in line with his family’s wishes for his career. A year later he published “Poetical Works of Thomas Little Esq”. (we presume the Little being inspired by his low stature)

Moore the Entertainer

A legal career was never going to be Tom Moore’s path in life. While he was in London, he was befriended by Lord Moira who helped him to secure an appointment in Bermuda as registrar, a position that was neither taxing or particularly interesting to the young man. After some months on the Caribbean island where, in spite of his relatively short sojourn he became considered Bermuda’s unofficial poet laureate; he travelled to Norfolk, Virginia. From there, he visited Washington where he stayed with the British ambassador Anthony Merry and was introduced to President Thomas Jefferson. Among the places he visited in the newly emerged United States and Canada were Philadelphia, Niagara Falls, Montreal on his way to Nova Scotia where he boarded a ship home to Ireland in November 1804. While in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue in Canada he wrote his “Canadian Boat Song”. His American travels inspired a number of works among which were – Epistles, Lines written at the Cohos or Falls of the Mohawk River. He also wrote some material critical of the institution of slavery which created outrage in some American circles. 

Moore - the Irish Patriot

On arrival back in Dublin, he learned of the execution of his friend from student days in Trinity College, Robert Emmett, who had precipitated a failed insurrection in the city against British rule the year before, becoming in death a romantic martyr for the cause of Irish freedom, “Bold Robert Emmett, the darling of Erin”. Emmett’s death in pursuit of a hopeless cause inspired Moore to write “The Minstrel Boy”, which he set to music

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you'll find him;
His father's sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
"Land of Song!" said the warrior bard,
"Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!"

The Minstrel fell! But the foeman's chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne'er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said "No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!"

Emmett’s fiancée, Sarah Curran was also the subject of one of Moore’s poignant lyrics after she found herself being forced to leave Ireland for France in the aftermath of Emmett’s execution. 

She is far from the land
Where her young hero sleeps,
And lovers are round her, sighing;
But coldly she turns
From their gaze, and weeps,
For her heart in his grave is lying.

She sings the wild songs
Of her dear native plains,
Ev'ry note which she loved awakening -
Ah! little they think
Who delight in her strains,
How the heart of the Minstrel
is breaking.

He had lived for his love,
For his country he died,
They were all that to life
Had entwined him -
Nor soon shall the tears
Of his country be dried,
Nor long will his love
Stay behind him.

Oh! make her a grave
Where the sunbeams rest,
When they promise a glorious morrow;
They'll shine o'er her sleep
Like a smile from the West,
From her own loved
Island of sorrow.

Moore's Irish Melodies

The first volume of Moore’s Irish Melodies were published in 1807, and these more or less defined him thereafter as “The Irish Minstrel Boy”. The melodies along with his sweet tenor voice brought him as song writer cum performer into concert halls and fashionable drawing rooms of the day, making popular such gems as – Let Erin Remember the Days of Old, Meeting of the Waters, Oft in the Stilly Night, The Song of Fionnuala, Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms, The Harp that Once Through Tara’s Halls, Oh Breathe Not His Name, The Last Rose of Summer.

In 1811, he married actress Elizabeth (Bessy) Dyke from Kilkenny, an event he hid from his parents for a time because she came with no dowry, which was not going to help him financially. Another reason for his reticence in telling them may have been that Bessy was a Protestant. After their marriage, the couple made their home in Kegworth in Leicestershire. Despite its perceived drawbacks, the marriage was happy, though Bessie was never one to enjoy or partake in Moore’s rather gregarious social lifestyle, preferring to stay at home while he entertained his following in fashionable society, to the extent that many who knew him there doubted Bessy’s existence. They had 5 children all of whom tragically predeceased them (Anne, age 5, died 1817; Anastasia Mary, age 17, died 1829; Olivia died as a baby of a few months; John Russell, aged 19, died 1842; and Thomas Lansdowne, aged 27, died 1849)

Financial problems and exile

In 1817, Moore suffered financial catastrophe. Before he left Bermuda in 1811, he had left one John Goodrich to deputise for him, who over subsequent years had embezzled the not inconsiderable sum of £6,000 for which the British Admiralty held Moore personally liable. Ever the proud Irishman, Moore refused help from friends to repay this money.  Instead he removed himself and his family to Paris until most of the debt had been repaid from his earnings as writer, songster and entertainer. By then, his earnings from his various musical and literary work was considerable, though he was not the most astute business operator when it came to dealing with his London publisher who seemed to benefit more from Moore’s work than the author himself. This experience probably caused him to write “Though an angel should write, still 'tis devils must print”.

During his years of exile, he became friends with and travelled for some time in Continental Europe with 27 year old Lord John Russell, the future British Prime Minister, who after Moore’s death, compiled his memoirs and correspondence in 8 volumes (1850-56). While in Italy, he spent a short time with Lord Byron in Venice, who made him the custodian of his memoirs. After Byron’s death, Moore was prevailed upon by Byron’s family to destroy them because of what they perceived to be their “over honest content”; though he made up for this to some extent by publishing “Letters and Journals of Lord Byron with Notices of His Life” in 1830, six years later.

Moore in his study in Sloperton (National Gallery of Ireland)
After his return to England from Paris the Moore family settled in Sloperton Cottage at Bromham, Wiltshire. Here Moore continued his writing which by then favoured the writing of novels. He published a number with moderate success, but it was his “little ponies” (his Irish Melodies) that proved to be his most enduring legacy. Sloperton continued to be his base for his many engagements as a popular performer of his songs until he suffered a stroke which brought his entertaining career to an end. Nursed by his ever loving Bessy, he died in Sloperton on February 26th 1852 and is buried in a vault at St Nicholas churchyard Bromham, beside his daughter Anastasia, in sight of the Moore family’s rustic cottage home. Bessy joined her husband and daughter after her death 13 years years later.

The poet John Betjeman wrote the following lines in his poem “Ireland’s Own”
“In the churchyard of Bromham, the yews intertwine
O’er a smooth granite cross of a Celtic design -------

“For the tunes to the elegant measures you trod
Have chords of deep longing for Ireland and God”

“Dear bard of my boyhood, mellifluous Moore”    

Drawing of Sloperton Cottage in Bromham
Following are just some few quotes from Thomas Moore’s prodigious collection of writings
“Finding the right work is like discovering your own soul in the world”
“It is only through mystery and madness that the soul is revealed”
“What though youth gave love and roses, age still leaves us friends and wine”
 "No, there's nothing half so sweet in life as love's young dream”.
“Humility, that low, sweet root, from which all heavenly virtues shoot”.
“Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal”.
“It is only to the happy that tears are a luxury”.

“All that's bright must fade,
The brightest still the fleetest;
All that's sweet was made
But to be lost when sweetest”.


    Gunning, John P.: Moore. Poet and Patriot (Dublin: M.H. Gill and Son, 1900).
    Jones, Howard Mumford: The Harp that Once. Tom Moore and the Regency Period (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1937).
    Strong, L.A.G.: The Minstrel Boy. A Portrait of Tom Moore (London: Hodder & Stoughton, & New York: A. Knopf, 1937).
    Ní Chinnéide, Veronica: "The Sources of Moore's Melodies", in: Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 89 (1959) 2, p. 109–54.
    Dowden, Wilfred S. (ed.): The Letters of Thomas Moore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964).
    Dowden, Wilfred S. (ed.): The Journal of Thomas Moore, 6 vols., (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983–91).
    White, Harry: The Keeper's Recital. Music and Cultural History in Ireland 1770-1970 (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998), ISBN 1-85918-171-6.
Kelly, Ronan: Bard of Erin. The Life of Thomas Moore (Dublin: Penguin Ireland, 2008), ISBN 978-1-844-88143-7.
Sean McMahon - The Minstrel Boy – Thomas Moore and his melodies (Mercier Press 2001).

Arthur Russell is the Author of ‘Morgallion’, a novel set in medieval Ireland during the Invasion of Ireland in 1314 by the Scottish army led by Edward deBruce, the last crowned King of Ireland. It tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn, a young man from the Gaelic crannóg community of Moynagh and how he and his family endured and survived that turbulent period of history. ‘Morgallion’ was awarded the indieBRAG Medallion and is available in paperback and e-book form. More information available on the website.


  1. Fascinating story. I had no idea about his life except that he was a musician. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Bermuda is in the Atlantic -- not the Caribbean (I am such a geography nerd!). My husband also really enjoyed this post as he originally thought Robert Burns wrote the words to The Minstrel Boy. This is actually one of his favourite songs and he was happy to know the truth as he is of Irish ancestry.

    1. I stand corrected on Bermuda's location in Atlantic. In return, I am glad to have corrected mis-location of origin of The Minstrel Boy (Irish not Scottish).

  3. I love Irish music, so it's interesting to read about the man who first brought it to international attention in the 19th century.


  4. Fascinating, knew the songs but not the man


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