Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye

"Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye" (Roud 3137), also known as "Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye" or "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya", is a popular traditional song, sung to the same tune as "When Johnny Comes Marching Home". First published in London in 1867 and written by Joseph B. Geoghegan, a prolific English songwriter and successful music hall figure,[1] it remained popular in Britain and Ireland and the United States into the early years of the 20th century. The song was recorded by The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem on their eponymous album in 1961,[2][3] leading to a renewal of its popularity.

Originally seen as humorous, the song today is considered a powerful anti-war song. Except for an initial framing stanza, the song is a monologue by an Irish woman who meets her former lover on the road to Athy, which is located in County Kildare, Ireland. After their illegitimate child was born, the lover ran away and became a soldier. He was badly disfigured, losing his legs, his arms, his eyes and, in some versions, his nose, in fighting on the island of "Sulloon", or Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), and will have to be put in (or, in some versions, with) a bowl to beg. In spite of all this, the woman says, she is happy to see him and will keep him on as her beau. Modern versions often end with an anti-war affirmation.

The song has often been supposed to be an anti-recruiting song and to have been written in Ireland in the late 18th or early 19th century, at the time of or in response to the Kandyan Wars, which were fought in Sri Lanka between 1795 and 1818.[4] It has also been widely speculated that "When Johnny Comes Marching Home", which in actuality was published in 1863, four years earlier than "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye", was a rewrite of "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye" to make it more pro-war.[5] However, a recent study by Jonathan Lighter, Lecturer in English at the University of Tennessee and editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, has shown that these suppositions are incorrect since “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” originally had a different melody. [6]


  • The repeating chorus line "With your drums and guns and drums and guns" is sometimes sung as "With your drums and guns and guns and drums", or "We had guns and drums and drums and guns", as in the Dropkick Murphys version.
  • "Why did ye run from me and the child?" sometimes replaces "Why did ye skedaddle from me and the child?"
  • "Where are the legs with which you run?" sometimes replaces "Where are the legs that used to run?", often also accompanied by a change from "When you went to carry a gun" to "When first you went to carry a gun",[7] such as in the version performed by The Clancy Brothers.
  • In some versions, the final lines are sung as:

They're rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo
They're rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo
They're rolling out the guns again
But they won't take back our sons again
No they'll will never take back our sons again
Johnny, I'm swearing to ye.

  • Steeleye Span recorded an adaptation of the song, called "Fighting For Strangers", on their album Rocket Cottage. Their version is substantially different, but bears the refrain "Johnny, what've they done to you" or "Johnny what'll happen to you". The other similarity is in the last verse:

You haven't an arm, you haven't a leg
The enemy nearly slew you
You'll have to go out on the streets to beg
Oh, poor Johnny, what've they done to you?

  • The song "English Civil War" from The Clash's album Give 'Em Enough Rope incorporates melody and lyrics from the original.
  • The Colombian Army's "Anthem of the Commandos" ("Himno Comandos") uses the same melody.
  • The Rugby song "I Met a Whore in the Park" goes to the tune of the song.
  • The Dutch song "Vannacht" by Pater Moeskroen also goes by the tune of this song.
  • P J Harvey's song "Let England Shake" modifies and incorporates the line, "Indeed your dancing days are done"
  • The villains in the 2001 film The Luck of the Irish sang the song during a victory feast.
  • The song "Hip Hurray" on the Fiddler's Green's 1995 album King Shepherd retains some of the lyrics while using a different melody and additional lyrics to create a reflection on the original song.
  • Marc Gunn and Jamie Haeuser recorded it on their album How America Saved Irish Music (2014)

Reusage of the titleEdit

Select recordingsEdit

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Here the song is called "Johnny jambe de bois" and is sung in French as the twelfth song on thirteen.[8]
  • 1972 – Unknown – To Lord Byron
The song is the anthem of a Greek university student partisan unit named Lord Byron that fought in the lines of the Greek People's Liberation Army ELAS during Dekemvriana. The song was written during Dekemvriana and was recorded at 1972 with other Greek partisans songs and shares the same melody with "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye".
  • 1982 – Susan Dunn – Recital with Pianoforte[9]
  • 1986 – Benjamin Luxon (vocals) and Bill Crofut (Banjo) on "Folksongs at Tanglewood" – Omega Records OCD3003
  • 1986 – Easterhouse – Contenders – "Johnny I Hardly Knew You"
  • 1989 - Hamish Imlach - Portrait LP - "Johhny, I Hardly Knew Ye"
  • 1991 – Guns N' Roses – Civil War Axl Rose whistles a part of the melody on the beginning of the song.
  • 1994 – Vlad Tepes – "Wladimir's March" instrumental intro track, a version of this song
  • 1993 – Joan BaezRare, Live & Classic
Folk singer Joan Baez often included the song in her concert sets during the early to mid-1970s as a statement against the Vietnam War and all wars in general.
The Tossers recorded a version of this song in the 90s, and it was later included on the compilation Communication & Conviction: Last Seven Years, which includes everything they have done before 2000. They recorded another live version on 17 March 2008. It was included on their live album Gloatin' and Showboatin': Live on St. Patrick's Day.

See alsoEdit



  • Lighter, Jonathan (2012). "The Best Antiwar Song Ever Written," Occasional Papers in Folklore No. 1. CAMSCO Music and Loomis House Press. ISBN 978-1-935243-89-2