My second Moss Reid novel Black Margiolds is set during the run-up to Christmas. Music hovers in the background here and there in the story, but I didn’t want a bunch of seasonal clichés.
So the Irish ballad “Arthur McBride” fitted the bill perfectly. It makes a fleeting appearance on page 187 of the book. As Christmas songs go, it’s easily among the most unusual.
To give it its full title, “Arthur McBride and the Sergeant” would have been quite common on folk records in the 1960s. Then Paul Brady recorded the definitive version for his brilliant album with Andy Irvine in 1976. Here’s a TV recording of a youthful Brady doing the song the following year:
At one level it could be classified simply as an anti-recruitment song, and was first collected around 1840 in Limerick. Perhaps it was referring back to Napoleonic times, the wars between the French and British empires.
But Brady’s rendition goes beyond all that. It has a slightly cheeky yet spine-chilling feel about it. It’s hard to place, but everything seems right about it: tune, rhyme scheme, singing, guitar and lyrics.
The story starts off with a long rambling sentence, setting the scene and forewarning of the great ructions to come…
Oh, me and my cousin, one Arthur McBride
As we went a-walking down by the seaside,
Now mark what followed and what did betide
For it being on Christmas morning,
Out for recreation, we went on a tramp
And we met Sergeant Napper and Corporal Vamp
And a little wee drummer, intending to camp
For the day being pleasant and charming.
If you need the full lyrics, music and tablature (note to guitar nuts: the tuning he uses is an open G chord), check out his website at PaulBrady.com.
The recording came out before the age of MTV, but the late Tiernan MacBride made a splendid wee film of the song, featuring Paul Bennett and Paul Wilson as Arthur McBride and the cousin. The military men were played by Geoffrey Quigley, Don Foley and Paddy O’Neill.