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THE Story in THE Song Garryowen

Two songs in one – the original Irish drinking ballad, and Gary Owen, a marching and fighting anthem.


This song (original composer unknown) has been through many incarnations since it first emerged in the early 18th century. It began life as an Irish drinking ballad and became a favourite marching tune for many British, European, and US regiments. Even Beethoven created arrangements for the song.

Garryowen, (often re-translated as Gary Owen in several versions) is a town in Limerick, Ireland. As a soldiering song, it was heard played by the British during the Napoleonic wars and during the Crimean conflict.

The song was a firm favourite of General Custer. He made it the veritable anthem of the US 7th Cavalry. The Errol Flynn movie, They Died With Their Boots On, from 1941, captures wonderfully the song’s transition from a barroom medley to a full blown marching song through a montage of transitions. The version heard there is Gary Owen.

The song was played during the Korean conflict and in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

The original Garryowen version, or at least the earliest recorded version, offers an invitation to celebrate the wines and beers presented by Bacchus, and join in the song’s chorus. The drinkers vow to spend all on booze and strike fear into sheriffs, bailiffs, etc. The song celebrates drunken rebellion and hell rising.

The 7th Cavalry take on the song tunes the number specifically to the Indian wars, making a legendary hero of Gary Owen, and praising a certain Captain Flynn. Fighting is celebrated rather than drinking, and the Indians are mocked for not knowing the words to the song, almost as if it makes them heathens in their lack of grasp of the anthem. This version retains the tune but has very different but fascinating lyrics in itself.

Their version ends in prophetic tragedy, given the song’s use on the trail to confrontation with Crazy Horse and Chief Sitting Bull, at Little Big Horn resulting in Custer’s death. The song has its soldiers surrounded and continuing to sing as they are slaughtered to the last man, setting their bravery beside Flynn and Owen. There is some irony in Errol ‘Flynn’ playing Custer in the film (which is woefully inaccurate in historic terms, but highly entertaining nevertheless).

Both versions have a compelling tendency to stay in your head long after listening.

The lyrics to Garryowen

The Lyrics to Gary Owen, as sung by the Seventh Cavalry

How the song is presented in They Died With Their Boots On 1941

Arthur Chappell

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