McCafferty – The Dubliners
The most subversive song ever sung by British soldiers?
During the middle years of the 19th century soldiers in the British Army were subject to poor living conditions and harsh punishments. While flogging was the most feared punishment for soldiers, the ultimate penalty was execution; usually after a court-martial and by firing squad. Both floggings and firing squads were meant to frighten and intimidate other soldiers and these punishments took place surrounded by elaborate ceremonies with the other soldiers ordered to parade and witness the scene. In a few instances the wrongdoer was handed over to the civil courts. One such case was that of Patrick M’Caffrey, an 18 year-old Irish recruit to the Cornwall Light Infantry in 1860. His story gave rise to the most sung, and perhaps the most subversive, song ever written about a soldier in the British Army. The soldier’s name appeared in a variety of spellings and recent versions of the song were called McCafferty:
When I was 18 years of age,
Into the British Army I did engage;
I left my home with the good intent
To join the forty-second regiment.
To Fullwood Barracks then I did go,
To serve my time in that depot.
From troubles then I was never free;
My captain took a great dislike to me.
When posted out on guard one day,
Some soldiers’ children came along to play;
From the officers’ mess my captain came
And ordered me to take their names.
I took one name instead of three,
On neglect of duty, they then charged me;
Ten days’ CB with loss of pay,
For doing my duty – the opposite way.
With a loaded rifle I did prepare,
To shoot my captain on the barrack square;
It was my captain I meant to kill,
But I shot my colonel against my will.
At Liverpool Assizes then I stood,
I held my courage as best I could;
But the judge he says McCafferty,
Go prepare yourself for eternity.
Well I had no father to take my part,
Nor loving mother to break her heart;
I had but one friend, and a girl was she;
Who’d have laid down her life for McCafferty.
So come all you officers and NCO’s,
Take some advice from one who knows,
It was only lies and a tyranny,
That made a martyr of poor McCafferty.
While containing slight inaccuracies, like naming the regiment as the 42nd rather than the actual 32nd, the song tells the basic story. M’Caffrey must have been a remarkably good shot; his one bullet fired at Captain Hanham killed both him and Colonel Crofton, who was walking alongside Hanham on the barrack square. On Saturday, 11 January 1862 in front of a crowd estimated at 30,000 to 40,000 M’Caffrey was hanged outside of Kirkdale Gaol, in Liverpool. The crowd were clearly on his side and yelled and hissed at the public executioner Calcraft.
Fellow squadies were also sympathetic to M’Caffrey, because they too suffered under the harsh discipline and petty harassment that had led to the soldier’s actions and tragic end. The song has been sung ever since, in various versions, by soldiers in the army – even though it is thought to be a chargeable offence to be caught singing it.
I remember learning the words to this song in 1967 on late night buses back to the Tidworth Garrison after drinking sessions in nearby Salisbury. I was told the song could only be sung when there was nobody [in authority] around. The authorities’ dislike for McCafferty was probably compounded by the song being set to the same tune as The Croppy Boy, an Irish rebel ballad that commemorated the crop-haired United Irish supporters of the French Revolution.
This song was chosen by Aly Renwick who served with the Royal Engineers in Thailand and is a member of Veterans For Peace.