26 Apr

Sentenced to Death

With the Sign of the Cross on my forehead, as I kneel on this cold dungeon floor,
As I kneel at your feet, reverend father, with no one but God to the fore,
I have told you the faults of my boyhood—the follies and sins of my youth,
And it’s now from this crime of my manhood I speak with the same open truth.

You see, sir, the land was our people’s for ninety long years, and their toil,
What first was a bare bit of mountain brought into good wheat-bearing soil,
’Twas their hands rose the walls of our cabin, where our children were borned and bred,
Where our wedding’s an’ christening’s was merry, where we weeped and keened over our dead.

We were honest and fair to the landlord-we paid him the rent to the day,
And it wasn’t our fault if our hard sweat they squandered and wasted away,
In the cards, and the dice, and the racecourse, and often in deeper disgrace,
That no tongue could relate without bringing a blush to an honest man’s face.

But the day come at last that they worked for, when the castles, the mansions and lands,
They should hold but in trust for the people, ’til their shame passed away from their hands,
And our place, sir, too, went to auction–by many the acres were sought,
And what cared the stranger that purchased, who made him the good soil he bought?

The old folks were gone—thank God for it—where troubles or cares can’t pursue,
But the wife and the children—Oh Father in Heaven—what was I to do?
Sure I thought, I’ll go speak to the new man, and tell him of me and of mine,
And the trifle that I’ve put together I’ll place in his hand as a fine.

The estate is worth six times the money, and maybe his heart isn’t cold,
But the scoundrel that bought the thief’s penny-worth was worse than the pauper that sold.

Well I chased him to house and to office, wherever I thought he’d be met,
And I offered him all he’d put on it—but no, ’twas the land he should get,
I prayed as men only to God pray—my prayers they were spurned and denied,
And no matter how just my right was, when he had the law at his side.

I was young, and but few years was married to one with a voice like a bird,
When she sang the songs of our country, every feeling within me was stirred,
Oh I see her this minute before me, with a foot wouldn’t bend a croneen,
And her laughing eyes lifted to kiss me—my charming, my bright-eyed Eileen!

’Twas often with pride that I watched her, her soft arms folding our boy,
Until he chased the smile from her red lip, and silenced the song of her joy,
Whisht, father, have patience a minute, let me wipe the big drops from my brow,
Whisht, father, I’ll try not to curse him; but I tell you, don’t preach to me now.

Well, he threatened, he coaxed, he ejected; for we tried to cling to the place,
That was mine, yes, far more than ’twas his, sir; I told him so up to his face,
But the little I had melted from me in making the fight for my own,
And a beggar, with three helpless children, out on the wide world I was thrown.

And Eileen would soon have another—another that never drew breath,
The neighbors were good to us always—but what could they do against death?
For my wife and her infant before me lay dead, and by him they were killed,
As sure as I’m kneeling before you, to own to my share of the guilt.

Well I laughed all consoling to scorn, I didn’t mind much what I said,
With Eileen a corpse in the barn, with a bundle of straw for a bed,
Sure the blood in my veins boiled to madness—do you think that a man is a log?
Well I tracked him once more—’twas the last time—and shot him that night like a dog.

Yes, I shot him, I did it, but father, let them that makes laws for the land,
Look to it, when they come to judgment, for the blood that lies red on my hand,
If I drew the piece, ’twas them primed it, that left him stretched cold on the sod,
And from their bar, where I got my sentence, I appeal to the bar of my God.

For the justice I never got from them, the right in their hands is unknown,
Still I say sir, at last, that I’m sorry I took the law into my own,
That I stole out that night in the darkness, whilst mad with my grief and despair,
And I drew the black soul from his body, not giving him time for a prayer.

Well, it is told, sir you have the whole story, God forgive him and me for our sins,
My life now is ended—oh father, for the young ones, for them life begins,
You’ll look to poor Eileen’s young orphans? God bless you and now I’m at rest,
And resigned to the death that tomorrow is staring me straight in the face.

This incredibly grim and moving song depicting an Irish tenant farmer confessing to the murder of his landlord appeared as a poem in an 1886 edition of Minneapolis’ Irish Standard newspaper. It was written by a Cork woman, Katharine Murphy, who published it in Ireland under a pseudonym in the nationalist newspaper The Nation ten years prior. The only known sung version of the poem is one collected in Beaver Island, Michigan from Andrew “Mary Ellen” Gallagher by Alan Lomax (listen to first part here and second part here). Above, I have transcribed Gallagher’s version and filled in some stanzas using the Irish Standard. For more information on this remarkable song including the Irish Standard excerpt and the Gallagher recording, see this post in the “Caught My Ear” blog by the American Folklife Center’s Stephen Winick.

26 Apr

Ram of Darby

As I walked out to Darby, I met the other day,
One of the finest rams, sir, that ever your eyes did see.

With my towry owry owry, with my towry owry-ee
He was one of the finest rams, sir, that ever your eyes did see.

This ram was fat behind and this ram was fat before,
And this ram was ten years old and I’m sure he was no more. With my…

He had four feet to gang on and four more feet to stand,
And every foot he had, sir, would cover an acre of land. With my..

The hair upon his back, sir, it grew so mighty high,
That the swallows built there nest but the young ones dare not fly. With my…

The horns upon this ram, they reached up to the moon,
A man went up in February, and never came down til June. With my…

Perhaps you think I’m joking, perhaps you think I lie,
But if you’d been to Darby you’d have seen him well as I. With my…

This song of tall tales (tails?) dates to the early 19th century in England and quite possibly well before that. It became widely known in England where it is still sung (and acted out) as part of mummers plays in Sheffield at Christmas time. It crossed the Atlantic and versions were collected widely in the United States where some singers swore it was a favorite of George Washington himself. In Ireland, the masterful Cork singer Elizabeth Cronin sang a nice lilty version that shares its tune with the Irish song “Tá Mo Madra.” Many American variants share a plainer melody that in Minnesota was used by Hubbard County singer Reuben Phillips for his version of another song full of outrageous lies about a deer hunt called “The Sally Buck.”

The above melody comes from the Beaver Island, Michigan singer Johnny W. Green who sang it for Alan Lomax’s recording machine in 1939. Green’s melody, like Cronin’s, is more lilty and complex than the more standard tunes. The abundance of Irish immigrants on the island during Green’s lifetime supplied him with a rich store of Irish melodies and his versions of common folk songs often give a more Irish flavor to a well-travelled song. You can hear the Green recording via the Library of Congress website thanks to the work of the American Folklife Center there. For the text above, I used mainly Green’s words but borrowed some poetics from versions collected in “mainland” Michigan by Gardner and Chickering and another version from Vermont printed by Flanders.

01 Dec

The Apple Praties

My name is Cal O’Mannon l was born in sweet Killarney,
I can fight, dance or sing. I can plough, reap or mow,
And if I meet a pretty girl I never practice blarney,
There’s something more alluring which perhaps you’d like to know.

I am not of your mountebanks or any shabby family,
I sprung from ancient history, I’ll prove it to be so,
For I am of the Os and Macs, the darling sons of Paddy Whack,
That live and toil in Ireland where the apple praties grow,

I could tell a great deal more, if I could trace my pedigree
My mother was a Hogan and my father I don’t know,
I’ve got ninety-nine relations in a place they call Rosscarbery,
And each unto his name has a “Mac” or an “O.”

My uncle was O’Callaghan, my Aunt she was O’Brannagan,
And as to my own character sure I can plainly show,
I am a ranting roving blade that never was afraid,
For I was born in Ireland where the apple praties grow.

May the heavens still protect our hospitable counteree,
Where first I drew my living breath to hear its cocks to crow,
There fine scenes I did enjoy as a gay unthinking boy,
With the lads that lived in Ireland where the apple praties grow.

St. Patrick was our saint and a blessed man in truth was he,
Great gifts unto our counteree he freely did bestow,
He banished all the frogs and toads that sheltered in our counteree,
And unto other regions he ordered them to go.

Another fact undoubtedly that cannot contradicted be,
Just trace the Irish history and it will plainly show,
Search the universe all round, braver fellows can’t be found,
Than the boys that lived in Ireland where the apple praties grow.

This month we have a song of Irish pride from the repertoire of Cyril O’Brien of Trepassey on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. You can hear the first verse of O’Brien’s performance on the wonderful Songs of Atlantic Canada website hosted by Memorial University in Newfoundland. O’Brien’s version is the only evidence I have found of it being sung in tradition though it was printed several times as a broadside in Scotland, England and New York City. I used the broadside versions to fill in some blanks left by Leach’s transcription of O’Brien.

A note at the top of the New York printing (by Marsan) indicates that the song was composed and performed by Belfast-born actor James “The Irish Comedian” Seymour as part of his role in “The Duke’s Motto.” This was a play by Dublin-born playwright John Brougham which had a long successful run at Niblo’s Garden theater in New York City in the 1860s. Brougham’s plays were performed on both sides of the Atlantic so it is possible that Seymour authored the song and that it was then printed (and sung) internationally though such claims of composition are not always true. In any case, the song was popular enough to be parodied in Washington, DC as the “Song of the Civil Service Man” in 1887. Other newspapers from the period even use the phrase “where the apple praties grow” as a euphemism for Ireland.