17 March 2012

Dr. Drummond's Curious St. Patrick's Day Poem

The Quebec Saturday Budget, 2 April 1892
"He only Wore a Shamrock" 
He only wore a shamrock
On his faithful Irish breast,
Maybe a gift from his colleen one,
The maiden whom he loved best;
But the emblem of dear old Ireland,
Tho' worn on a jacket of red,
Was the emblem of rank disloyalty,
And treason most foul, they said. 
Had he but borne the heather,
That grows on the Scottish hills,
A rose from an English garden,
Or a leek from the Cambrian rills,
Then he might summon his comrades,
With trumpet, and fife, and drum.
And march through the breadth of England,
Till trumpet and fife were dumb.
But he only wore a shamrock,
And tho' Britain's most gracious Queen
Had pinned her cross on his bosom,
Yet the little trefoil of green
Might not nestle down beside it,
For the color, alas! was banned,
And the Celtic soldier was made to feel
That he trod an alien land.
Oh! poor little modest symbol,
Of the glorious Trinity,
Rather bloom on your native hill-side,
Than cross the dark Irish sea;
Rather rest on the loving bosom,
Of the Mother that gave you birth,
For even your virtues can't chasten
The ungrateful English earth.
Atypical verse from William Henry Drummond, the poet we prefer to forget, "He only Wore a Shamrock" was inspired by an incident in which an Irish soldier in the British Army was punished for refusing to remove a shamrock from his non-dress uniform. We know this because the poet tells us much in an appended note that credits an anonymous headline writer for giving his poem its title:

Here's the thing: On 18 March 1894, a Sunday, there was no edition of the Gazette. While it's tempting to think that Drummond merely misremembered the year – the incident in question having taken place on  St Patrick's Day 1892 – there's no such heading in the 18 March 1892 edition. In fact, it wasn't until the next day that the story was broken by the Daily News. Despite dogged detective work, the Gazette heading has eluded me.

I'm not sure what to make of the  awkwardly composed quote. A sub-heading? Drummond's own words? In either case, it's all wrong. According to Hansard, Private O'Grady's bit 'o green was stuck not in a buttonhole, but his glengarry cap. More importantly, O'Grady was not court marshalled, but was received a punishment of 48 hours of hard labour.

William Henry Drummond, physician, poet and poor historian? Or is this just a case of poetic licence spilling over onto an explanatory note?


  1. Irish regiments were granted the right to wear a Shamrock in their headdress on St.Patrick's day in 1900, when the Irish Guards were brought into being by Queen Victoria (and Field Marshall Wolseley).

    The tradition of various regiments wearing a national emblem in their headdress on their national day is well established; I haven't been able to determine just when it arose, but suspect the Irish were the last to be granted the right, and that being an Irishman himself, the discrimination irked Drummond.

    The private's nationality is a moot point; what counts is the regiment he served in. The Drummond note suggests he was a member of the 87th --an Irish regiment, while Hansard says it was a Welsh outfit. Even had the private been entitled to wear a shamrock on St. Patrick's day in 1894, he wouldn't have been permitted to do so as a member of a Welsh unit. So...I'm thinking it was entirely poetic license.

    Incidentally, Drummond mentions Irish soldiers a couple of times --in 'the Nile Expedition' and 'the Dublin Fusilier' and then there's 'We're Irish Yet'.

  2. My thanks for this. I think it's interesting that there was some attempt to make everything look like a big misunderstanding, the commanding officer having somehow not realized that it was St Patrick's Day.