"Young Ned of the Hill" and the reemergence of the Irish rapparee: a textual and intertextual analysis.

Author:Cashman, Ray
Position:Critical essay

The song "Young Ned of the Hill" by the Pogues resurrects an outlaw hero from Irish folklore and attempts to make sense of contemporary experience by appealing to a meaningful past. Through a close attention to text and intertextual references, this article considers why Ned of the Hill has reemerged as a symbolic figure, and what messages are conveyed by the song's representation of the outlaw. In particular, the song may provide commentary on the contemporary political situation in Northern Ireland. In the process of exploring how the song selectively draws from previous discourse, scholarship in folklore and linguistic anthropology help us explore broader issues in interpreting text, context, and tradition.


In 1989, the Pogues, an eclectic Irish folk/punk/rock band, included "Young Ned of the Hill," a song written by Ron Kavana and Pogues member Terry Woods, on their ironically titled album, Peace and Love. The song is somewhat remarkable as a political statement, fiercely condemning Oliver Cromwell and his ruthless seventeenth-century campaign through Ireland. However, the song's tone is also standard fare for this now defunct London-based band of mostly Irish ex-patriots, who cultivated an image of hard-drinking, blue-collar machismo. Perhaps more remarkable is Kavana and Woods' choice of the Irish outlaw and folk hero Ned of the Hill as their foil to Cromwell. Eamonn O Riain (Edmund O'Ryan), better known in Irish folklore as Eamonn an Chnoic or Ned of the Hill, was one of many Irish Catholic landholders forcibly dispossessed by English and Scottish Protestant settlers in the seventeenth century. Rather than fleeing to the continent, many like O Riain chose to remain in Ireland, hoping to frustrate their supplanters. Living the lives of political bandits--harassing British troops, robbing Protestant planters and landlords, and aiding the Irish poor--these men were outlawed and termed "rapparees" and "tories" (1) by Crown authorities. After the historical O Riain's death, ballads, chapbooks, and local legends immortalized him as a Robin Hood-like resistance fighter and proto-nationalist folk hero.

Given the infrequency of contemporary published references to the folkloric Ned of the Hill (and, indeed, other political bandits from the Irish past), one might think him a symbolic figure more relevant to a previous era. Yet he reappeared on a reasonably popular album produced during a period of heightened political tension in Northern Ireland. Through several centuries, media, and reworkings, elements of Ned of the Hill's story have continued to resonate with vastly different audience--Irish, Anglo-Irish, English, and now anyone who buys Peace and Love and enjoys this song. One reason may be the purely structural appeal of the outlaw's romantic story. In a context in which justice has been divorced from law, he seizes the opportunity to simultaneously be bad and do the right thing by breaking the law. Whatever the specific reasons for its appeal to contemporary audiences, the Pogues' "Young Ned of the Hill" is a recent innovation in a long, though admittedly waning, narrative and poetic tradition concerned with Irish outlaws and one outlaw in particular. It is not a revival of an old ballad or a recounting of a folksy oral history but a modern mass-marketed product that draws in part from a larger, threecentury-old discourse on Irish outlaws. (2)

Given the song's juxtaposition of Ned and Cromwell--resistance fighter and English invader--the song provides commentary on the role of republican paramilitary groups such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in contemporary Northern Ireland, a commentary that draws on the aura of tradition for its authority. At stake is how a meaningful past is constructed and referenced in order to make sense of the present. In addition, we must ask how this is achieved given different audiences' varying levels of familiarity with the discursive traditions from which the text is drawn.

My purpose here is to contemplate, through a close attention to text and intertextual references, why Ned has reemerged as a symbolic figure and what messages are conveyed by the representation of the outlaw in "Young Ned of the Hill." I direct my focus more to potential interpretations of the song and their consequences, rather than to authorial intent. In the process, I will draw from scholarship in folklore and linguistic anthropology--especially the works of Richard Bauman, Charles Briggs, and William Hanks--to explore broader issues of interpreting text, context, and tradition. Before embarking on a textual analysis of "Young Ned of the Hill," however, I should first define my use of some key terms and discuss the central issues of context and contextualization, text and entextualization. Some of this discussion may be familiar to folklorists, but the story is worth rehearsing.


Context to Contextualization

In the 1960s and '70s, performance-oriented folklorists and linguistic anthropologists began to demonstrate how the form, function, and meaning of verbal art are grounded in and inseparable from situational contexts. However, identifying and delimiting exactly what constitutes context proved difficult, if not impossible, given the "infinite regress" of detail that could be included in any description of context. Further, considering context to be an amalgamation of relevant situational details that exist prior to or independent of performance allowed for a false dichotomy of text and context (Briggs 1988:12-15).

Realizing the interdependence of text and context, many scholars shifted their attention to how participants in performance constantly monitor each other and negotiate meaning (Goffman 1974), i.e., how meaning and interpretation is emergent in performance (Duranti 1994). This shift was, in part, from an untenable concept of context to contextualization--the process through which a performer embeds cues in his or her narrative that make the form and content meaningful to a specific audience (Bauman and Briggs 1990:66-72; cf. Duranti and Goodwin 1992). More than the successful communication of information relevant to an audience, the measure of a performer's competence is his or her ability to compose a narrative that resonates aesthetically with a specific audience. By extension, competence in performance can be understood as the use of language in creating and sustaining human communities (Briggs 1988:xv). Given the role of the audience in the myriad of choices made by a performer, the audience--whether present in faceto-face interaction or imagined by the author/performer--has been identified as a co-author (Duranti and Brenneis 1986; cf. Lord 1960). (3)

Text to Entextualization

As Bauman and Briggs remind us, the reason we need to focus on context and later on contextualization is "precisely that verbal art forms are so susceptible to treatment as selfcontained, bounded objects separable from their social and cultural context of production and reception" (1990:72). If texts are understood to be bounded objects, then individual performers are merely vehicles for their expression; we are stuck with an antiquarian conception of folklore as "reified, persistent cultural items" rather than a performance-inflected conception of folklore as a "mode of communicative action" (Bauman and Briggs 1990:79; see especially Ben-Amos and Hymes in Paredes and Bauman 1972).

However, Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban point out that considering texts to be extractable, autonomous units of meaning, and culture to be a shared ensemble of such texts, is appealing for both scholars and the people they study. Seen as the building blocks of culture, texts retain specific meanings regardless of their performance contexts, can be transmitted from one generation to the next helping to replicate culture, and create the image of a durable, shared culture. Such a conceptualization of text is too simplistic, and like context, text deserves a more nuanced treatment (Silverstein and Urban 1996:1-2).

A text "can be taken (heuristically) to designate any configuration of signs that is coherently interpretable by some community of users" (Hanks 1989:95), but a text does not necessarily preexist performance any more than context does. To understand the origins and boundaries of texts, we must turn our attention to entextualization--the process through which a text is extracted from previous and surrounding discourse. From this vantage point, a text is "discourse rendered decontextualizable" (Bauman and Briggs 1990:73).

Entextualization is the basis for an entirely new direction of inquiry. Whereas previous attention to contextualization emphasized how the meanings of texts are inseparable from performance contexts, attention to entextualization forces us to consider the flip side of the coin: that is, the propositions that texts "can function and mean as wholes that are abstracted from performance" and that we can speak of the "point" of a specific text and trace its transference to, appropriation in, or reinterpretation in other texts (Braid 1996:9). Seen as a dialogic process (cf. Bahktin 1981), entextualization makes possible the extraction and decontextualization from previous and surrounding discourse, followed by the recontextualization and formalization of this discourse in a new situational context. It is the attempt to temporarily fix meaning using others' discourse. The resulting text is a temporarily encapsulated moment of discourse, supported by intertextual reference, which is itself subject to further decontextualization and recontextualization.

Implications for Interpreting "Young Ned of the Hill"

"Young Ned of the Hill" offers us unique material for a case study, not only in textual interpretation, but also in the process of entextualization. Mikhail Bakhtin reminds us that our mouths are full of the words of others (1981:293, 337), and any given...

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