Whether Arthur comes from Ireland, as seems likely, England (specifically, East Anglia), as some people think, or anywhere else, three things appear to be certain:
1) The earliest printed versions of Arthur McBride date from the mid-nineteenth century.
2) The background to the song is recruitment into the British army.
3) It's a terrific song.
Let's assume that Arthur and his cousin were poor. The sergeant who appears in the song appears to be a recruiting sergeant, whose job it was, by hook or by crook, to enlist new conscripts into the army. He might do this with the offer of money (the Guinea that will soon be in their fists), by plying them with alcohol or, possibly, by using force - in the song, it seems that Sergeant Napper tries all three approaches. Once recruited, soldiers faced a life that was arguably hard, and possible death on the battlefield. Yet to many poor young men, whether English, Irish, Welsh or Scottish, this may have seemed a better option than the poverty in which they found themselves. Arthur and his cousin, however, refuse to be bribed, drunk or forced into the army, and fight the sergeant and his cohorts rather than submit to enlistment.
Reputedly the favourite song of the folklorist A.L. Lloyd, Arthur McBride has been recorded by Bob Dylan, John Kirkpatrick, Martin Carthy and, perhaps most notably, by Paul Brady, whose version you will find in the You Tube vide.
The Blue Cockade, by the way, is another traditional song about enlistment, albeit with a different outcome, and told from a very different perspective.
Me and my cousin, one Arthur McBride,
C G C
As we went a-walking down by the seaside.
And mark what followed and what did betide,
It being on Christmas morning
For recreation we went on a tramp
C G C
And we met Sergeant Napper and Corporal Cramp
And the little wee drummer intending to camp,
G C D G
For the day being pleasant and charming.
Oh, me and my cousin, one Arthur McBride
As we went a-walking down by the seaside
Now, mark what followed and what did betide
For it being on Christmas morning...
Out for recreation, we went on a tramp
And we met Sergeant Napper and Corporal Vamp
And a little wee drummer, intending to camp
For the day being pleasant and charming.
"Good morning ! Good morning!" the sergeant did cry
"And the same to you gentlemen!" we did reply ,
Intending no harm but meant to pass by
For it being on Christmas morning.
But says he, "My fine fellows if you will enlist,
It's ten guineas in gold I will slip in your fist
And a crown in the bargain for to kick up the dust
And drink the King's health in the morning.
For a soldier he leads a very fine life
And he always is blessed with a charming young wife
And he pays all his debts without sorrow or strife
And always lives pleasant and charming...
And a soldier he always is decent and clean
In the finest of clothing he's constantly seen
While other poor fellows go dirty and mean
And sup on thin gruel in the morning."
"But", says Arthur, "I wouldn't be proud of your clothes
For you've only the lend of them as I suppose
And you dare not change them one night, for you know
If you do you'll be flogged in the morning.
And although that we are single and free
we take great delight in our own company
And we have no desire strange faces to see
Although that your offers are charming
And we have no desire to take your advance
All hazards and dangers we barter on chance
For you would have no scruples for to send us to France
Where we would get shot without warning"
"Oh now!", says the sergeant "I'll have no such chat
And I neither will take it from spalpeen or brat
For if you insult me with one other word
I'll cut off your heads in the morning"
And then Arthur and I we soon drew our hods
And we scarce gave them time for to draw their own blades
When a trusty shillelagh came over their heads
And bade them take that as fair warning
And their old rusty rapiers that hung by their side
We flung them as far as we could in the tide
"Now take them out, Divils!", cried Arthur McBride
"And temper their edge in the morning".
And the little wee drummer we flattened his pow
And we made a football of his rowdeydowdow
Threw it in the tide for to rock and to row
And bade it a tedious returning
And we having no money, paid them off in cracks
And we paid no respect to their two bloody backs
For we lathered them there like a pair of wet sacks
And left them for dead in the morning.
And so to conclude and to finish disputes
We obligingly asked if they wanted recruits
For we were the lads who would give them hard clouts
And bid them look sharp in the morning.
Oh me and my cousin, one Arthur McBride
As we went a walkin' down by the seaside,
Now mark what followed and what did betide
For it being on Christmas morning