Garry Owen is one of those old Irish drinking songs that—sober or not—you just can't get out of your head. This fact no doubt has most contributed to its longevity and ultimately, like so many ancestral songs, to its transplantation in America.

The tune itself, in the form of a traditional Irish "quick-step," first appeared as Auld Bessy in 1788. In 1800 it was performed in the opera Harlequin Amulet (the Majic of Mona) and about that time was attributed to "Jackson of Cork" in a book, Country Dances by William Campbell.

It is also written Garryowen and is derived from the Gaelic meaning "Owen's Garden," a suburb of Limerick which overlooks the Valley of the Shannon River and King John's Castle, which was built in the late 12th century. Owen's Garden was a place where young and old congregated, and over time it became famous also for the rough-and-tumble that is tantamount to youth mixed with alcohol. It is in this sense, certainly, that James Joyce saw fit to name the ill-tempered dog of the "Cyclops" chapter of Ulysses Garryowen.

The tune's cadence is infectious and most resembles the rhythm of marching horses, which may be the reason it was adopted by General George Armstrong Custer as the regimental song of his ill-fated 7th Cavalry.

Legend has it that Custer heard Garryowen sung by Irish troopers around the campfire one night and was so taken by the tune that he ordered it performed by his hand-picked regimental band. In time the 7th Cavalry became known as the Garry Owen regiment, and the song, indeed, was the last thing Custer's men heard as they left the safety-in-numbers of General Alferd H. Terry's command for their fateful meeting with Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and over 5,000 citizens of the Sioux Nation at the Little Big Horn.

Pvt. Theodore W. Goldin, Troop G, 7th Cavalry, a Medal Of Honor recipient, a few days before he died composed the following letter to Chaplain (Major) George J. McMurry, 7th Cavalry, with reference to the Battle of the Little Big Horn River on June 25, 1876:

On the day we moved out from Powder River with the pack train, the band was posted on a knoll overlooking the river, where they played merrily while we were fording the river. After all were across and the 6 troops formed we took up the march towards Tongue River and the Rosebud, the band broke into the rollicking strains of "Garry Owen" which as usual brought a hearty cheer, and its notes were still ringing in our ears as we left the river bottoms and the band was lost to sight as we wound up a wide ravine. The strains of the old regimental air were the last notes from the old band that fell on the ears of Gen. Custer, the Staff and many officers and men of the old regiment.

Significantly, though all 264 men under Custer's command were massacred by the Sioux, the sixteen members of the regimental band, under the baton of Felix Vinatieri, a Custer favorite, were spared. The band was billeted on Custer's supply steamboat Far West, moored on the Powder River, and the lucky musicians helped tend the wounded of subsequent skirmishes endured by troops under the command of General Terry and Major General John Gibbon.

Thus Garryowen began to acquire the patina of American military history. The Garry Owen regiment continued to see action in the American Indian Wars and eventually became a founding element of the 1st Cavalry Division. To the old Irish tune, American soldiers marched in Mexico, the Phillipines, North Africa, New Guinea, Manila, and were among the first American forces to reach Japan at the close of the Second World War.

Most famously of all, perhaps, it was the 1st of the 7th Garry Owens under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore who faced over 2,000 North Vietnamese Regulars and Viet Cong in the battle of the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965, the first large-scale engagement of the Vietnam War. 305 Americans lost their lives, but for every Garry Owen who fell, twelve of the enemy died as well.

That story is beautifully told in Randall Wallace's new film We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson, which is itself adapted from the even more harrowing book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, written by Lt. General Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway, who were there.

Garry Owen

Let Bacchus's sons be not dismayed,
but join with me each jovial blade,
come booze and sing and lend your aid,
to help me with the chorus:


Instead of spa we'll drink down ale
and pay the reckoning on the nail,
for debt no man shall go to jail
from Garry Owen in glory

We are the boys who take delight
in smashing Limerick lamps at night,
and through the street like sportsters fight,
tearing all before us (Chorus)

We'll break windows, we'll break doors,
the watch knock down by threes and fours,
then let the doctors work their cures,
and tinker up our bruises (Chorus)

We'll beat the bailiffs out of fun,
we'll make the mayor and sheriffs run,
we are the boys no man dare dun,
if he regards a whole skin (Chorus)

Our hearts so stout have got us fame,
for soon 'tis known from whence we came,
where're we go they dread the name,
of Garry Owen in glory

Instead of spa we'll drink down ale
and pay the reckoning on the nail,
for debt no man shall go to jail
from Garry Owen in glory

We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, Lt. General Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway, New York: Random House, 1992.
From Custer to MacArthur, the 7th US Cavalry, Edward L. Daily, Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Co, 1995.

On Vietnam:


  1. I was a prisoner in a Mexican Whorehouse
  2. A long time gone
  3. How to brush your teeth in a combat zone
  4. Libber and I go to war
  5. Fate takes a piss
  6. Thanks For the Memory
  7. Back in the Shit
  8. LZ Waterloo
  9. Saturday Night, Numbah Ten


a long commute
Andy X Kirby True
a tale of two Woodstocks
Buy a Gun
Dawn at The Wall
Feat of Clay
Funeral Detail
I was a free man once, in Saigon
The Joint Chiefs of Staff
the shit we ate

Breaking Starch
Combat Infantryman Badge
David Dellinger
Dickey Chapelle
Firebase Mary Ann
Garry Owen
Gloria Emerson
Graves Registration
I Corps
Project 100,000
the 1st Cav
The Highest Traditions
Those Who Forget
Under the Southern Cross
Whither the Phoenix?

A Bright Shining Lie
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
We Were Soldiers

Shades of Joyce:

a nice cool glass of Joyce
Anna Livia Plurabelle
Cashel Boyle O'Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell
Finnegans Wake
Finn MacCool
Garry Owen
Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker
Issy the Teenage Rainbow
Lucia Joyce
Mina Purefoy
Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress
Shem the Penman
Ulysses is not pornography
Volta Cinema

Garry Owen (alternately known as Sergeant Flynn) is a folk song making extensive references to both the Seventh Calvary Regiment and their marching song, Garry Owen. The song details the cavalry charge at Custer's Last Stand, from the initial spotting of the Native enemy to the carnage after the fact.

I myself learned this song as a camper at a BSA summer camp, then promptly forgot it. When I became a counselor in training at the same camp I taught myself the song again, then forgot it as soon as my tenure was over. Once I was hired as a full-fledged staff member for the camp I took roughly a half-hour long shower, during which I forced myself to remember every damn word of this song. So it should come as no surprise that, for this writeup, I forgot the entirety of the second verse.

If it helps, I figure the beat of the song to be somewhere between 145-150 BPM. It very decidedly does not share a rhythym (or much of anything else) with the other song named Garry Owen. Unfortunately, this song is rare enough that there are - as far as I can tell - no recordings online of it being performed. 

Actually, an interesting note to make is that literally the only place I can find this song is in a single book (Rhymes for the Working Man) and on various websites dedicated to songs for Boy Scout programs. It's cool that there's a whole oral tradition hidden within the Scouts that has stayed relatively contained even during the Information Age. It's really cool that I get to be one of the first people to help destroy that containment.

The chorus is as follows:

Garry Owen, Garry Owen, Garry Owen (GARRY OWEN!)
In the valleys of Montana all alone (ALL ALONE!)
There are better days to be in the Seventh Cavalry
Then when charge again for dear old Garry Owen (GARRY OWEN!)

You can either start with a chorus (I do) or with the first verse. The song goes as follows:

I can hear the Sioux bucks singing Sergeant Flynn (SERGEANT FLYNN!)
And I can hear the tom-toms ringing Sergeant Flynn (SERGEANT FLYNN!)
I can hear the Sioux bucks singing
And I can hear the tom-toms ringing
But they don't yet know the tune to Garry Owen (GARRY OWEN!)


Oh, it's the first call I hear sounding Sergeant Flynn (SERGEANT FLYNN!)
And it sounds like Taps a'rounding Sergeant Flynn (SERGEANT FLYNN!)
Look me lads, here's something fancy
Take a break, it's Private Clancy
You'll feel better when he strikes up Garry Owen (GARRY OWEN!)


For it's boots and saddles sounding Sergeant Flynn (SERGEANT FLYNN!)
Along the line your men are bounding Sergeant Flynn (SERGEANT FLYNN!)
So let's saddle up and fall in
For the trumpets are a-callin'
And the band is tuning up for Garry Owen (GARRY OWEN!)


VERSE 4: (the climax of the song)
Oh, it's forward we're advancing Sergeant Flynn (SERGEANT FLYNN!)
And the breeze guides are a'lancing Sergeant Flynn (SERGEANT FLYNN!)
Walk, trot, gallop, charge by thunder
Stab your sabers to the hilt for Garry Owen (GARRY OWEN!) 


VERSE 5: (sung slightly panicked)
We are ambushed and surrounded Sergeant Flynn (SERGEANT FLYNN!)
But retreat has not yet sounded Sergeant Flynn (SERGEANT FLYNN!)
Gather `round me men let's rally
For the seventh regiment and Garry Owen (GARRY OWEN!)


VERSE 6: (sung much slower and quieter until the last line)
We are cut and scalped and battered Sergeant Flynn (Sergeant Flynn)
All your men are dead and scattered Sergeant Flynn (Sergeant Flynn)
I will hang my head in sorrow
As I make your bed tomorrow
And over your grave, I'll whistle Taps


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