The following was written by Hannah Rose Baker, a musician from Boston, MA, who recently completed an internship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
In 1938, in Beaver Island, Michigan, Andrew Gallagher, known locally as “Andy Mary Ellen,” sang a song called “Sentenced to Death” for Alan Lomax, who was collecting folk music for the Library of Congress. At almost 9 minutes long, it took up more than one side of a recording disc, so you can hear it in two separate players below this post. When the song ends, you can also hear Gallagher tell Lomax about its history:
Composed by Katharine Murphy and fetched across the ocean 75 years ago by Mary Ellen Roddy. And the son…her son that’s singing the song, Andrew Gallagher. […] And I defy any other goddamn man in this country to sing that.
Gallagher’s speech traces the song back through his mother, Mary Ellen Roddy, to its author, Katherine Murphy. These references caught my ear, making me wonder: What can other sources tell us about these women and their connections to the song?
According to Helen Collar, who conducted a great deal of historical research on the island, and whose papers can be found at this link, Mary Ellen Roddy was born on May 5, 1841, (or possibly 1843; her tombstone and her marriage records differ!) on tiny Rutland Island, in County Donegal, Ireland. The 1841 census shows that at the time there were no more than 125 people living on the island.
Collar’s detailed biographical research shows us that in 1858, Mary Ellen made her way across the Atlantic Ocean to settle on yet another small island. Beaver Island was at that time locally known as the “Kingdom of Strang,” after James Jesse Strang, a Mormon “prophet, seer, and revelator” who reigned over an ecclesiastical monarchy on Beaver from 1848 to 1854, when he was assassinated on the dock of St. James, Beaver’s main town. Two years later, an angry mob ran all remaining Strangites off the island, paving the way for a new wave of immigration, in large part made up of Irish Americans from places like Gull Island and Mackinac Island, as well as directly from Ireland, in particular Donegal.
Katharine Murphy was born around the same time as Mary Ellen in Ballyhooley, County Cork in Ireland. According to D. J. O’Donoghue’s The Poets of Ireland, her father was a tradesman, but failed in business and died with little to his name. Her mother died soon after, and Katharine turned to writing to support herself. She wrote for a number of publications, including the famous humor magazine Punch. Most importantly for us today, she wrote creative pieces in support of Irish nationalism for The Nation and Young Ireland, publications which championed the cause of Irish nationalism. Katharine often wrote under pseudonyms including “Catherine Townsbridge” and “Brigid” after the early Irish saint.
It was under this last pseudonym that she published the evocatively titled “Sentenced to Death,” an epic poem purportedly the confession of a tenant farmer convicted of murdering his new landlord after being evicted from land that his family had held for “ninety long years in their toil.” An unsigned article in the Irish Monthly of August, 1885 gives the text of “Sentenced to Death,” as well as further details of Katharine Murphy.
In 1866, according to Collar’s papers, Mary Ellen Roddy married another Rutlander who had emigrated to Beaver Island, Bernard “Barney” Gallagher. They had two children, Andrew and Patrick, but Barney did not make for a good husband, twice running off with other women. The children became known as “Mary Ellens” because they were raised by their mother, and in fact had their mother’s name as a middle name, leading to Andrew’s unusual moniker, “Andy Mary Ellen.”
Mary Ellen died in 1903. Some 35 years later, and in fact only a year before his own death, Andy Mary Ellen recorded his mother’s song for Lomax.
It is interesting to note that Andy’s version leaves out fourteen lines of the ballad as it is published. As is, it takes up two sides of a record, nearly nine minutes in total. I suspect the middle may have been lost when the disc was changed. Nevertheless, minus a few small changes and a couple of missing lines, what survives of Andy’s version is nearly to the word the same as the corresponding sections of Katharine’s published poem, recorded almost seventy years after it was first printed.
Clearly, there is a gap in this story. When was Katharine’s epic tale set to music? How did Mary Ellen learn it? It seems to have first been published in The Nation in 1875, seventeen years after Mary Ellen left for Beaver Island. Then again, Beaver Island was known as “America’s Emerald Isle,” a place where church services and everyday conversations were long conducted in Irish (i.e. Gaelic). Did Irish nationalism flourish on Beaver? Did copies of The Nation regularly make their away across the ocean to the small island?
Another possibility is that Mary Ellen read the poem as a reprint in another newspaper. The Library of Congress’s Chronicling America project preserves a copy as printed in The Irish Standard, a newspaper in Minneapolis, in 1886. This could easily have made it to Beaver Island.
If Mary Ellen learned the words from a printed copy, where did she pick up the evocative tune that Andy performs, with its odd phrasing and irregular lingering on certain words? Or did Mary Ellen at some point return to Ireland, if only briefly, and pick up the song there? (In Ireland, “Sentenced to Death” has been collected as a recitation, but I haven’t found it with Mary Ellen’s tune.)
Katharine Murphy’s story ends somewhat sadly. In the winter of 1884, she took ill and entered the South Cork Infirmary for care. She died April 10, 1885 of cancer, and her name doesn’t come up again except in a few articles and dictionaries of Irish poets published around the time of her death. That is, until Andy Gallagher tells us again her story of an unnamed convict, and his passionate confession before death, invoking his mother’s name, Mary Ellen Roddy, alongside that of the poet, Katharine Murphy.
Hear “Sentenced to Death,” which Lomax called “Sentence to Death,” in the players below.