We had planned to bypass Limerick completely. Irish friends had recommended skipping the historically industrial hub, given the scale of our trip and improbably limited amount of time, in favor of more epic destinations like the Burren and Newgrange.
Yet one unlikely nook of Limerick still beckoned – a rough, working-class suburb on the city’s eastside called Garryowen. The area’s Irish name, Garraí Eoin, translates to “the garden of John”, a reference to John the Baptist. Indeed, St. John’s Cathedral, built in 1861, towers fortress-like over the heart of Garryowen, and, at 94 meters (or about 308 feet), boasts the tallest spire in all of Ireland.
However, my interest in Garryowen was not grounded in religious history or its renowned rugby club, but rather an eponymous tune whose origins may be traced back two or three centuries. Today, the song is probably best known in America as a march favored by the U.S. Army, and it often emanates from bagpipes during St. Patrick’s Day parades. But, in fact, “Garryowen” began life purely as a hooligan’s refrain:
Let Bacchus’s sons be not dismayed
But join with me each jovial blade
Come booze and sing and lend your aid
To help me with the chorus
Instead of spa we’ll drink down ale
And pay the reckoning on the nail
For debt no man shall go to jail
From Garryowen in glory
We are the boys who take delight
In smashing Limerick lamps at night
And through the street like sportsters fight
Tearing all before us
We’ll break windows, we’ll break doors
The watch knock down by threes and fours
Then let the doctors work their cures
And tinker up our bruises
We’ll make the mayor and sheriff run
We’ll beat the bailiffs out of fun
We are the boys no man dares dun
If he regards a whole skin
Our hearts so stout have got us fame
For soon ’tis known from whence we came
Where’er we go they dread the name
Of Garryowen in glory
I was about 12 when I first heard “Garryowen”, on an album of Civil War-era music performed by folk musician Jim Taylor. The rowdy, infectious tune appears, ironically, as part of an instrumental medley that includes “Haste to the Wedding” and “St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning”.
“Garryowen” was part of a canon of traditional music that accompanied an unprecedented wave of Irish immigration to America during the mid to late 19th century and, before long, manifested throughout Union Army camps in the War Between the States. It was there, so the story goes, that General George A. Custer first heard “Garryowen”, and favored it so greatly that his Seventh Cavalry took the jaunty air west with them during the Indian Wars, adopting it as its official theme – one which they still play today. Indeed, “Garryowen” (both instrumentally and with lyrics) is ubiquitous throughout the 1941 Errol Flynn vehicle They Died with Their Boots On.
Surely, a rough-and-tumble town with such an inspired musical heritage must merit a brief detour. Hell, for all I knew, Garryowen was now a gentrified hipster haven sporting Thai restaurants and art galleries on every block…
We rolled into Garryowen shortly before the local afternoon rush hour, and while I wasn’t sure of the precise whereabouts of St. John’s Cathedral, one thing soon became clear: if 300-year-old lyrics are to be believed, Garryowen has remained true to itself. I’ve lived and worked in Baltimore long enough to recognize a tourist destination…and this certainly is not one. From ubiquitous security cameras and graffiti to ruins both new and ancient, Garryowen bears all the scars and hallmarks of an area still awaiting a ship that is several centuries overdue.
Yet the towering architecture of Garryowen’s centerpiece, St. John’s Cathedral, remains an awe-inspiring sight for the intrepid (and streetwise) traveler. Garryowen itself stands as a resilient and sobering reminder of the truths that ground the most elaborate mythologies.