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A Touch of the Poet

1942

There are two songs in O'Neill's story of the Melody family, both sung in the third act at Cornelius Melody's ceremonial dinner celebrating the anniversary of the battle of Talavera. O'Neill presumably had long remembered the songs, but in unidentifiable variants and perhaps with some confusion as to title.

"Biddy O'Rafferty," O'Neill states, is sung to the tune of "Baltiorum," but the rhythm of the words does not fit any of several recorded variants. It is boisterously sung by the hangers-on at Melody's tavern. Its contribution to the general merrymaking as Melody recalls the details of the battle of Talavera lies in its anti-Catholic irreverence which pleases the host. He calls it "a song in the right spirit," and promises the singer, Patch Riley, that he will call for an encore when his wife is in the room. "She still has a secret fondness for priests," he says, and then dismisses the matter, demanding less noise from the singers.

Less casual is the second song that Melody asks for by name, "Modideroo." In modern Irish, "Modideroo," meaning "red dog," is a common term for fox, and the ballad in several variants celebrates the heroic skill and the gallantry of the fox who, despite his prowess as a poultry thief, must face the trial of the hounds and hunters. In one version, with something of the Byronic courtliness of Melody himself, the fox lays his life down at the foot of the "beauty of the meet":

"Fair maid," says he, "were it not for thee,
Some sport I'd show them daily.
But my brush I yield to the fairest of the field,
And I die at her dear feet gaily."

Oh, Little Red Fox, Red Fox, Red Fox,
Oh, Little Red Fox, low lying;
Little Red Fox taken 'mong the rocks,
For the love of two bright eyes dying.

O'Neill's version has macabre overtones. Wearing the brilliant red coat of his army uniform, Melody calls for the song immediately after he quotes Byron's verses about solitude in the midst of a crowd:

But midst the crowd, the hum, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel and to possess,
And roam along, the World's tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of Splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endued,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less,
Of all that flattered followed sought, and sued;
This is to be alone
This, this is Solitude!

The implication of pursuit in the poem perhaps reminds Melody in his red coat of the pursued red fox who shows nothing but contempt for his pursuers, a gay company who cannot know the sorrow the fox feels or the nature of his freedom in death:

For loud as you cry, and high as you ride,
And little you'll feel my sorrow,
I'll be free on the mountainside
While you'll lie low tomorrow.

Only, as the play will demonstrate, it will not be the pursuers who lie low, but the free-spirited fox, who will die as surely as Con Melody's mare and the Byronic soul of the hero of Talavera.
 


Riley (bursts into a rollicking song, accompanying himself on the pipes, his voice the quavering ghost of a tenor but still true  to the tune of "Baltiorum." ... Roche and O'Dowd roar after him, beating time on the table with their glasses  "Hurroo, hurroo! Biddy O'Rafferty!" and laugh drunkenly.)
Melody
...A song in the right spirit, Piper. Faith, I'll have you repeat it for my wife's benefit when she joins us. She still has a secret fondness for priests. [III, 232-33]

Biddy O'Rafferty - words traditional, Tune: "The Irish Washerwoman" ca. 1792


Baltiorum - traditional


Melody ...Give us a hunting song, Patch. You've not forgotten "Modideroo," I'll be bound.
Riley
(roused to interest immediately) Does a duck forget wather? I'll show ye!... (accompanying himself, sings with wailing melancholy the first verse that comes to his mind of an old hunting songs.... Melody, excited now, beats time on the table with his glass along with Cregan, Roche, and O'Dowd, and all bellow the refrain, "Oh, Modideroo, aroo, aroo!") [III, 235-36]

Modideroo - traditional

 

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