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Feature: The rebellious roots of Conor McGregor’s walkout song

‘The Foggy Dew’ is more than just a song for the people of Ireland. It’s a window into Éire’s history, identity, and perhaps the heart of one of her most famous fighters.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor strutted to the boxing ring on August, 2017, he did so without four ounce gloves or a two-tone Reebok fight kit. However, even though he walked into an entirely new sport, McGregor was accompanied by some of the more personal symbols he has long carried to the Octagon.

As always, the Dubliner hit the arena floor with the trídhathach na hÉireann – Ireland’s national flag – draped across his shoulders. But before that the crowd of thousands – many of whom had traveled over land and sea to witness their Celtic idol – were treated to a familiar sound: the bodhrán, tin whistle, and ghostly lyrics that form ‘The Foggy Dew’.

McGregor’s first use of the song during his UFC tenure came before his fight with Diego Brandao, atop the historic UFC Dublin card on July 19th, 2014. Since then, the Irish ballad – performed by Sinead O’Connor and The Chieftains (mashed up with either ‘Hypnotize’ by the Notorious B.I.G or ‘I Get Money’ by 50 Cent) – has been ever-present as the Irishman’s walkout song.

But why would McGregor pick ‘The Foggy Dew’ to escort him into battle? And why does this haunting folk song resonate so deeply with the people of Éire? The answers to these questions can be found in a history filled with rebellion, war, and revolution.

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Songs of County Down, by Gilbert Dalton, credits Canon Charles O Neill, a parish priest from Kilcoo, for writing the lyrics of ‘The Foggy Dew’ in 1919. The music was most likely composed a little earlier. According to Dalton, O Neill (who sometimes wrote under the pseudonym Lascaire) penned the air (or aria) after he attended a sitting of the first Dáil Éireann in Dublin. The Dáil is Ireland’s House of Representatives, the lower house of the nation’s Oireachtas (legislature).

Dalton – as well as Frank Harte in Songs of Dublin claims that O Neill was ‘moved’ during the roll call for the inaugural assembly after “faoi ghlas ag na Gaill” was called out in response to a number of the names read out. The Gaelic phrase means ‘locked up by foreigners,’ and it refers to the imprisonment of Irish independence advocates by the British Crown. It’s thought that this experience is what most motivated O Neill to write a song that commemorates the Easter Rising (also known as the Easter Rebellion) of 1916; an incident that saw many Irishmen and women imprisoned by the British.

Ireland had become a tinder box following the signing of the Acts of Union 1800 between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland. That agreement saw the Emerald Isle come under British rule. It also erased the country’s previous parliament. The move was divisive from the get-go, and lines were drawn between Republicans (who wanted Ireland to separate from the UK) and Unionists (who supported the union).

Throughout the 1800s, there were many challenges to the Union. Some of these were violent, such as the Fenian Rising in 1867 which resulted in a bombing in London and an attack on a prison van in Manchester. In the early 20th century, Irish nationalists grew even more active and a number of armed groups began to form; such as the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers. On September 5th, 1914 an older group, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) – established in 1858 – started to plot an uprising that would become known as the Easter Rising. The planning began just over a month after the British government entered the First World War.

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Below is a popular version of lyrics for ‘The Foggy Dew’; according to Terry Moylan, an archivist with Na Píobairí Uilleann (a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Irish Uilleann pipe music). Moylan also authored Poems and Songs of the Irish Revolution, 1887-1926.

These lyrics differ slightly from O Neill’s original work, which can be viewed here on the Irish Traditional Music Archive’s website. The lyrics are also slightly different from the version sung by Sinead O’Connor in the rendition Conor McGregor uses as his entrance music.

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The lyrics offer a blow-by-blow account of the Easter Rising that took place between April 24th and 29th, 1916. The air also presents social commentary that relates to what was happening in the country, as well as England and wider Europe. Ultimately, it’s both a lament for the revolutionaries who died that Easter and a plea for their remembrance.

In the first verse, the narrator sets the scene – establishing that the time is Easter; a signal to all in Ireland as to what this song will be about. In the second line, armed men move towards the city, but not as regular soldiers. No pipe did hum, no battle drum did sound its loud tattoo. Tattoo doesn’t just mean that gorilla McGregor has emblazoned on his chest. The word also refers to military music performed on a drum. The fact these armed lines are not sounding out their presence means that they don’t want the enemy to know they are coming. These are guerillas.

On Easter Monday, 1916, around 1,200 armed militants from the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army, and Cumann na MBan (an all-female revolutionary group) traveled towards central Dublin. Some of the combatants wore military uniforms, but others wore plain clothes with a yellow sash or armband. They were armed with rifles, shotguns, revolvers, and semi-automatic pistols. Their goal? To wrest Dublin from British control and set the stage for a national rebellion.

But the Angelus Bell o'er the Liffey's swell rang out in the foggy dew, refers to the ringing of a Catholic church bell signalling the Angelus prayers of Incarnation – the belief that Jesus Christ was both man and divine. Catholicism and republicanism have been strongly tied since the day the Acts of Union were signed. The Liffey is the river that runs through the centre of Dublin and out into the Irish Sea.

Street barricades set up by rebels on Townsend Street.
Stringer, Hulton Archive / Wikicommons

The second verse of the song starts with the revolutionaries hanging their flags over the city. On the first day of the Rising, the rebels took positions on both sides of the Liffey including the General Post Office on O’Connel Street, St Stephen’s Green, and the Four Courts (now home to Ireland’s Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, High Court, and Dublin Circuit Court).

'Twas better to die 'neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud-El-Bar. This line sums up much of what the song is truly about. Suvla Bay and the village of Sud-El-Bar are found in modern day Turkey. Across from the Greek Islands, the areas sit on the shores of a peninsula known as Gallipoli. Students of the First World War know this name well. Within a war marked by hellish battles and tremendous loss of life, Gallipoli stands out as one of its most horrifying theatres.

The Gallipoli Campaign - which took place between April 25th, 1915 and January 9th, 1916 - is remembered as one of the most disastrous military encounters in British history. Over an 8 month period an army of approximately 400,000 British subjects – including many from Australia, New Zealand, India, and Newfoundland – supported by some French and Russian assets, attempted to dislodge an Ottoman force allied with Germany and Austro-Hungaria. By taking the peninsula, Britain hoped to forge a path towards Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire. What they found on the Turkish shores was misery, failure, and unrelenting death. The British forces, maligned by nightmarish weather and pitiful planning, suffered a recorded 34,072 battlefield deaths with another 3,778 soldiers dying from disease.

Like many battles in the campaign, those at Suvla and Sud-El-Bar saw Britain suffer devastating losses on the field. However, what makes these engagements notable is that among their war dead were scores of Irishmen.

When the United Kingdom declared war in 1914, so did its colonies and dependencies; by default. Like in England, initial reaction to the war was very positive among Ireland’s unionists. Establishment republicans were also in favour of the effort. However, the Irish Republican Brotherhood – like other soon to be created resistance groups – were staunchly opposed to their nation being involved in the conflict. Some of these groups would later communicate with German leaders and even receive weapons from them. Germany, which had executed similar schemes in India, had hoped that armed rebellions within Britain’s territories would destabilize its rival superpower.

Despite the reaction from Ireland’s most militant rebels, some 200,000 Irishmen served with British forces during the war. 58,000 of these soldiers were already enlisted in the British Army when war broke out, but around 130,000 Irishmen volunteered their service after the outbreak of the conflict. Many of these recruits were grouped together in all-Irish regiments. It was men from the 10th Irish Division that attacked Sud-El-Bar on April 25th, 1915 and attempted to land at Suvla Bay on August 6th, 1915.

Sud-El-Bar (or Sedd el Bahr) is a village on Cape Helles. It was here that the Allies planned to land ground forces, with the objective of taking a number of Ottoman forts that were defending strategic narrows along the European side of the Gallipoli peninsula. One of the landing zones was code-named V Beach. This was the destination point for 2,000 Allied soldiers, most of whom were Irish; from either the Royal Munster Fusiliers or Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

Sedd-el-Bahr castle on April 25th, 1915. Bodies of soldiers from the Royal Munster Fusiliers litter the foreground.
Lt. C.N. Graham / Wikicommons

Difficult currents delayed the landing crafts destined for V Beach. When they finally approached, the shore seemed quiet - thanks to heavy bombardment from close by British ships. However, just as the Irish soldiers were preparing to disembark, Ottoman artillery opened fire from Sud-El-Bar castle. Dozens of men were killed as bombs rained down on their boats. The injured attempted to make it to shore, but many drowned in the rough waters (thanks in part to their heavy equipment). Those who made it to the beach were greeted with machine gunfire. 600 of the 2,000 men who attacked V Beach were killed. The rest were wounded.

There were heavy casualties at W, S, X, and Y beaches as well. After enduring mined beachheads, machine guns, and snipers, these British forces had to contend with Ottoman bayonet charges. Eventually, as a result of the operation – and despite the bloodbath at V Beach – the Allies were able to seize and hold a small foothold on Cape Helles.

The attempted landing at Suvla Bay came some months later. It was intended to break the deadlock that had ensued since the landings at Cape Helles. Ottoman resistance had waned since V Beach, but mismanagement of the British forces prevented the Allies from taking advantage. It was poor planning, and leadership, that spelled doom for many of the Irish soldiers tasked with capturing a strategic ring of hills inland from Suvla bay.

British forces attempted to land in the bay the night of August 6th, but some craft went astray. Others grounded on reefs, forcing soldiers to swim and wade their way to shore against enemy bombardment. In pitch darkness, the landing forces suffered from confusions and disorientation. Moonlight then washed over the soldiers, making them easy targets for enemy snipers. When dawn broke the Allies were finally able to see their objectives. In the morning they fought through light Ottoman resistance to take some of the hilltops they had targeted. On the hills, the British Empire troops were exhausted. The August heat was relentless and the soldiers had a serious lack of drinking water.

Private Edgar Poulter of the Royal Dublin Fusilers is quoted in Myles Dungan’s Irish Voices from the Great War describing the deadly circumstances of trying to get water on one of the hills around Suvla Bay. “From the time we landed to the time we took Chocolate Hill we’d had nothing to drink and the temperature was in the hundreds,” remembered Paulter. “So two men were detailed to go and draw water from a well, a little pipe out of the side of a hill. We walked up to this and found there were dozens and dozens of fellows all shot by snipers who had it well covered. We lost an awful lot of men getting water.”

Turkish forces repeatedly tried to dislodge the Allies from the hills. In one engagement, small arms fire from the Ottomans started a bush fire among the British positions. The blaze engulfed no man’s land, cremating bodies of the fallen in front of their former comrades. Machine gun nests had been trained on the corpses, meaning instant death for any soldier who thought of trying to retrieve them.

After a sweltering August, the hilltop defenders faced flash floods in November and a blizzard in December. While holding Suvla 220 men drowned or froze to death and there were 12,000 cases of frostbite or exposure. The troops at Suvla were eventually withdrawn, once the Allies began retreating from Gallipoli as a whole.

A front line trench at Suvla Bay, August 8th, 1915.
Archives of New Zealand / Wikicommons

The terrible suffering by Irish volunteers in western Turkey is one the reason why O Neill - in his song - wrote it would have been better to die ‘neath an Irish sky. But another reason, which was perhaps more important to the song-smith, was that the Irish lives lost in Gallipoli were for the British Crown and not for an independent Irish state.

And from the plains of royal Meath strong men came hurrying through. This line takes the listener back to Dublin in the Easter of 1916. County Meath is the historic seat of the High King of Ireland. While Britannia's Huns, with their long range guns sailed in through the foggy dew. In O Neill’s original work the line is Britannia’s sons. This version of the line, which is sung during McGregor’s walkout, is political commentary. The British referred to their German opposition as the Huns in the First World War. The name was pejorative and alluding to the perception that the Germans were bloodthirsty, warmongering, and cruel; things Irish rebels accused Great Britain of being. The long range guns belonged to the British Royal Navy ship HMY Helga, which in response to the rebels invading Dublin, sailed down the River Liffey and began shelling republican positions with a pair of 12-pounder naval guns.

The first line of the third verse tells how fighting between the rebels and British soldiers stationed around Dublin raged into the night. Perfidious Albion is a popular slur which has been used to describe England by mostly French speakers since the Middle Ages. Perfidious means deceitful and untrustworthy, qualities England (or Albion) had well earned during a long and bitter rivalry with France.

The seven tongues of flame line that follows is reference to the seven signatories on the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which was a document issued by the rebels during the Rising. One of these signatories was Patrick Pearse, who read the proclamation outside the General Post Office. The rest of this verse alludes to the close quarters fighting that would ensue (which included bayonets). However, despite the blades and Helga, the rebels held their positions for the first 24 hours of the rebellion and when morning broke, still the war flag shook out its folds in the foggy dew.

The fourth verse of the song again compares the fight to be had in Ireland with the battlefields of World War I. Twas England bade our wild geese go, that "small nations might be free". Wild Geese is a term used to describe the Irish Jacobite soldiers who left Ireland to fight as mercenaries for a number of European powers in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. These regiments fought throughout the continent for armies supporting Catholic interests. This line ends by parroting what Britain claimed was justification for entering war with Germany (who, with its allies, had previously invaded Serbia and Belgium). The justification would have felt incongruous to Irish rebels, who saw Britain as enslaving their small country.

Patrick Pearse and Cathal Brugha are mentioned in this verse. They were key figures within the Rising. Pearse drafted the rebels’ Proclamation and during the rebellion he was chosen as President for the newly announced Republic of Ireland. Brugha had been a political activist since at least 1899. During the Rising he was badly wounded while fighting inside the South Dublin Union buildings. It’s told that, though weak from blood loss, Brugha did not yield to the enemy and that he was discovered by comrades, close to death, singing God Save Ireland with a pistol still in his hand. Brugha is not included in the original lyrics (though he is in Sinead O’Connor’s version). The original words mention Éamon de Valera instead. Valera was a leader of the Rising who would go on to become President of Ireland (1959-1973).

The rubble of the General Post Office, rebel headquarters during the Rising.
National Library of Ireland / Wikicommons

The penultimate verse of ‘The Foggy Dew’ hints at how the Easter Rising ended. Oh the bravest fell, and the Requiem bell rang mournfully and clear. In Catholicism the Requiem is also known as the Mass of the dead. After days of fighting, and the arrival of thousands of British reinforcements, the exhausted rebels were pinned down. Once their positions were surrounded, they were pounded with artillery until on April 29th Pearse agreed to an unconditional surrender.

In order to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens, and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers now surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered, the members of the Provisional Government present at headquarters have agreed to an unconditional surrender, and the commandants of the various districts in the City and County will order their commands to lay down arms. - Patrick Pearse, April 29th, 1916

485 people died during the Easter Rising. Over half of them were civilians. 126 British soldiers and 17 police officers were among the dead. 82 rebels died in the fighting and thousands more were apprehended. The captured rebels were held at Richmond Barracks in Dublin. 187 of them were tried in military court. 90 were sentenced to death by firing squad.

Over two weeks in May the leaders of the Rising were shot and killed against a wall inside Kilmainham Gaol. They included the seven signatories of the Proclamation: Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Thomas Clarke, Joseph Plunkett, Éamonn Ceannt, James Connolly, and Sean MacDiarmada. Éamon de Valera was also sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment (thanks in part to his U.S citizenship).

The narrator ends their ballad with a sorrow-filled exaltation of the dead and a vow to remember their sacrifice. The song can also be considered a plea for Irish people to fight for independence, especially in place of any war a King or Queen of England might declare.

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The impact of the failed Easter Rebellion on Ireland and Great Britain is hotly debated by historians. Though the rebels did not succeed in their ambitious plan to take and hold Dublin, they did help galvanize popular opinion on Irish Independence. The execution of the rebels was met with both public and parliamentary outrage. The atmosphere in Ireland grew even more tense after a number of atrocities by British troops were reported. The situation reached a breaking point after the election victory of Irish republican party Sinn Féinn in 1918. The new ruling party moved quickly to declare independence from Britain. The resulting Irish War of Independence lasted two years and ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty and creation of the Irish Free State, which was renamed Ireland in 1937.

The Irish Free State did not include what is presently known as Northern Ireland; a country that remains in the United Kingdom with Belfast as its capital. The people of Northern Ireland have long been split on whether or not to remain part of the UK, to join Ireland, or to be an independent state of their own. These differences boiled over into violence during the 1960s; starting a period of time known as The Troubles. Between 1968 and 1998 over 3,500 people died as a result of low-intensity armed conflict between Irish republican groups and the British Army. Deadly clashes also occurred between republicans and Ulster loyalist groups; who supported Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom.

According to Moylan, it was on the eve of The Troubles that ‘The Foggy Dew’ found mass recognition and began to resonate with a new generation of Irish men and women. “Luke Kelly of the group The Dubliners delivered a powerful solo performance of the song during the band’s several week series of concerts in Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1966,” said Moylan. “I think many people regard that as the iconic performance of the song. For me that concert was the first time I heard it and I think that’s true for many people. Prior to that, before Irish music escaped the ghetto, ‘The Foggy Dew’ would have circulated within a much smaller circle.”

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Of all the songs Conor McGregor could have chosen to accompany him into the biggest fights of his combat sports career, he chose ‘The Foggy Dew.’ A ballad that tells the story of Irish men and women marching on Dublin to fight their oppressors on home soil; instead of traveling across the world to die on foreign shores for a non-Celtic crown. The sentiment of the song is something similar to what we’ve heard from the UFC lightweight champion in the past. A few years ago he blasted fellow Irishman Joseph Duffy (who trains at Montreal’s Tristar) and Louisiana native Dustin Poirier (a staple at Florida’s American Top Team) for being ‘journeymen’. In these arguments McGregor heralded himself for his decision to always remain a Dublin-based fighter.

McGregor is of course no stranger to verbal confrontations like those described above. Since his UFC debut, MMA’s reigning pay-per-view king has demonstrated that he’s as entertaining on the mic as he is in the cage. But mixed among his challenges, boasts, and taunts, are soundbites that reveal a deep rooted passion and appreciation for where he is from. Proof of this was exhibited in July 2014, when an emerging McGregor spent ‘A Day in Dublin’ with Ariel Helwani of MMAFighting.com. In the hour long video the then title contender spoke of his admiration and love for Ireland and especially Dublin. It wasn’t the first or the last time he went on record regarding his love for his homeland or the fans he has there.

And though some of what McGregor says comes off as overly contrived, incredibly hyperbolic, or in poor taste - it’s hard to deny the sincerity in his voice when he speaks of his home, his compatriots, and what they mean to him. If more evidence is needed to prove that Mystic Mac’s adoration for Ireland (or admiration of its hard-fought history) is genuine, one need not look - or listen - further than ‘The Foggy Dew’.

Note: The above article, which was originally published days before Conor McGregor fought Floyd Mayweather Jr. on August 27th, 2017, has since been updated. The article was changed in order to make its contents less time-sensitive.

Tim Bissell is a Canadian writer and researcher who writes about combat sports, history, and the moments in which they meet. You can find his work on OZY.com (including stories: The Suicide Bomber Who Nearly Blew Up Hitler and Russia’s Cross-Dressing War Hero) or on BloodyElbow.com (see below).

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