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'Young Willie MacBride'


Figure 1: Private William MacBride

Introduction

At the end of April 2019, Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTE) began the search to find Ireland’s favourite folk song.[1]

The second ballad featured was ‘The Green Fields of France’. This well-known tune was composed by Scotsman, Eric Bogle in 1975 about a soldier of The Great War, and originally titled ‘No man’s land.’[2]

The opening line of Bogle’s ballad; ‘well how do you do Private Willie McBride’ was slightly amended by The Fureys in 1979. The word Private was replaced by young.[3]

Haunting words with a haunting melody about the futility of war, but who was Willie McBride, the subject of the ballad?

When Bogle was asked who was Willie McBride, he replied ‘every soldier that lies here is a Willie McBride—somebody’s Willie McBride.’[4] Bogle’s reasoning for choosing the surname McBride was twofold. Firstly, it rhymed with graveside and secondly it was a ‘subtle reminder of the sacrifice Irish lads made in World War I, preserving King and Country.’[4] The 1970s was a period of strife with the IRA bombing campaign in mainland Britain at its height and anti-Irish feeling was very strong at the time.

The Soldier

But who was Willie McBride? The soldier featured in RTE’s television programme is Private William McBride, born on 23 September 1895 in Racarbry/Rathcarbery, Keady, Co. Armagh to Joseph and Lina.

Figure 1: Birth certificate for Private William McBride

In 1901, six-year-old William can be found living with his five siblings and parents in Racarbry.

Figure 2: 1901 Census Return for the McBride family

Eight years later, on 13 April 1908, a significant event was to occur in the McBride family. William’s father, Joseph died aged sixty-eight in Roughan. Sadly, he did not live to see his seventh child, Margaret, who was born a month after his death.

Figure 3: Death Certificate for Joseph McBride

Figure 4: Birth Certificate for Margaret McBride

Two years later, in 1911, the McBride family can be found on the census still in Roughan, however, William and older brother, Thomas are not to be found with the family.

William and Thomas are living in Cavan, their occupations recorded as salesmen. Before joining the Army, William served his time in the shoe trade, firstly as an apprentice in Eakins, Cootehill. He then went to Irvinestown for a short time before moving to Allinghams, North Street, Belfast.[6]

Figure 5: 1911 Census - Thomas & William McBride, Cootehill, Cavan

The glorious fallen in 1916

William McBride enlisted in the 9th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1915. Just nine months later, on April 22, 1916, he fell on the field of battle.

In writing to William’s mother, Lina, 2nd Lieutenant John Kelly of the 9th Inniskillings wrote: ‘I need not tell you how much we miss your son, and I am pleased to be able to tell you that I had recommended him to my company commander for bravery in carrying a message under very heavy shell fire on the night of March 10. “You may rest assured that he died in a manner which will always to be an example to his comrades, doing their duty.’[7]

Private William McBride’s grave is in Authuile Military Cemetery in northern France. The headstone bears the inscription, ‘greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends’.

Figure 5: Final resting place of Private William McBride, Authuile Military Cemetery in northern France

The Green Fields of France', is one of the most enduring anti-war songs of the twentieth century, every word displaying the sadness and futility of a loss of a generation of young men including Private William McBride.

'The sun's shining down on these green fields of France; The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance. The trenches have vanished long under the plow; No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now. But here in this graveyard that's still No Man's Land The countless white crosses in mute witness stand To man's blind indifference to his fellow man. And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.'

Notes

In 2016, 100 years after Private William McBride’s death, BBC Radio Ulster's Gerry Kelly went personal journey to discover the story behind the song, this is available as a podcast here.

[1] https://www.rte.ie/player/series/ireland-s-favourite-folk-song/SI0000005612?epguid=IH000379257

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-38PB_5ozc

[3] https://youtu.be/-M3YWuq5UCE

[4] Eric Bogle: Return to No Man’s Land

[5] https://civilrecords.irishgenealogy.ie/churchrecords/images/birth_returns/births_1895/02197/1830323.pdf

[6] https://www.independent.ie/life/world-war-1/so-just-who-was-the-young-willie-mcbride-30249256.html

[7] https://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/latest-news/honouring-willie-mcbride-wwi-ulster-soldier-immortalised-in-song-1-7467827

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