Author’s note: in the context of this article the term “Republican” refers to the political idea that Ireland should be a Republic free from British rule. It is unrelated from the Republican party of the United States.
MGM Garden Arena is waiting. The only source of illumination comes from the sporadic flash of a camera; the only audible sound comes from the excited murmur of the audience. The faint beat of drums breaks the limbo as the tri-color Irish flag is projected onto the Octagon canvas. The voice of renowned singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor cuts through the fog of anticipation as she emerges from a plume of smoke, raised on an ascending platform. Ms. O’Connor serenades the thousands in attendance at MGM and the millions watching around the globe with a particularly stoic rendition of the Irish folk song The Foggy Dew, a ballad chronicling Ireland’s fight for independence. As the first verse is completed the world’s most notorious Irishman, Conor McGregor, emerges from the tunnel, turns and salutes his compatriot before walking into the Octagon. Minutes later, McGregor would win his UFC 189 bout against Chad Mendes by second-round knockout, capturing the UFC Interim Featherweight Championship.
When fighters make their walk to the Octagon, they typically do so to the with the audible assistance of a cliché walkout song usually a Hip-Hop or Rock track that intimidates their opponent and energizes their fans. The vocals of Eminem, Tupac, Kid Rock, AC/DC, and similar performers can often be heard providing overt pump up music accompanying fighters on their way to the cage. It is this mainstream of belligerent music choices that makes McGregor’s choice of The Foggy Dew is so notable.
While Ms. O’Connor’s live performance at UFC 198 omitted the insertion of Biggie Smalls’s Hypnotize that usually followed the first verses of The Foggy Dew, McGregor’s music choice has always seemed odd to casual and die-hard fans alike. For a fighter who engages in excessive trash talking and the occasional coordinated assault on a bus, the choice to supplement or replace the expectation of hardcore Hip-Hop and Rock and Roll with a softly sung ballad is puzzling to many. But, it is the story behind the song that explains the odd pairing of the brash McGregor and the serene O’Connor. This ballad is the iconic Irish folk song The Foggy Dew, an ode to perhaps the most important event in the history of Ireland, the Easter Rising of 1916.
The Easter Rising of 1916
While made famous by Sinéad O’Connor in a modern context, The Foggy Dew was initially composed a century ago by a priest by the name of Charles O’Neil, an active participant during the Irish Revolutionary Period. An avid Republican, O’Neil’s aimed to honor the young men who died in the Easter Rising of 1916 while bolstering support for the growing sentiment of Irish Independence from The United Kingdom.
While today the world recognizes Ireland as a sovereign nation with a distinct culture from that of its neighbor and former ruler, this is a relatively young geopolitical notion. From the Norman (British) Invasion of the island in the mid 12th century until the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1922, Ireland was a dominion of the British Crown. While technically the state of Ireland came into formation in 1922 with the signing of the treaty, The Easter Rising of 1916 is the point that many of the island’s occupants and diaspora, including Mr. McGregor, consider the formation of the country. Although unsuccessful as a military operation, the armed insurrection and subsequent events following the conflict lead to a swell in nationalist sentiment that quickly mobilized the population and lead to the creation of an independent Ireland.
On April 24, 1916, while the First World War captured the United Kingdom’s undivided attention, rebels from a handful of Republican groups, lead by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, started the Rising by seizing key government buildings around Dublin. Arguably the most notable moment in Ireland’s history came when rebel leader Patrick Pearse read the “Proclamation of the Republic” on the steps of the General Post Office, declaring Ireland a sovereign nation free from colonial rule. The next week would see fierce gun battles between Republican forces and British troops take place all across the island, with the heaviest fighting taking place in Dublin. Eventually the British were able to deploy the cutting-edge military technology of heavy artillery and machine guns inflicting heavy casualties on the rebels, forcing Pearse to agree to an unconditional surrender.
While the rebellion was a clear military defeat for the Republican cause, the actions of the British Government following the events of Easter Week greatly increased the Irish population’s support for independence. The majority of the approximately 2,500 civilian casualties from the events of the Rising were Irish civilians, due mainly to the British Army’s indiscriminate use of heavy artillery in densely populated urban centers. In the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, the British Police arrested approximately 3,500 Irish citizens, on orders to detain “those who have to take an active part in the movement although not in the present rebellion.” While the vast majority of those detained were released, the spectacle of detaining anyone and everyone who had ever expressed support for Republicanism gave bolstered the perception that England was a foreign colonizing force, the basic argument for independence.
The executions started on May 3, 1916, less than four days after Pearse surrendered. As the executions were carried out the population of Ireland boiled to a point in which a second rebellion was approaching inevitability. In an attempt to maintain the fragile peace, Prime Minister H.H. Asquith commuted the rest of the death sentences in lieu of life sentences.
The Republican case for independence was built on the premise that England was a foreign nation occupying a colony, not an instrument of self-governance. The actions taken by the British military during and following the rebellion gave credence this notion. Rushed trials with no legal defense resulting in executions, the detention of over 3,000 individuals without cause, indiscriminate shelling leading to the loss of civilian life, and reports of British war crimes was the tipping point for public opinion. In the minds of Irish citizens, the ability to view England as a manifestation of Irish autonomy was eliminated. Revolution was quickly becoming inevitable. It was in this climate that Charles O’Neil wrote The Foggy Dew, lionizing the fallen of the Easter Rising and encouraging a second attempt at revolution. Not long after, the Irish War for Independence broke out, resulting in the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty and the creation of the Irish state.
McGregor’s Ode to His Country
What makes Conor McGregor’s choice of The Foggy Dew such an extraordinary selection is the story behind the ballad’s origin. When McGregor was signed to the UFC he was only the second fighter from Ireland to be granted the privilege. As peace treaties have maintained peace Ireland’s the troubled past has slipped outside of current events and the realm of common knowledge. With the exception of St. Patrick’s Day, Conor McGregor is arguably the only entity that brings widespread attention to the island nation. While it often goes identified as “the Irish part before Biggie Smalls,” McGregor’s entrances to The Foggy Dew are much more than attempts to intimidate opponents or sell tickets. They are an ode to the trials and tribulations of his nation and his self. They are indicative of his style of combat, simultaneously relaxed and smooth, yet deceptively violent and lethal.
Much like the island he hails from, there is much more to Conor McGregor than meets the eye.
Where some see a Nation only notable for its creation of an alcohol-centric holiday and exceptionally exquisite whiskey, in actuality there is a population that has managed to survive centuries of exploitation and oppression. Where some view McGregor as just another punch-drunk prizefighter, there is an outstanding mixed martial artist who knocked out one the greatest MMA fighters of all-time in 13 seconds, and propelled a rather obscure sport into the mainstream. The Foggy Dew is not what one would expect from a UFC walkout song, but that is precisely why it complements Mr. McGregor, and Ireland, so well.
The Foggy Dew
Composed by Charles O’Neil, 1919
As down the glen one Easter morn
To a city fair rode I
There armed lines of marching men
In squadrons passed me by
No fife did hum, no battle drum
Did sound its dred tattoo
But the Angelus bells o’er the Liffey’s swell
Rang out through the foggy dew
Right proudly high over Dublin town
They hung out the flag of war
‘Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky
Than at Suvla or Sud el Bar
And from the plains of Royal Meath
Strong men came hurrying through
While Brittania’s huns with theirlong-range guns
Sailed in through the foggy dew
‘Twas Brittania bade our wild geese go
That small nations might be free
But their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves
On the shore of the gray North Sea
But had they died by Pearse’s side
Or fought with Cathal Brugha
Their names we would keep where the Fenians sleep
‘Neath the shroud of the foggy dew
But the bravest fell, and the requiem bell
Rang mournfully and clear
For those who died that Eastertide
In the springing of the year
And the world did gaze in deep amaze
At those fearless men, but few
Who bore the fight that freedom’s light
Might shine through the foggy dew