More power to your elbow

From: THE WASHINGTON TIMES 15TH FEBRUARY, 1922 (abridged):

“Dear Sir,

Quite recently you used the phrase “more power to your elbow.” I wondered did you know the origin of it?
There were ten musical instruments in use among the ancient Irish. Of these there were two kinds of bagpipes. The piob mor, or war pipes, referred to in the Brehon Laws of the fifth century, and the Uileann pipes, Shakespeare called them “woolen” which came into general vogue about the year 1760. They were called Uilleann because they were worked by the elbow, hence giving rise to the phrase you used, “more power to your elbow.”

Cathal O’Byrne”

Catherine Morris, visiting research fellow at the School of English, Queen’s University Belfast, reviewed Cathal O’Byrne and the Northern Revival in Ireland, 1890-1960 By Richard Kirkland, for the Irish Times of Jan 27, 2007:

“Irish Studies:

Cathal O’Byrne (1876-1957) is a shamefully neglected figure whose prolific contribution to Irish culture merits far greater recognition. A poet, journalist, singer, actor and playwright during the key years of the Irish Revival, O’Byrne also led a very colourful life as a gunrunner during Ireland’s Civil War.

If he hadn’t lost all his money in the Wall Street Crash during a stay in America, he might never have returned to the Falls Road, where he began his influential social journalism for the Irish News. As I Roved Out, a collection of O’Byrne’s journalism, was described by Rushlight editor Joe Graham as “the Bible of Belfast”…

Indeed, Richard Kirkland traces “cultural residues” of O’Byrne’s resonant cityscapes in both Adams’s memoirs and Ciaran Carson’s Belfast prose.

For Kirkland, O’Byrne can be understood as a key figure in the Revival precisely because he made Belfast the centre of all his work. Kirkland therefore sets himself the complicated task of exploring two suppressed narratives by arguing that “the story of the Northern Revival cannot be told without telling the story of O’Byrne.”

By scrutinising Belfast’s cultural politics from 1891 to 1921, Kirkland challenges more orthodox readings of the Irish Revival that privilege Dublin as the site for the movement to regenerate the Irish language, literature and drama. Kirkland suggests that as a Catholic, working class performer of music hall entertainments in Belfast, O’Byrne offers a unique insight into traditions of Irish popular culture that are generally left out of most scholarly accounts of the Revival.

Moreover, he lauds O’Byrne as a modern day shanachie who, during his later years, in the 1930s, became “the protector of a popular tradition of storytelling and history in Belfast at a time when it was threatened with eradication”.

Kirkland also situates O’Byrne alongside many other extraordinary Northern cultural practitioners who have too often been written out of modern Irish history, such as Frances Joseph Bigger, Roger Casement, Anna Johnston and Alice Milligan.

Kirkland explores how O’Byrne’s cultural activism and literary output were shaped by the political struggles of the North, by his devout Catholicism and by his ambiguous sexuality (Kirkland intimates throughout that O’Byrne was gay but lacks fully convincing proof).

Where most accounts of the Revival identify the founding of the Free State as a cut-off point, Kirkland insists provocatively that this cultural movement continues in the North long after Partition.

This is a productive line of argument, although Kirkland’s stress upon the Catholic, clerical and regionalist demeanour of the Northern Revival arguably downplays the more radical cross-cultural and cross-community objectives of O’Byrne and his associates.

Nevertheless, this beautifully illustrated and diligently researched book does a valuable job in bringing to light a vitally important period in Irish history that has for too long struggled in darkness.”

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