“Then sing England for ever, and Erin-go-bragh”: Irishness in the English-printed, nineteenth-century street ballad
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Throughout the nineteenth century, Ireland was by far the most dominant national trope in English-printed street balladry, appearing as specified place in English streetballadry almost as much as England itself. Ireland was imagined through melody and performance on street corners, at fairs, in workplaces and in homes via singers and the printed ballad-sheets that increased exponentially between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. It was a presence that made itself known in these songs either as central character, as tonal background, as political issue, as metaphor for rurality or resistance, or via a song’s Irish protagonists. Its image in popular English street culture changed throughout the century as new representations emerged: beginning as a place of imagined frivolity at the end of the eighteenth century it became a place associated with righteous outrage at the beginning of the nineteenth; in the 1830s it became an equal member of the union of “roses” while simultaneously the epitome of Romantic-nationalism; and in the mid-nineteenth century it became a bucolic backdrop in narratives of emigration while also emerging as potent symbol of political resistance. As imagined place, Ireland became an increasingly multi-layered focus point for a range of disparate themes and narratives that emerged layer by layer – comic, rebellious, oppressed, idyllic, nostalgic – and that were, in turn, received, embodied, re-created and performed within England. Ireland was presented in many unionist songs (and often in literary culture) as England’s significant “Other”, but readings of Irish-themed street-songs in England as a whole show that it was also received as a significant “Other” in ways beyond the national. These representations and receptions provide insight into various identities within England that were built less upon the idea of nation than upon ideas such as resistance against political, societal and cultural change, against industrialization and urbanisation, and against the increasing regulation of economic and social life.