Dr Fred Freeman, an expert on both Burns and Tannahill, educated and entertained the members of North Bute Literary Society with his talk on the ‘Irish’ songs of the latter, on the last meeting of the 117th session. He played short extracts of music to illustrate his presentation rather than using slides.
Fred sketched in the biographical details of Tannahill before going on to discuss the social and political influences which had influenced his work. Robert Tannahill was born in Paisley in 1774, the fourth of seven children of a handloom weaver. By the time Robert left school, aged 12, he was already writing poetry, but was also apprenticed to his father as a weaver.
The young man was very aware of the social issues of the times – a freed black slave lived with the family, and Robert was horrified by the inhumane treatment of the Irish workers who flooded into Scotland at this time (by 1810 60% of the population of Paisley were Irish). Although not a Catholic himself, Tannahill spoke out against such practices as special days when everyone was encouraged to beat up an Irishman, and sectarianism in general.
The encounter with a very kind Catholic landlady during a short stay in Preston, Lancashire, influenced Robert’s attitude further, and set him to write many poems and songs. He tried to normalize the Irish without being maudlin, and used the parody and characterisation of satire in the same way as Burns had.
Fred explained that Tannahill’s poems and songs were very popular and were favourably received when published in 1807. Three years later he submitted more work to an Edinburgh publisher but this was rejected. This had a catastrophic effect on Robert’s already poor physical and mental health and in 1810 at the very young age of 36 he committed suicide.
Robert Tannahill’s legacy of over 100 songs and poems include well known favourites such as “Will you go, Lassie Go” (Wild Mountain Thyme).The Lit members enjoyed listening to the music and words of some very evocative songs as presented by Dr Fred Freeman.