The Rising Of The Moon - Lyrics and Background of this Irish Song

Irish rebels gathering - before a re-enactment of the battle of Ballynahinch. Moonlight optional
© Bernd Biege 2016

 The song "The Rising of the Moon", while not a traditional, is nonetheless an iconic Irish ballad. The lyrics try to capture the essence of the struggle between the United Irishmen and the British Army during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which ended in total disaster for the Irish side when 400 poorly armed rebels were killed.

Though several historians and music lovers have long tried to link the song to a specific battle (often to claim ownership of "The Rising of the Moon" for a battle that occurred in their own parish), there is absolutely no evidence that the song was ever intended to reflect real historical events in any detail.

It is widely agreed that the ballad written by JK Casey in the 1860s aimed to capture the mood of the rebellion, rather than re-tell history. And as far as this is concerned, it succeeds quite well.

Part of the eternal appeal of the beloved Irish song "The Rising of the Moon" lies in the call for action at the end. The song feels timeless to those who are rebellious minded because it encourages a fight until the end - reminding would-be rebels that if you fail, try again, and die better. The attitude struck a chord when the song was written because a new rebellion was brewing, but it was still mirrored in the diary Bobby Sands kept (and managed to get smuggled out of prison) at the start of his lethal hunger strike in 1981, over 100 years later.

The Rising Of The Moon - the Lyrics

Here now are the lyrics of "The Rising of the Moon", though you may find slight variations in use:

"O then, tell me Sean O'Farrell,
tell me why you hurry so?"
"Hush a bhuachaill, hush and listen"
And his cheeks were all aglow
"I bear orders from the Capt'n
Get you ready quick and soon
For the pikes must be together
At the rising of the moon"
By the rising of the moon,
By the rising of the moon
For the pikes must be together
At the rising of the moon"

"O then tell me Sean O'Farrell
Where the gath'rin is to be?
In the old spot by the river,
Well known to you and me.
One more word for signal token,
Whistle up the marchin' tune,
With your pike upon your shoulder,
By the rising of the moon.
By the rising of the moon,
By the rising of the moon
With your pike upon your shoulder,
By the rising of the moon.

Out from many a mud wall cabin
Eyes were watching through the night,
Many a manly heart was beating,
For the blessed morning light.
Murmurs ran along the valleys,
To the banshee's lonely croon
And a thousand pikes were flashing,
At the rising of the moon.
By the rising of the moon,
By the rising of the moon
And a thousand pikes were flashing,
At the rising of the moon.

There beside the singing river
That black mass of men were seen,
High above their shining weapons,
flew their own beloved green.
"Death to every foe and traitor!
Forward! Strike the marching tune.
And hurrah my boy for freedom;
'Tis the rising of the moon".
By the rising of the moon,
By the rising of the moon
And hurrah my boy for freedom;
'Tis the rising of the moon".

Well they fought for poor old Ireland,
And full bitter was their fate,
Oh what glorious pride and sorrow,
Fills the name of ninety-eight!
Yet, thank God, e'en still are beating
Hearts in manhood burning noon,
Who would follow in their footsteps,
At the rising of the moon
By the rising of the moon,
By the rising of the moon
Who would follow in their footsteps,
At the rising of the moon.

The History Behind "The Rising Of The Moon" Lyrics

The singer starts by asking Sean O'Farrell (almost surely a made-up name rather than a historical figure) if there is any news.

Sean refers to him as "a bhuachaill" (a cowherd or farmhand, but generally used instead of "boy" or "comrade" as well) and tells him that the "pikes must be together at the rising of the moon", for the purpose of rebellion. 

Neither the reason for revolt nor the enemy are named, but this being an Irish song they respectively would be "freedom" and "the British". Following the rallying call, as the song continues the pikemen do gather, but are ultimately defeated. In conclusion, the singer finds solace in the fact that there are still (potential) rebels living who will follow in their footsteps.

The song was written to commemorate the 1798 rebellion, when the United Irishmen managed to gather sizeable rebel armies, and French military support, in an uprising against British rule. This ended in utter defeat, but not after some early successes managed to imbue the rebels with optimism.

The term “pikemen” alone firmly puts "The Rising of the Moon" into this historical context – one lasting image of the 1798 rebellion is the Irish using makeshift pikes as weapons against the much better armed British regulars and Hessian mercenaries who were equipped with guns and cannon. Never mind the heroic stance, this was a recipe for disaster.

The History of the Song

"The Rising of the Moon" is generally said to have been known as a song as early as 1865, it was officially published in 1866. The song was included as part of John Keegan Casey's "A Wreath of Shamrocks", a collection of patriotic songs and poems. It was written about an earlier rebellion but published just in time to raise the spirits for the Fenian Rising of 1867.

Who Was John Keegan Casey?

John Keegan Casey (1846-70), also known as the "Fenian Poet" sometimes wrote under the not-terribly-secret pen name Leo Casey. Casey was an Irish poet, orator, and staunch republican. When his songs and ballads became very popular at nationalist gatherings in the 1860s, he moved to Dublin, and became an active Fenian. As a major contributor to "The Nation" he found further fame, addressing mass gatherings in Dublin, as well as in Liverpool and London. All this was part of the preparation for the Fenian Rising in 1867.

This rising never managed to achieve much and resulted more in British reprisals than anything else. Casey was imprisoned without trial for several months in Mountjoy, then released to leave for Australia, never to return to Ireland. Controls were so lax that Casey simply stayed in Dublin. His disguise was living as a Quaker, while continuing to write and publish "for the cause" in secret.

In 1870 Casey fell from a cab on O’Connell Bridge in the city center, subsequently dying from his injuries - on St. Patrick's Day. He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, and old newspapers accounts suggest that up to a hundred thousand mourners joined the funeral procession.

The Bobby Sands Connection

Bobby Sands (1954-1981) kept a well-known diary during the first phase of the 1981 hunger strike of IRA and INLA prisoners. The last entry reads:

"If they aren't able to destroy the desire for freedom, they won't break you. They won't break me because the desire for freedom, and the freedom of the Irish people, is in my heart. The day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will have the desire for freedom to show. It is then we'll see the rising of the moon."