Early Ballads in Ireland

Various singers

An Góilín 007-8

CD1 The North: 46 minutes.  1. The Dewy Glens Of Yarrow - Brigid Murphy;  2. The Dark-Eyed Gipsy - Joe Holmes;  3. The Pretty Little Cock - Joe Holmes and Len Graham;  4. The Keeper Of The Game - Rose McCartin;  5. Little Sir Hugh - John Byrne;  6. Saturday Night Is Hallowe’en Night - Eddie Butcher;  7. False Lover John - Corney Mcdaid;  8. Johnny Scott - Mary Bavion;  9. Barbara Ellen - John Byrne;  10. There Was An Old Woman From Conner In Hell - Margaret Dunne.
CD2 The South: 40 minutes.  1. Lord Gregory - Ollie Conway;  2. Lord Levett - Tom Lenihan;  3. Knight William - Martin Howley;  4. The Banks Of The Sweet Viledee - Frank Browne;  5. The Creel - Larry Mulligan;  6. Lord Abore - Jim Kelly;  7. Lord O’Bore - Frank Feeney;  8. There Was A Shepherd’s Boy - John Campbell;  9. The Holland Hankerchief - Nora Cleary;  10. Rosemary Lane - Elizabeth Jefferies.
Here is welcome reissue of songs released originally on cassette in 1985, now available in double CD format, courtesy of the An Góilin Traditional Singers' Club in Dublin.  It's hard to overstate, not just the quality, but the significance, of these recordings.

Students exploring the old ballads - in particular the canon established by Francis James Child - are often surprised to find that a relatively small number appear to have been collected in Ireland.  Child's chosen title 'The English and Scottish Popular Ballads' obviously has a bearing on this: his most important sources were Scots collections of the early 19th century, along with the Percy Manuscript and a significant number of early blackletter broadsides printed in England.  Child did in fact speculate on the potential riches to be unearthed by a search for English language ballads in Ireland ("why will not somebody move in this matter?")1 but, following his usual practice of collection by correspondence as opposed to fieldwork, he limited his research to a circular directed toward the Irish-American community, requesting material.  This failed to yield the desired results and Child rejected much of the small haul so amassed, pronouncing the texts sent in by one potentially important correspondent - Margaret Reburn, an Ohio resident born in Co Meath - 'suspicious', and ignoring her exhortations toward further enquiries2.

Although though this might explain the paucity of Irish sources in the ESPB, you might have expected Bronson's Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads to rectify the omission.  Not so.  Turning the full force of the Roud Index on to Bronson gives only 25 hits for Ireland in the whole of those four mighty volumes.  Sam Henry's collection (which wasn't available to Bronson) included just 16 Child titles (4, 12, 43, 46, 53, 62, 84, 93, 99, 100, 200, 248, 272, 274, 280 and 281, since you ask); by comparison, Cecil Sharp's One Hundred English Folk Songs boasted 25.  So: why so few?  Even taking into account the established tradition of songs in Gaelic, you'd have thought the Plantation Scots and English would have brought with them plenty of English-language ballads.

Hugh Shields, in an article that presents notations of many of the recordings on these two CDs3, suggested that the Irish ballad tradition has actually been much more extensive than the evidence of earlier collections would suggest, concluding that "the Irish have neglected ballad studies more than ballad singing".  At last, in the latter part of the 20th century, collectors armed with tape machines began to make up for lost time.  Between 1952 and 1957 the BBC's 'Folk Song and Dialect Recording Scheme' sent collectors like Seamus Ennis and Sean O'Boyle out into the field in Ireland.  According to Paddy Tunney4, "It was in 1952 that the Hidden Ireland burst forth from the confines of the hearth and let its light shine before men."  Ennis recorded twelve Child titles and a good haul of broadside pieces from the excellent Thomas Moran of Mohill - known locally as 'The Ballad Singer' - including a version of the vanishingly rare Child 21, The Maid and the Palmer, wrongly classified on commercial recordings as a Cruel Mother variant on account of its chorus.5

At the same time Sean O'Boyle was turning up ballads like The Banks of Green Willow and Frank Quinn's fine False Knight, as well as the more usual fare of Barbara Allen and The Gypsy Laddie.  A little later Tom Munnelly's recordings from travellers6 brought to light splendid renditions of Young Hunting and Long Lankin and, most notably, the repertoire of John Reilly of Co Roscommon, whose Well Below the Valley was unequivocally a version of Child 21.  All in all, and including passing references as well as written and recorded sources Shields identified up to 70 of Child's titles in Ireland, including some real rarities; clearly this was not such an impoverished tradition after all.  Marie Slocombe, supervisor of the BBC project, further remarked that Irish singers tended to present fuller texts that the fragmentary ones her colleagues were recording from English singers.7

Early Ballads in Ireland consists of recordings made independently by Hugh Shields and Tom Munnelly between 1968 and 1985, of Child Ballads from both sides of the border.  The two CDs, represent respectively the North and the South, the chosen dividing line not the national border, but the old counties of Ulster, so 'The North' comprises songs from counties Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Derry, Donegal, Down and Louth.

There are two offerings each on Disc 1: from John Ban Byrne of Malinbeg, Co Donegal, and Joe Holmes of Ballymoney, Co Antrim.  John Ban's voice is strong, but his two ballads furnish an interesting comparison.  Barbara Allen, recorded in 1968, is a pretty straightforward telling of the tale.  Certain cadences, and the steady lilt (a slow 6:8 rhythm) recall the heart-rending version of the ballad sung by Sarah Makem8, although there are substantial differences in the two texts: where Makem's explains Barbara's motivation as a result of parental disapproval ('you told me how to shun him'), Byrne's puts the fatal estrangement down to an imagined slight over a round of drinks in the alehouse - a common enough motive in many variants - but also a more unusual episode in which the failure to pluck a rose for the demanding lover compounds the insult.  There's no phrase here to match for intensity the 'bloody sheets and bloody shirts' of the Makem version, but the 'china basin full of tears, that was shed for Barbara Allen' comes pretty close.

John Ban also contributes a bloodcurdling version of Little Sir Hugh, recorded in 1985.  This ballad, of course, is based on the infamous 'blood libel' - that Jews would abduct Gentile children and drain their blood for use in religious practice.  Professor Child gives a lengthy account both of the alleged torture and murder of young Hugh in Lincoln in 1255, and of the pogrom of Jews that followed.9  Of these events, and several similar occurrences over many centuries in Europe, he opined: 'these pretended child-murders, with their horrible consequences, are only part of a persecution which… may be rubricated as the most disgraceful chapter in the history of the human race.'  Child, of course was writing half a century before the Holocaust.

Although it's well-nigh impossible to set aside the revulsion provoked by Little Sir Hugh's anti-semitic agenda, the ballad does tell a tale of child abduction with plenty of contemporary relevance.  Here is a boy clearly realising that to dally with a stranger goes against his mother's direst warnings; even as he succumbs to the fatal invitation, he describes her wrath in prosaic terms: 'Full sore she would me bang'.  Two verses later, though, we are back amidst the language of the oldest copies of the ballad: 'The first that came was the purest of blood / and the next that came was thin'.  At fourteen verses it's a pretty full text, with a marked resemblance to Little Harry Hughes, collected in New York in the 1880s from a child with an Irish grandmother.10  John Ban's tune, though, is another matter, a very different beast from the air usually associated with Little Sir Hugh11, recalling the air to the incest ballad Queen Jane (Child 52) that Sarah Cleveland, from upstate New York, probably learned from one of her Irish grandparents.12  It's a grand melody befitting the subject matter, and Byrne invests it with great drama (a purist might say 'melodrama') with extravagant slides and the deliberate weighting of the first word of the refrain.  It's a quite different performance from his Barbara Allen - had his style changed in the intervening 17 years, or did the subject matter demand a heavier treatment?

Joe Holmes' The Dark-Eyed Gipsy (The Gypsy Laddie; Child 200) is textually a straightforward account, though the cuckolded lord is - unusually - named 'Charles'.  It's a remarkably unhurried rendition, seven verses occupying five and a half minutes, which allows the tune plenty of space to impress itself on us.  And it's a corker, with a glorious octave leap in the third line that the singer - possessed of a high natural range - hits with aplomb.  Len Graham, who spent several years in the '60s and '70s duetting with Joe Holmes in a conscious effort to revive the old unison singing style13, joins him for The Pretty Little Cock (also known as True Lover John).  Here we have the familiar tale of the uncooperative cockerel whose defiant crowing before daybreak (in the face of the usual offers of golden cage and silver wings) ends prematurely the tryst between two lovers.  However, those familiar with Cecilia Costello's Grey Cock and expecting a ghostly denouement, will be disappointed, for the night visitor here is mortal.  Hugh Shields has described the supernatural version of Grey Cock as a 'crude, obvious, and probably recent conflation of at least three songs' (an over-harsh verdict, surely, on the beautiful Costello song), with verses deriving originally from Sweet William's Ghost having been introduced to satisfy a 19th century romantic taste for all things Gothic.14  The Holmes / Graham Pretty Little Cock is more representative of Child 348: not only is John solid flesh and blood, but he has 'altered his mind' (not such a 'true lover' after all, then!).  The two men pitch the song high, and deliver a masterclass in togetherness.

There are four women singers on CD 1, all of them excellent.  Brigid Murphy of Co Armagh delivers The Dewy Glens of Yarrow - better known of course as The Dowie Dens ..., and one of several ballads here with an obvious Scots origin - to a tune reminiscent of some Barbara Allen variants, a connection reinforced by the presence of the 'Father dear, dig me a grave' stanza more usually associated with Child 84.  Her singing is almost completely devoid of decoration apart from a hint of vibrato, but her pacing is relaxed and there's a delicate lilt to her voice that makes this a very pleasing performance.

By contrast, Johnny Scott (Child 99) is delivered by Margaret Baylon of Ardee, Co Louth, with a hard, almost rasping edge that lends excitement to the heroic tale of a young warrior obliged to face the English king's champion, in order to win the princess whose child he's fathered.  The unexpected identification of said champion as an 'Italian' is common to several texts of this ballad, and there's an undoubted thrill in Johnny's swaggering challenge to all comers: 'He roared both loud and shrill: "is there any more of your English Italians you'd like to see sorely slain?"'

Rose McCartin, of Co Down, won a clock at a ballad competition for her performance of Stock or Wall (confusingly listed as The Keeper of the Game on the box).  It's a fine version of Captain Wedderburn (Child 46), similar both melodically and textually to versions sung by Willie Clancy and Joe Heaney15, which in turn use a tune much like Rocks of Bawn.  For devotees of wit combat, it has to be said that some of the solutions to the conundrums in Wedderburn are pretty feeble.  "Find me a silk mantle that never a weave went through…" "No problem, my father's got one at home, honest!"  You just want the maid to follow up with, "Go on, prove it to me, go and get it then!"  The final conundrum - the demand to bring forth a 'priest unborn' - is more interesting, though.  Ms McCartin offers as a solution, 'Virginian is a priest unborn', where Clancy and Heaney both specified 'Melchisedek'.  I was sufficiently intrigued to look that one up on Wikipedia: Melchisedek, it seems, was an Old Testament priest, a forerunner of Christ himself, claimed in at least some accounts to have been born of a virgin.  So 'Virginian' is not the leather-clad TV cowboy galloping over the plains, remembered from my youth, but a reference to a Hebrew king.  A pretty good answer in that case, possibly better even than the glib solution in many of Child's copies: "Ooh look, there's a priest, who was from his mother's womb untimely ripped, standing just outside the door!"

Margaret Dunne of Co, Cavan gives us a version of The Farmer's Curst Wife (here entitled There Was an Old Woman From Conner in Hell) which is unusual in that the farmer, eager to be rid of his stereotypical scolding wife but getting a deserved come-uppance from the doughty Devil-baiter, doesn't actually appear - which neutralizes some of the humour.  That apart, this is very much like the Killyburn Braes variant noted more than once in the early 20th century16, and it's given a suitably jaunty treatment by the singer in a clear, high voice.

Eddie Butcher's Saturday Night is Halloween Night (Child 39) is a short but fascinating snatch in the chantefable style popular in Ireland, which probably reflects the Gaelic tradition that narrative is best expressed in prose.17  Any folk club-goer who has groaned at the prospect of a poor singer launching into an interminable Tam Lin will be impressed by Eddie Butcher's economy in the telling of the tale: two stanzas bracketed by a couple of lines of explanation, and Bob's your uncle.  Total time: 40 seconds.  Sorted!

I've left until last on Disc 1, Track 7, an extraordinary performance by Corney McDaid of Donegal of False Lover John (Child 4, aka The Outlandish Knight).  Why extraordinary?  It's not deliberately dramatic or vocally pyrotechnic; it's simply the pulse, marked by on-beat stresses, and the very deliberate pacing, that draw you right in to the heart of even such a familiar story as this one.  The text clearly belongs to the Scots 'May Colvin' strain (the heroine here is 'Michaeleen') first reported in Herd's MS, though to trace Corney McDaid's 'thirty steeds and three' in the father's stable you have to go back to an older printed copy in the Roxburghe collection.18  Here too we have the coda of the alarmingly talkative parrot who - fortunately - is more susceptible to the lure of a golden cage than your average grey cock.

So to Disc 2 ('The South'), on which County Clare is well-represented, four of the singers who appeared on Jim Carroll and Pat McKenzie's collection Around the Hills of Clare contributing ballads.19  First off is Ollie Conway, owner of a small bar in Mullagh, whose highly decorated style is distinctly different to any of the other singers on either disc.  Tom Munnelly suggested that ornamentation is not generally favoured amongst narrative ballad singers in Ireland, since it slows down the story20, and one reviewer of Around the Hills of Clare actually questioned Conway's credentials as a traditional singer, partly on these stylistic grounds.  I think I'll defer to the combined wisdom of Messrs Munnelly and Shields on that one - they clearly regarded him as the real deal - and besides, his performance of Lord Gregory is majestic.  This is Child 75, The Lass of Roch Royal, and a deeply poignant song.  Mr Conway's version derived ultimately, we are told, from Bess Cronin's, but although it has a substantially similar text, he takes it at almost exactly half her pace, and decorates it lavishly with melisma.  The melody includes several key departures from the Cronin template, most notably in the first bar of the third line, where Conway makes the high major third - used by Bess as an occasional variation - the very cornerstone of the phrase, often adding further ornaments on top.  Add to that a rich and resonant timbre, and you have a memorable performance that I keep returning to.  Incidentally I'm not sure why the late Fred McCormick supposed that the unnamed king's daughter in the Cronin Lord Gregory "does not appear… to drown herself" in this version of the ballad21, since the powerful line, 'It's long ago her weary locks are waving in the deep' makes it pretty clear. 

Lord Levett is a version of Lord Lovel (Child 75), a ballad with as much history in humorous burlesque as tragedy.  Tom Lenihan plays it straight, though; like most West Clare singers, he had little time for decoration or dynamics, preferring 'an uncluttered palate'.22  A singer who believed strongly in the centrality of the story, Lenihan doesn't let the listener miss a single word, pronouncing each syllable with great care - you can hear the letter 'H' in 'where' - and singing in a conversational style.  He also uses an unusual vocal mannerism, sometimes compared by analysts to a piper's cran, but which sounds to me more like extraneous 'N' or 'M' consonants inserted at the end of words.  Delicate, precise singing, and a pleasure to listen to.

A third Clare singer, Martin Howley, provides a version of Child 74, here given the title Knight William, a different recording of which appeared in the Carroll / McKenzie collection (to which Mr Howley contributed six songs) as The Old Armchair.  The armchair in question is the seat on which William reclines, as he informs his lover Lady Margaret that he will shortly marry another.  This is a 'She Dies / He Dies / Rose and Briar' ballad, with the added attraction of a ghost (Margaret's), and is often regarded as one of the older ones, on account of a stanza appearing in the drama 'The Knight of the Burning Pestle' of the early 1600s - though whether that stanza actually belongs to this ballad is open to debate.23  It's another unhurried, unaffected rendition that keeps the focus on the story, and which also deserves a small prize for fitting the words 'newly wedded wife' into a single note of the melody!

Nora Cleary is the last of the Clare singers, and a fine one, too.  Her Holland Handkerchief, set to the tune well-known from McCafferty, is sung in a tone of gentle intimacy, bringing out the poignancy of the situation, rather than the shock of the 'Tales of the Unexpected' denouement.  Ms Cleary ornaments her singing sparingly, with little turns and cuts, just enough to turn an already attractive air into a thing of subtle beauty.

Disc 2 also brings us a couple of real rarities.  The title The Banks of the Sweet Viledee might bring to mind scheming uncles and feisty nieces with handguns, but Frank Browne's ballad is something very different - a version of Child 243, The Daemon Lover.  Although it remained very popular in North America - particularly the Southern Appalachians - in its House Carpenter incarnation, the recent oral tradition in the British Isles is sparse: a fragment from Dorset (admittedly possessing one of the all-time great melodies), a rather odd version in Baring-Gould, and a few verses from Aberdeenshire via Gavin Greig - but nothing, according to Bronson, from Ireland.24  Yet here are eleven verses, telling a coherent tale, and set to an excellent, wide-ranging tune that's sung with great verve and rhythmic drive by Frank Browne of Roscommon.  So where did he get it?  This is where I have to lodge my only real gripe with this collection: the sketchiness of the notes, which are unchanged from the original cassette version.  Of Frank Browne we're given the tantalising detail that he 'was born and lived to an early age' in America.  What age?  What part of America?  And (obviously), did he learn the ballad there?  His text might support that idea: the formulation of the runaway wife's question, 'what have you there to support me with, or to keep me from slavery?' is common in North American variants, but in none of Child's older copies.  Likewise, American texts often corrupt the older texts' 'Banks of Sweet Italy' - usually to 'Sweet Willie', but often to nonsense like 'Sweet Andee' - so 'Viledee' would fit that pattern.  Yet Mr Browne's melody is quite unlike the one usually associated with the American House Carpenter, so the likely source remains a mystery.  Another mystery is that this terrific performance - yet another one! - seems to be the sole recording of Mr Browne.  Was it his only song?

The other unexpected treat is Lord Abore, a Child ballad (87, Prince Robert ­ a tale of young love fatally thwarted by a disapproving mother and a flask of poison), previously invisible in oral tradition and unrepresented in Bronson, yet here we have two versions coming along at once, like those buses that appear in convoy after a long wait.  Not exactly separate variants, since Jim Kelly, the first performer, learned the song from Frank Feeney, the second.  They're not identical, though.  Both are well-paced, lyrical performances but, where Kelly's follows the 4:4 rhythm very steadily, Feeney's lingers over the refrain and hurries into the following verse, so the tapping foot is deceived.  Perhaps Kelly, the younger man by nearly forty years, was more influenced by the regular beat of recorded music.  There are other, more substantial, differences, too: the tune is altered slightly in the second phrase, and there are several textual changes.  Some are simple substitutions in vocabulary ('cask' for 'bottle' of wine, or steed' for 'horse') while another provides a rhyme where there was none before.  Most notably, Kelly's is missing two of Feeney's verses - concerning the striking account of the ring that 'spilt in three' - but includes another, absent from the Feeney version.  It's impossible to guess whether the changes are Kelly's, conscious or unconscious, or whether Feeney's own performance had changed between the passing down of the song, and the arrival of Munnelly's tape machine.  Either way it's an interesting illustration of how a song can evolve even at just one remove.

Making up the remainder of the second disc are three lighter pieces.  Larry Mulligan's The Creel (Child 281) is marred slightly by an inferior, rather 'boxy' recorded sound quality compared with the rest of the material, but it's another rollicking good tune with an arresting jump in the third line that this Co Longford singer nails confidently, even though he sounds like a man of advancing years.  There Was A Shepherd's Boy is the song Child called The Baffled Knight (112), that perennial tale of the incompetent (in this telling, actually impotent) swain and the young woman who humiliates him.  It's the only macaronic in the collection, with a chorus in the Irish language, and John Campbell (born Co Meath) has a lot of fun with it, barely able to keep himself from joining in the laughter of the breakfast-table audience as he runs through the woman's serial taunts: 'You're like an oul cock my father had, he couldn't tread the hens…'.  Rounding off Disc 2 is Rosemary Lane (Child 2), the familiar wit-combat ballad of cambric shirt and acre of land, known to many as 'Scarborough Fair' - although that location is specified only in those variants collected near Scarborough.  It's set to a jaunty, wide-ranging air that Elizabeth Jeffries of Wexford hurries through as if chanting a children's ditty, which it may have been when she learned it.

So there you have it: a key set of recordings demonstrating that English-language ballads were indeed handed down and sung in Ireland, often in excellent versions, and which leave you frustrated only in the feeling that many such treasures must have been lost forever.  More information on the singers would have been welcome, but these are extremely enjoyable and important recordings that I can't recommend highly enough.  They're available from Veteran at: http://www.veteran.co.uk/Irish.htm, price £11.99 (plus P+P), or direct from An Góilin, if you email them at: info@goilin.com

Brian Peters - 22.2.16


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