It’s a Long Way for Tipperary

This week, 100 years ago, British soldiers took part in the Great War battles of Doiran and Mlali. At Doiran, the British and French forces were repeatedly pushed back and finally overpowered by the Bulgarian second infantry division, while at Mlali, the British were victorious over the Germans. Victory and defeat followed each other all too frequently during the four years of the Great War.

Early misconceptions that the war would be over by Christmas 1914 quickly evaporated as battles and blockades forced more nations to choose sides and fight. The change in fortunes of the British Forces predictably led to changes in the morale of its men. British officers identified that their troops needed something to bind them, something to remind them that they would be going home to the very homes they were fighting for. For two years before the war started in June 1914, a likeable number was entertaining music hall patrons across Britain. "It’s a Long Way to Tipperary" was an upbeat song that typified the feeling among many Irish working in Britain at the time who were longing for their Irish home. At the outbreak of war the song quickly became the unofficial song of the Connacht Rangers and subsequently of all fighting Tommies of the British army.

That most famous of early 20th century songs could easily have been titled "It’s a Long Way to Mayo" as its author, Jack Judge, was a self-defined “native of county Mayo”. Judge’s great-grandfather Gilbert Judge was a carpenter from Carrowbeg near Ballyhaunis. In 1870, Jack’s grandfather and father, both named John, moved from Mayo to West Bromwich to take up employment in the iron works. John junior married his Mayo-born wife in England and Jack was born in Oldbury in 1872.  

Together with his neighbour Harry Williams, entertainer Judge penned his famous song in 1912. Judge’s parentage meant he identified very closely with the Irish working class living in England and that group’s homesick desire for what he good-humouredly termed the “dear disthressful counthry”. Writing in November 1914, Judge explained, “Being an Irishman myself (I am a native of Mayo ) I can honestly say that the sentiment of ‘Tipperary’ is perfectly genuine.” Judge would claim that when he first wrote the song his mother was the only person to like it. With music publishers turning the song down, it looked as if it would be heard only in the music halls. It was not until the Tommies paid Judge the “high tribute” of adopting it as their marching song that people began to take notice. The British government quickly picked up on the power of ‘Tipperary’ as a morale boosting song during the Great War, and though he wanted to join the fight, Judge was kept in England to keep the nation buoyed with his positive song writing skills. John McCormack’s 1914 recording made ‘Tipperary’ widely available and hugely popular. By the end of that year, sales of the record stood at 1.5 million in the UK and three million in the US. Jack Judge sold his royalties to ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’, as it was originally called, to his writing partner Harry Williams in 1915.

It has been suggested that Judge’s grandparents came from Tipperary but no proof exists of that. Indeed, his celebrated song was, in its infancy, called ‘It’s a Long Way to Connemara’. This weekend’s All-Ireland semifinal sees Mayo battle with the men from the Premier County. Tipperary are playing for their first final two spot since the 1920 championship when they went on to win the title. In that championship, they beat Mayo 1-5 to 1-0 in the semifinal, but surely this year it’s a long way for Tipperary to be hoping for victory.

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