01 Mar

Nora McShane

I left Balamonoth a long way behind me,
To better my fortune I crossed the deep sea,
But I’m sadly alone, not a creature to mind me,
And, faith, I’m as wretched as wretched can be;
In truth, I think I’m near broken hearted.
To country and home I must return back again,
For I’ve never been happy at all since I parted
From sweet Balamonoth and Nora McShane.

I sigh for the turf fire so cheerfully burning,
Where barefooted I trudged it from toiling afar,
And tossed in the light the thirteen I’d been earning,
And whistled the anthems of Erin go Bragh;
But now far away from my fireside I’m parted,
Away back in dear America over the main,
And may God speed the ship that is sailing tomorrow,
Back to dear old Erin and Nora McShane.

There is something so dear in the cot I was born in,
Though the walls are but mud and the roof is but thatch,
How familiar the grunt of the pigs in the morning,
What pleasure in lifting that auld rusty latch;
It’s true I’d no money, but then I’d no sorrow,
My pockets were light and my head had no pain,
But if I’m living when the sun shines tomorrow,
I’ll go back to ould Erin and Nora McShane.

___________________

Several years ago, Maeve O’Mara and Liam O’Neill, proprietors of Irish on Grand, gave me a copy of a handwritten notebook of old song lyrics that someone from Hugo, Minnesota dropped off at the store. The notebook was made by Sylvester Johnson (whose parents immigrated from Cork) in the late 1800’s. The Johnson Manuscript is a fascinating collection of 27 songs including many 19th century sentimental Irish songs from both sides of Atlantic. There are at least five songs in the manuscript that also appear in Michael Dean’s Flying Cloud including “The Lament of the Irish Emigrant” and “Norah McShane.”

The text of “Norah McShane” was written by English poet Eliza Cook in 1838 when she was 20 years old. Cook was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and a hero to many working class people in England and America. Several of her poems were widely known and set to music. I have yet to find a source for a melody in any North American source from oral tradition. However, a parody of “Norah McShane” called “Lake Chemo” written by James Wilton Rowe in the 1870s was collected in the woods of Maine by Phillips Barry. Rowe’s melody is a variant of the classic air Thomas Moore used for his “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms.” The Dean and Johnson versions suggest a longer phrase length than the Rowe parody so I blended Rowe’s melody with other elements of the “Endearing Young Charms” melody to get the melody above. The text is as it appears in Dean.

Woodcut accompanying one of several 19th century broadside printings of Norah MacShane found in the Bodleian Library

 

03 Aug

The Lament of the Irish Emigrant

I am sitting on the stile, Mary, where we sat side by side,
On a bright May morning long ago, when first you were my bride;
The corn was springing fresh and green and the lark sang loud on high,
And the red was on your cheeks, Mary, and the love light in your eye.

The place is little changed, Mary, the day is bright as then,
The Lark’s loud song is in my ear and the corn is green again,
But I miss the love glance of your eye, your breath warm on my cheek,
And I still keep listening for the words you never more will speak.

It’s but a step down yonder lane, and the little church stands near,
The church where we were wed, Mary, I see the spire from here;
But the church yard lies between, love, and my feet might break your rest,
For I’ve laid you, darling, down to sleep with your baby on your breast.

I am very lonely now, Mary, for the poor makes no new friends,
But, oh, we love them better far, the few our Father sends;
But you were all I had, Mary, my blessing and my pride,
There is little left to care for now since my poor Mary died.

I am bidding you a long farewell, my Mary, kind and true,
But I’ll not forget you, darling, in the land I am going to;
They say there’s bread and work for all and the sun shines ever there,
But I’ll not forget old Ireland, were it twenty times as fair.

And oft times in those grand old woods I’ll sit and close my eyes,
And my thoughts will travel back again to the grave where Mary lies;
And I’ll think I see the little stile where we sat side by side,
And the springing corn and bright May morn when first you were my bride.

_______________________

This heart-wrenching ballad of Irish immigration comes from Minnesotan Michael Dean’s Flying Cloud songster and I have married Dean’s text with the melody sung by John W. Green of Beaver Island, Michigan. You can hear Green’s version online via the Library of Congress. The recording, made in 1938 by Alan Lomax, captures Green’s wonderful ability to vary melody and ornamentation as he sings each verse… a characteristic that is hard to capture in a transcription. I tried to “loosen up” the melody a bit in singing the song myself.

A stile is a structure that allows people, but not animals, to pass over a wall or fence, often via steps or a ladder structure. A common feature in 19th century Irish farm country, one can imagine this as an attractive perch for courting.

The last verse of this song text (which appears in some, but not all, British broadside versions as well) is intriguing in that it describes the emigrant’s destination as among the “grand old woods.” This seems to hint at the immigration pattern I so frequently discuss in this column–Irishmen coming to the north woods of North America and, often, working in the woods as lumbermen. Both singers I sourced this song from were born to Irish immigrant fathers who pursued this type of work and settled in small lumber-based communities in the Great Lakes region.

The original text of this ballad was written by Lady Helena Selina Blackwood Dufferin  (nee Sheridan) who was born in Ireland in 1807 and died in England in 1867. It was printed as a broadside frequently on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the mid-late 1800s. It appears in Halliday Sparling’s 1887 book Irish Minstrelsy: A Selection of Irish Songs and Ballads. Though a member of English high society her whole life, Sparling writes that Lady Dufferin’s poems “were the genuine outcome of a deep and understanding love of the people.” This poem was clearly inspired by the Great Famine. Halliday prints two verses not sung by Dean:

Yours was the good, brave heart, Mary, that still kept hopin’ on,
When the trust in God had left my soul, and my arm’s young strength was gone;
There was comfort ever on your lip, and the kind look on your brow—
I bless you, Mary, for that same, though you cannot hear me now.

I thank you for the patient smile when your heart was fit to break,
When the hunger pain was gnawin’ there, and you hid it for my sake;
I bless you for the pleasant word, when your heart was sad and sore—
O! I’m thankful you are gone, Mary, where grief can’t reach you more!

17 May

The Croppy Boy


It was early, early all in the spring,
The small birds whistling did sweetly sing,
Changing their notes from tree to tree,
And the song they sang was “Old Ireland’s free.”*

It was early, early last Tuesday night,
The Yeoman Cavalry gave me a fright;
The Yeoman Cavalry was my downfall,
When I was taken before Lord Cornwall.

It was in his guard house I did lay,
And in his parlor they swore my life away;
My sentence passed and with courage low,
Unto Dungannon I was forced to go.

And when I was marching through Wexford street,
My cousin Nancy I chanced to meet;
My own first cousin did me betray,
And for one guinea swore my life away.

When I was passing my father’s door,
My brother William stood on the floor;
My aged father stood at the door,
And my tender mother her gray hair she tore.

My sister Mary in great distress,
She rushed down stairs in her mourning dress;
Five thousand guineas she would lay down
For to see me liberated in Wexford town.

And when we were marching up Wexford hill,
Who would blame me were I to cry my fill;
With a guard behind and a guard before,
But my tender mother I’ll see no more.

And when I was standing on the gallows high,
My aged father was standing nigh;
My aged father did me deny,
And the name he gave me was the Croppy Boy.

I chose the dark and I chose the blue,
I chose the pink and the orange, too;
I forsook them all and did them deny,
I wore the green and for it I’ll die.

It was in Dungannon this young man died,
And in Dungannon his body lies;
And all good people that this way pass by,
Say, “May the Lord have mercy on the Croppy Boy!”

_______________
In late 18th century Europe, to wear one’s hair cropped short could be seen as a show of support for the anti-aristocrat (anti-powdered wig) French revolutionaries of that period. In Ireland, “Croppy” became the term for Irish rebels who allied themselves with revolutionary France and launched the Irish Rebellion of 1798 in hopes of winning independence from Britain. “The Croppy Boy” is a well-travelled ballad of that period that references key places and people important to the history of the 1798 Rising.
The above text was sung and printed by Minnesota singer Michael C. Dean in the 1920s. We don’t know what melody Dean used as he does not seem to have sung it for either of the song collectors who visited him.

To mark the opening of the new Eoin McKiernan Library at the Celtic Junction Arts Center on April 22nd, I sourced the above “Croppy Boy” melody from one of the rare and wonderful books that is part of the new library’s collection: Old Irish Folk Music and Songs by Patrick Weston Joyce (published 1909). P. W. Joyce (1827-1914), along with his contemporary Chief Francis O’Neill, was one of the first Irish music collectors to have actually grown up within a community where traditional music was part of daily life. Joyce hailed from southeast county Limerick and was immersed in Irish traditional music from a young age. His 1909 book is a treasure trove of 842 “Irish Airs and Songs” and a digital copy is available online thanks to the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin.

*Dean’s text reads “Old Ireland’s is Free”—probably a typo.