In the summer of my first year at Oxford I did some harmony singing with Caroline Jackson-Houlston and Tony Snell. I don’t think we ever got to perform in public, but we had a few rehearsals at Tony’s house on the Woodstock Road. I’m sure there must have been other songs we were looking at, the only ones I can recall were all sourced from an LP of Canadian folk songs which I think had recently come Caroline’s way: The Barley Grain For Me by Margaret Christl And Ian Robb With Grit Laskin. We had a go at the John Barleycorn-esque title track and ‘O no, not I’ – which I must get round to re-learning- and possibly ‘Hard Times’. I don’t think we ever tackled this one, but I learned it from the LP and, at the time, it seemed like a pretty obscure song. Then, within a couple of years, it seemed like you couldn’t go to a folk club or session without someone singing it, usually with a bodhran accompaniment. I’ve no idea who popularised it (it certainly wasn’t me!), but it seemed to get very popular very quickly.
Like a lot of the songs on The Barley Grain For Me, ‘By the hush’ was included in The Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs, edited by Edith Fowke. And a selection of songs from that book were included on a Leader LP (grey gatefold sleeve, like Unto Brigg Fair and A People’s Carol) called Far Canadian Fields, Which I knew of, but had never seen, until a few months back when I was very pleased to find a copy in the Oxfam Music shop in Reading.
All of the songs on that LP were collected by Edith Fowke, four of them from Mr O.J. Abbott (source also of ‘The Plains of Waterloo’) about whom the collector writes:
O.J. Abbott was an exceptionally fine traditional singer with an extensive and unusual repertoire. Born in England in 1872, he came to Canada as a young boy. He learned his many songs from Irish families living on farms in the Ottawa valley and from men in the lumbercamps. I met him first when he was eighty-five, and in the closing years of his life he appeared at the Newport and Mariposa folk festivals and at the International Folk Music Council’s meeting in Quebec in 1961.
This song – recorded in 1957 – Mr Abbott learned from a Mrs O’Malley, “the wife of an Ottawa valley farmer, for whom he worked back in the 1880s”.
The Bodleian has a broadside ballad called ‘Pat in America’ with almost identical words. Except it doesn’t start “It’s by the hush, my boys” but “Arragh, bidenahust my boys”. That, it seems, is a corruption of the Gaelic phrase Bí i do thost, meaning be quiet. So “by the hush”, whilst not a phase I’ve ever encountered in any other context, seems a reasonable English translation.
For the historical background to the song, see the Traditional Ballad Index – there’s a lot more information than I’ve quoted below
By the Hush
There is much historical truth in this song. There were indeed new Irish immigrants in the northern armies in the Civil War: “According to one account, some of the 88th’s recruits [soldiers in the 88 NY Regiment, one of the regiments of the Irish Brigade] enlisted shortly after they had exited the immigrant landing point at Castle Garden, and spoke no English, only the Irish Gaelic of the landless Catholic tenant farmer” (Bilby, p. 27). And the unit they joined, the Irish Brigade of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced “Marr”), had a horrendous loss rate even by Civil War standards.
In the first two years of the war, the brigade — originally 63 NY, 69 NY, 88 NY; 28 Mass, another Irish unit, added before Fredericksburg (Bilby, p. 63) and the not-so-Irish 116 PA added in October 1862 (Bilby, p. 61) — had the highest casualty rate of any comparable unit in the Army of the Potomac. According to Bilby, p. ix, “In its four year history, the brigade lost over 4,000 men, more than were ever in it at any one time, killed and wounded. [p. 239 calculates that, in all, 7715 men served in the brigade.] The Irish Brigade’s loss of 961 soldiers killed or mortally wounded in action was exceeded by only two other brigades in the Union army.”
The unit suffered in many battles. In the Seven Days’ Battles, for instance, the 69 NY alone had 155 casualties (Bilby, p. 45), although other regiments of the brigade suffered less. At the end of the Peninsular Campaign, the 69th had only 295 men with the colors (Bilby, p. 49) — meaning that it had already suffered 60% casualties. Meagher did manage to drum up a few recruits that summer, but not enough to offset the brigade’s losses (Bilby, p. 50).
At the Battle of Antietam, the first division of the Second Corps, which contained the Irish Brigade, suffered 212 killed, 900 wounded, and 24 missing (Murfin, p. 375); the Irish Brigade alone is said to have lost 506 of 2944 men (Beller, p, 74). At the start that battle, the four regiments of the brigade were commanded by one colonel and three lieutenant colonels; at the end, they were commanded by two lieutenant colonels, one major, and one captain (Murfin, p. 347). Sears-Antietam, p. 243, says that the 63rd and 69th New York both suffered casualties on the order of 60%. Craughwell, p. 98, says that one company had every man killed or wounded, and on p. 105 says that the thousand-man-strong brigade suffered 540 casualties. Since the brigade started with roughly 3000 men, it had lost two-thirds of them prior to Antietam, and by the end of that battle, five out of six were killed, wounded, captured, victims of disease, or had deserted.