Lillibullero is a march that sets the words of a satirical ballad generally said to be by Lord Thomas Wharton to music attributed to Henry Purcell. Although Purcell published Lillibullero in his compilation Music’s Handmaid of 1689 as “a new Irish tune”, it is probable that Purcell hijacked the tune as his own, a common practice in the musical world of the time. It started as a jig with Irish roots, whose first appearance seems to be in a collection published in London in 1661 entitled ‘An Antidote Against Melancholy’, where it is set to the words “There was an old man of Waltham Cross.” A French version of the tune is known as the “Marche du Prince d’Orange,” attributed to Louis XIV’s court composers Philidor the Elder and Jean-Baptiste Lully.
The lyrics refer to the Williamite war in Ireland 1689-91, which arose out of the Glorious Revolution. King James II abdicated and fled after an invasion of England by Dutch forces under William III. William was invited by Parliament to the throne. James II then tried to reclaim the crown with the assistance of France and his Catholic supporters in Ireland led by Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell. His hopes of using Ireland to reconquer England were thwarted at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690. The song Lillibullero puts words into the mouths of Irish Catholic Jacobites and satirizes the supporters of the Catholic King James. It was said to have ‘sung James II out of three kingdoms.
Ho! broder Teague, dost hear de decree
Lilli burlero bullen a la.
Dat we shall have a new deputy,
Lilli burlero bullen a la.
An explanation of the lyrics
The lyrics of the song are very closely related to Irish politics of the 1680s and ’90s. “Teague” or Taig was (and is) a derisive term for the Irish Catholics – derived from the Irish first name “Tadhg”. The “new Deputy” refers to Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, who was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland by James II in 1687. The first Irishman and Roman Catholic to hold the post in nearly 200 years, he quickly filled the army in Ireland with Catholic officers (hence “we will have commissions galore”) and recruits, alarming the Protestant community (mainly composed of English and Scottish settlers) and raising the hopes of the Irish Catholic community for a restoration of their lands and political power. The Catholic resurgence awakened fears amongst Irish Protestants of a massacre, which they believed had been attempted in the Irish Rebellion of 1641.
The song parodies the widespread Irish belief in prophecy (“there was an old prophecy found in a bog, that Ireland’d be ruled by an ass and a dog”). Talbot as well as being a name is a breed of hound or hunting dog. A common theme of such prophecies was the foreigners would be driven out of Ireland in some decisive battle.
The song’s title and the words of the refrain have been interpreted as a garbled version of the Irish words Lile ba léir é, ba linn an lá, “Lilly was clear and ours was the day”. The lily may be a reference to the fleur de lis of France, or to a popular interpreter of prophecies named William Lilly, who had prophesied in the late 16th century that a Catholic would come to the throne of England. Alternatively, the lyrics could mean, “Lilly is clear [about this], the day will be ours”. It is also thought that “Lilli” is a familiar form of William, and that bullero comes from the Irish “Buaill Léir ó”, which gives: ” William defeated all that remained”.
Laurence Sterne’s experimental and comic novel Tristram Shandy, published between 1759 and 1767 in nine volumes, hints at the great popularity of Lillibullero. Tristram’s uncle, Captain Toby Shandy, a British Army veteran of the fighting in Ireland and the Low Countries during King William’s reign, whistles the tune to Lillibullero when he is offered any opinion or argument which would require passionate rebuttal or which he finds embarrassing or upsetting.
The complete song and tune are available via email @ firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Percy, T. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry…3rd ed. London: printed for J. Dodsley, 1775.