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    This product was added to our catalog on Saturday 16 January, 2010.

    Billy O'Rourke Ballad Sheet

    Price:  $0.75

    Letter Ballad sheets were a significant line for most cheap-print publishers; their location in the list of items offered by Henry de Marsan in his self-advertisement at the bottom of this one shows their importance to his business: "Publisher of Songs, ballads, toy books, &c." De Marsan's ballad-sheet house style was based on crude but attractively bold pictorial border elements which could be swapped in or out to complement—or sometimes completely ignore, as in this case—the text of the song they frame. The borders chosen for BILLY O’ROURKE are almost entirely military: the side and top elements date to the Mexican War; the bottom element is newer (probably from the 1850s) and shows the strong association of volunteer fire and militia companies. In a field that was called “cheap print” for a reason, de Marsan was one of the lowest practitioners: technically, his printing is slipshod at best, typified by uneven impressions (note that a screw head has risen to leave its impression in the lower right-hand corner); the paper is usually very poor. The grayish, indistinct tone of this ballad accurately reproduces the look of de Marsan’s work.



    BILLY O’ROURKE dates from the first third of the nineteenth century and almost certainly had its birth as a comic song performed in English song-and-supper clubs, the direct ancestor of Music Hall. In pre-famine days it was quite common for Irish seasonal laborers to travel to England for the harvest; the details are correct: the packet boat from Dublin sailed to Parkgate (here “Porgate”), Cheshire. “Bochle” is a phonetic attempt at the Irish buachaill, (boy or lad) and pronounced "boo-a-hull." The song was sufficiently popular that the tune to which it was sung is still called by its name.



    The principal use of ballad sheets was, of course, to learn and/or sing songs from; then as now, not everyone had a good memory. Ballad sheets allowed purchasers to either learn a song in the privacy of their own chambers (or tent) and then spring it on the rest of the crowd at an after-dinner social gathering, the oyster rooms, or around the camp-fire; or to just sing the song with sheet in hand to help a defective memory (in the Irish tradition, when a singer gets stuck in the middle of a song, we say "there's a hole in the ballad"!).

    But these sheets also had an important secondary use: they were cheap decor. While especially true of illustrated ballads (like this one), even sheets with nothing but words were pasted or pinned up in public and private rooms as mirthful or improving decoration. Mr. M'Dermott has seen ballad sheets pasted inside trunk lids, books, instrument cases, portfolios and such; doubtless they were stuck up in winter quarters, and they might well have been pasted inside the odd knapsack. Other locations for this item, folded up, are in the corner of a knapsack, stuck into the sweatband of your cap or hat, or in the wallet. They have served as impromptu letter paper when nothing better was to hand, and can again. While these ballad sheets are quintessential ephemera—cheap when bought, and not likely to survive very long—Mr. M'Dermott has been lucky enough over the years to see two examples of what mid-19C purchasers did to keep their prized clutch of ballads handy: one sheaf was pinned with a straight pin along the long side; another had been sewn together with thread, like a side-sewn pamphlet: a  home-made "song book."



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