This poem, which alludes not merely to the Irish famine but also to the death of Daniel O'Connell, was written by one of the brothers who wrote under the pseundonym, "Crowquill." I'd love to know what the Gaelic refrain mneans; it seems to be associated with Samuel Lover's (February 24, 1797 Dublin- July 6, 1868) "Handy Andy, A Tale of Irish Life" (1842), in which the characters speak occasional Gaelic phrases amidst their highly accented English.


The sea moans with sadness around thy dark land
And melts into tears as it touches the strand
The cry from thy mountains comes wildly and low
As the laden wind sighs with its burthen of woe
And the notes that alone thy sweet harp strings can wake
Are the dying laments that they give as they break
Thy shamrock it glistens Och hone wirrasthru
With tears of dark sorrow, but not with the dew!
With tears of dark sorrow but not with the dew!

The angel of Famine, with darkening wing,
Has thrown the cold shadow o'er each living thing,
Thy dwellings are fallen, thy children must mourn,
For the earth of its bounty is rifled and shorn,
And death claims thy champion, far from thy loved land,
But still must thou bow to the chastening hand
Thy shamrock it glistens, Och hone! Wirrasthru!
With tears of dark sorrow, but not with the dew,
With tears of dark sorrow, but not with the dew.

Poor Erin! Thy sister with fond love has flown
To dry up thy tears, and to hush thy deep moan
And with her, sweet Mercy and warm-hearted train
With bright feet have crowded across the dark main
So thy children shall smile, and thy heart bleed no more
For her succouring hands are spread out to thy shore
Then wall not, fair Erin, Och hone! Wirrasthru!
Thy shamrock shall glisten again with dew.
Thy shamrock shall glisten again with dew.

This song comes from was the Hungry Forties, the period in which the Irish countryside became depopulated by disease, the potato famine, and emigration, particularly to the United State. The lament for "Poor Erin" is there not intended to be ironic. Although English economic policies and neglect of Catholic Ireland had always been a problem, a number of British writers and visual artists of the 1840s became genuinely concerned about the sufferings of the Irish, whether Protestant or Catholic. John Leech, the Dickens illustrator, and Dickens himself are examples of social justice critics who voiced concern about the situation in "Poor Erin." Marjorie Bloy notes that

In January 1847 [British Prime Minister Lord John] Russell's administration modified its non-interventionist policy and made money available on loan for relief, and soup kitchens were established. The potato crop did not fail in 1847, but the yield was low. Then, as hundreds of thousands of starving people poured into the towns and cities for relief, epidemics of typhoid fever, cholera, and dysentery broke out, and claimed more lives than starvation itself.

If we follow the terms of the personification in the third stanza, Erin's "sister" would probably be England, under the Whig leadership of Lord John Russell finally recognizing that material assistance must be supplied the "poor" sister island. However, Irish immigrants in the United States may also be alluded to, since Irish Home Rule advocated by Daniel O'Connell was strongly supported by these expatriates in New York ands Boston in particular. "Poor Erin" is therefore, double entendre, but it is intended to express sympathy. Since Irish patriot Daniel O'Connell died in the very year that this lament was published, it is not too far-fetched to identify him with the "champion [who has died] far from thy loved land" (line 5, stanza 2) since O'Connell died on his way to Rome in Genoa on 15 May 1847. The whole piece, including the refrains at the end of each stanza and the repeated Gaelic interjections, suggest that Crowquill modelled his piece on the airs of Thomas Moore. Rather than making fun of Irish sentimentality, the romantic air is full of Victorian sentiment, which writers such as Dickens marshalled to convince the vast Victorian readership of the need for such social changes as repeal of the Poor Laws. The lament for 'Poor Erin' published just two weeks after his death is thus also an obsequy for the great Irish patriot Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847), whom many English admired for his abolitionist sentiments.

Related Material

Crowquill, Alfred. (music by Edward Loder). "The Tears on the Shamrock." The Illustrated London News (29 May 1847):


Victorianism: An Overview History British Empire

Last modified 31 July 2009