I am reading a lot of poetry lately with the help of a well stocked local library. I was delighted to rediscover Seamus Heaney’s collection Door into the Dark upon my last visit because it contains one of my favourite poems.
In just fourteen short lines, Requiem for the Croppies summarises the blood and glory of the 1798 Rebellion in Wexford. It does so by taking a humble farmer’s crop and putting it to the forefront of the story.
Requiem for the Croppies
The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley –
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp –
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching – on the hike –
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until, on Vinegar Hill, the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August the barley grew up out of our grave.
Almost all the key moments of the 1798 took place in local areas scattered around my home county of Wexford. The rebels were nicknamed the Croppy boys or Croppies because they were no more than farmers using their tools as weapons. Heaney paints a picture of these rebels on the run with ‘the pockets of our greatcoats full of barley.’
These rebels severely lacked the organisation, discipline and tactics of an army. There were ‘no kitchens on the run, no striking camp’ as they moved in great number ‘quick and sudden in our own country.’
What they lacked in organisation, they made up for in leadership and courage. Wexford people can name off many of these great leaders over two hundred years later but Fr. John Murhpy stands above all as a totemic figure. Heaney references Fr. Murphy and the unity found within the rebel army when he says’the priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.’
Heaney explains some of the tactics used by this ragtag bunch of soldiers to engineer success, most notably when he mentions the use of cattle to stampede into infantry. But, the story of the 1798 Rebellion is ultimately a tragedy.
Despite these iconic victories, the rebels are surrounded and massacred on Vinegar Hill in their ‘terraced thousands, shaking scythes at cannon.’ Heaney imagines what the sight must have looked like from the land surrounding the hill when he writes that ‘the hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.’
In my humble opinion, the final lines of this poem make it a true masterpiece. The pocketfuls of barley reemerge months later, long after the rebels have been buried. For me, this echoes the strong oral tradition of songs, stories and poems that have emerged to ensure that the legacy of the 1798 Croppies will never be forgotten.
‘They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August the barley grew up out of the grave.’
- Joe Murphy’s novel Tomorrow The Barrow We’ll Cross looks like an interesting piece of historical fiction to read more on the events of 1798. It has been on my TBR for a long time now…hopefully some day soon I will get to it! To get a copy of your own, click here.
- Requiem for the Croppies captures the romanticism of the 1798 Rebellion, but the song Boolavogue tells the story of the rising in its entirety. Click hear to here the song in full. It’s quite a slow song so you might to prefer to read the lyrics instead.
- Another great 1798 song is The Croppy Boy which tells the story of a young Croppy Boy who chances upon a church and goes in to make his last confession. The twist at the end makes this the perfect story-song. Check the song out here.