Barry’s Blog # 78: Evolution of A Song, Part Two

2 – Reframing

Myths can change when we begin to consider (“to be with the stars”) our unconscious attention to the stories we have been telling ourselves about ourselves. This can be a painful process; perhaps that’s why it is called paying attention. And this process may require that we counter the voracious god of Time, or Kronos, by slowing down our unconscious responses to the parade of both mental (internal) and environmental (external) imagery that constantly bombards us.

The musical examples I’ve used in this essay are instructive. Consider the emotional difference between the up-tempo When Johnny Comes Marching Home and the slow lament Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye that it is based upon: or

Part of the necessary process of reframing our myths requires deliberately, and perhaps painfully, sorting out the images and imagining how to tell them as if they were meant to connect us to the soul instead of to the requirements of an empire. One songwriter, Robert Emmet Dunlap, has done just that with the Garryowen tune – by slowing it down and adding new lyrics that put Custer and the Seventh Cavalry into a very different perspective. As Native American writer Vine DeLoria wrote, Custer Died For Your Sins.Reframing Garryowen and the entire mythic framework that it evokes means turning its emotions of pride and aggression into their opposite, grief.

Dunlap explains:

“Mick Ryan’s Lament” is a ghost story about two brothers who escape post-famine Ireland for the Land of the Free, and fight for the Union in the War Between the States. Mick stays in the army and ends up dying with Custer at Little Big Horn; forever haunted by, and to, the tune of “The Garryowen.” (official tune of the 7th Cavalry and the fighting 69th, and God knows how many military units full of Irishmen fighting for flags that were not green, and lands that were not Ireland).

Here are two renditions of Mick Ryan’s Lament:–qvlaWL9R8

Here are the lyrics:


Well my name is Mick Ryan, I’m lyin still

In a lonely spot near where I was killed

By a red man defending his native land

In the place that they call Little Big Horn


And I swear I did not see the irony

When I rode with the Seventh Cavalry

I thought that we fought for the land of the free

When we rode from Fort Lincoln that morning


And the band they played the Garryowen

Brass was shining, flags a flowin

I swear if I had only known

I’d have wished that I’d died back at Vicksburg


For my brother and me, we had barely escaped

From the hell that was Ireland in forty eight

Two angry young lads who had learned how to hate

But we loved the idea of Amerikay


And we cursed our cousins who fought and bled

In their bloody coats of bloody red

The sun never sets on the bloody dead

Of those who have chosen an empire


But we’d find a better life somehow

In the land where no man has to bow

It seemed right then and it seems right now

That Paddy he died for the union


Ah, but Michael he somehow got turned around

He had stolen the dream that he thought he’d found

Now I never will see that holy ground

For I turned into something I hated


And I’m haunted by the Garryowen

Drums a beating, bugles blowin’

I swear if I had only known

I’d lie with my brother in Vicksburg


And the band they played that Garryowen

Brass was shin, flags a flowin’

I swear if I had only known,

I’d lie with 
my brother at Vicksburg

The song is so resonant because in changing the cavalry march to a dirge of regret it reverses the upward arc of the hero – and the heroic nation. The Hero – at least the American Hero – is concerned with individualism (even as a nation), potency, production and infinite growth. He conquers others because in saving the world he thinks he can save himself.

Garryowen, after all, is a theme for men who boast, drink, brawl and fight in places where they were never invited. They are the kind of men who can (and did) refer to Viet Nam as “Indian country” and its civilians as “gooks.” They and the politicians who send them are uninitiated men, who attempt to find meaning through the most literal of initiations.

But all indigenous mythologies understand that the Hero must die. That is, he must eventually enter the flames of initiation (or mid-life), shed an outmoded sense of himself and return to be in service to the greater collective. This individualizing process requires that he pass through the realms of reconsideration, regret and remorse. He must die symbolically so that he can be reborn.

Mick Ryan’s Lament does this by turning an anthem of uninitiated men into a cry of regret for having “turned into something I hated” sung by a ghost. The protagonist’s body lies at the Little Big Horn, but his soul resides among the ancestors. The Hero has died to become one of them. The tragedy is that he had to die literally to do so.

This is how we can imagine reframing the myth of innocence – one image, one song at a time.

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Comment by Roberta McDonnell on January 9, 2014 at 9:04am

Thank you for such an informative and haunting piece. My great great grandfather Henry McNaughton was recruited as soon as he landed in America during the civil war. He was wounded and returned home to the North of Ireland where he married and fathered thirteen children. I recall my great grandmother re-telling his stories and that he had a 'pension from Americky'. We know he was a surgeon's assistant and I often wonder at the horrendous suffering he must have witnessed, with little chance of alleviating most of it. Your post and the songs have given me much food for thought and spurred me on to delve more deeply into my ancestors' lives :)

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