Cultural legacy of revolution: The Ballad of James Tormey

In our first Westmeath County Council Decade of Centenaries podcast in April, we were joined by John Sheehan, a native of Moate and lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at University College, Cork, to explore the story of James and Joseph Tormey, officers in the Irish Republican Army’s Athlone Brigade, who died within weeks of one another in early 1921.

Towards the end of that podcast, we sampled – with thanks to Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (founded in Westmeath in 1951) – a traditional song detailing the demise of the elder Tormey brother, James.

“I suppose the most poignant way of memorising people is through song, and there are songs about the Tormey brothers,” said John, telling of one written by their father, Peter Tormey, which was published in the Westmeath Examiner in 1922. Entitled ‘The Brothers Tormey’, the paean was set to the air of ‘Bodenstown Churchyard’, the ballad about Theobald Wolfe Tone which was recorded by, among others, the Wolfe Tones in the 1970s.

‘The Brothers Tormey’ by Peter Tormey, father of James and Joseph Tormey, published in the 18 February 1922 edition of the Westmeath Examiner.

’The Ballad of James Tormey’

While ‘The Brothers Tormey’ was one of many revolutionary-era ballads that became lost to memory, John states that another tune, ’The Ballad of James Tormey’, continues to be sung by traditional music aficionados in Moate, and was recorded by celebrated Westmeath musical duo Foster and Allen.

An earlier rendition of the ballad was performed by Moate singer John Doyle during the 1970s or 1980s, and survives in the archives of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.

Moate singer John Doyle, who recorded a rendition of ‘The Ballad of James Tormey’ for the archives of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, likely during the 1980s.

John’s son, Brendan Doyle, is an acclaimed traditional musician who is heavily involves with the Moate branch of CCÉ, and the organisation’s Teach Ceoil at Dún na Sí. Tony Allen, of Foster and Allen, fame is a relative of the Doyles. Brendan states that the recording of John’s rendition was made sometime in the 1970s or early 1980s, although John does not remember precisely when. However, he recalls one occasion when the renowned traditional musician Séamus Mac Mathúna visited Moate to run a traditional singing workshop, which was held in the music room at the Convent of Mercy Secondary School. Brendan remembers that his sisters, who were very young at the time and just starting to sing, attended the workshop with their father, and that it took place in 1984. It is possible that the recording of John was made at this time.

“My instinct is that Séamus Mac Mathúna woukd have without doubt have been really taken with John Doyle as a singer, and the significance of John singing this song in particular – and as I knew Séámus he would definitely have made it his business to record him,” said Siobhán Ní Chonaráin, Príomhriarthóir, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.

 Brendan Doyle continues about his father and the family’s connection to ‘The Ballad of James Tormey’: “John Joe Doyle was born in 1938, and has been a farmer all his life. He always loved traditional music, singing and dancing; he plays accordion, set dances and sings regularly to the present day.

“He runs the popular singing club ‘Ramblin’ House’ in Dún na Sí, Moate on the last Friday of every month [which, as of last April, was suspended due to Covid-19 restrictions]. About 12 singers and storytellers gather monthly in Dún na Sí for the Ramblin’ House.

“John sang regularly at church, fleadhanna and house gatherings, but never sang professionally or commercially. He learned the trade from and was very influenced by his mother Margaret Doyle (née Lowry), who was an excellent singer until her death in 2003. He learned the song ‘James Tormey’ from her.”

“It’s a song basically about the life and death of James Tormey,” explains John Sheehan, “and there are many songs like it around Ireland relating to the War of Independence.

“But obviously this is one that it is very special to the people of Moate, the Tormey family and so on.”

Joseph Tormey died alongside another Moate man, Patrick Sloan, on 7 January 1921, after they were shot by a British sentry at Ballykinlar Internment Camp, Co. Down. Some weeks later, on 2 February 1921, his brother, James Tormey, was shot dead during an engagement with Crown forces at Cornafulla, near Athlone.

– Piece compiled with thanks to Siobhán Ní Chonaráin, Brendan and John Doyle, John Sheehan and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann archives. For the full story on the lives and deaths of the Tormey brothers, see our podcast with John Sheehan here:

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 18/08/2021