Ballads for Bealtaine Part One.

By Walter Lawler


During the 1980s and 1990s when visiting relatives and at various get togethers a sing song generally ended the night.  Most had their song of choice, or maybe a poem as their part piece.  The quality of performance varied from individual to individual, some hadn’t a note, others, advancing in years mightn’t reach their standard of yesteryear.  It was the taking part that mattered and we all did our best endeavour.  At sports AGMs and various functions or nights out, a similar scenario often took place.  Maybe it’s the company I keep but over the past 20 years I remember less and less sing songs.  One memorable exception was after the opening of the new Abbeyleix Library in June 2008 in Benny’s in the town.  When speaking of sing songs, the Ballad, is usually the song of choice.  What exactly is the definition of a ballad?  According to the Oxford Dictionary it is ‘a poem or song narrating a story in short stanzas’.  Traditional ballads are typically of unknown authorship, having been passed on orally from one generation to the next.  A ballad is a form of verse, often a narrative set to music. Ballads derive from the medieval French chanson balladée or ballade, which were originally ‘dance songs’.  Ballads were particularly characteristic of the popular poetry and song of Britain and Ireland from the later medieval period until the 19th century.  There are three main types of ballads-the traditional ballads, the broadside ballad and what is called the literary ballad.  A traditional is a narrative folksong that can stretch back through history.  The broadside ballad is a descriptive or narrative verse or song, on a popular theme, and sung or recited in public places or printed on broadsides for sale in the streets.  Finally, the literary ballad is to all intents a poem.  In this dissertation I intend to look at over 50 popular ballads, including personal favourites.  I will examine their origin, meaning and genre and relate any other information I have about them.  Many 20th century and contemporary rock and pop songs are also ballads; however, I intend to focus on works that are of a more traditional and folk nature.  Due to my influence being Irish ballads, most will be these, and in the English language.  I will post a link to each song.


I’m going to divide various ballads into sub sections and delve a little deeper into them.  Many of the more contemporaneous songs I feature are American.

From Clare to Here

It sometimes comes as a surprise that this song was written by an English man, Ralph McTell.  He was working with Irishmen on a building site in England in 1963, when one remarked, ‘it’s a long way from Clare to here’.  McTell found it odd that the man wouldn’t phrase his statement from here to Clare!  The saying stuck with him and is the title for this song of emigration, which has been sung by countless others from the 1960s.  It says something about McTell’s grasp of a folk song, and Irish emigrant mind, that you could picture this song being written a century earlier.

‘There’s four who share this room
and we work hard for the craic,
and sleeping late on Sundays I never get to mass’

There are evocative lyrics throughout this masterpiece.
Ralph McTell singing ‘From Clare to Here’ in 1990.

Bright Blue Rose

This is a song written in the 1980s by Jimmy MacCarthy, a leading Irish songwriter whose compositions fall into the contemporary folk song genre.  ‘Bright Blue Rose’ has some unusual but beautiful lyrics as well as an unusual melody.

‘I skimmed across black water
without once submerging
onto the banks of an urban morning,
that hungers the first light much,
much more than mountains ever do’.

It’s often interpreted as a religious song because it contains phrases that honour Christ. The song has provoked much discussion about its meaning.  MacCarthy has said that he wants people to make personal interpretations of his lyrics. ‘Bright Blue Rose’ sung by Tommy Fleming.

You’re The One

‘You’re the One’ is a duet by Máire Brennan and Shane MacGowan taken from the soundtrack to the motion picture Circle of Friends. The song was written by MacGowan and released on Shane’s album ‘The Snake’ in 1995.  A promotional video was made to accompany the single featuring clips from the film in addition specially recorded shots of Máire and Shane. Here’s a link to the video.

The Last Thing

This is a song by American folk singer songwriter, Tom Paxton, in the early 1960s and recorded first by Paxton in 1964.  Paxton’s career has spanned over 50 years.  It is based on the traditional lament song ‘The Leaving of Liverpool’. The song was released on Paxton’s 1964 album Ramblin’ Boy.  The single was well received by critics upon release. Billboard gave a positive review saying that ‘the folk-oriented ballad…has much pop potential.’  Paxton is noteworthy as a music educator as well as an advocate for folk singers to combine traditional songs with new compositions.  See a performance with Liam Clancy at The Bitter End, New York, in 2008 here.

Sunday Morning Coming Down

This Kris Kristofferson gem has been recorded by many artists, including the author.  It was first recorded by Ray Stevens in 1969.  However, it’s probably mostly associated with Johnny Cash.  The song has colourful lyrics about a hungover man emerging to greet a Sunday morning.  On tv shows in the 70s some producers tried to have some lyrics changed before the song was aired.  It’s a powerful song in many respects and Kristofferson, a B. Phil English Literature graduate from Oxford, created a classic that would guarantee fame forever.

‘There ain’t nothin’ short of dyin’
Half as lonesome as the sound
On the sleepin’ city sidewalks
Sunday mornin’ comin’ down’.

Here’s a link with Johnny Cash performing with The Highwaymen in 1990.

I Still Miss Someone

“I Still Miss Someone” is one of the most famous of Johnny Cash’s romantic songs, though actually it wasn’t a chart hit, first appearing as a B side song in the late 1950s.  And it actually isn’t so much about romance as it is about the absence of romance, Cash describing from many angles how desolate he feels after being left by the woman he loves. The desolation is amplified by the images of the falling leaves and the cold wild wind.  It’s a well-traveled motif in country music, but Cash’s shaky voice really does make him sound as if he’s on the edge of going to pieces, and not just playing a role that might sell him some records.  The song has been covered by several country artists.

‘Oh, no I never got over those blue eyes
I see them everywhere
I miss those arms that held me
When all the love was there’.

Sung here by daughter Roseanne Cash.

From A Distance

This song was written by Julie Gold and made famous by Nanci Griffith.  Nanci recorded ‘From a Distance’ on her first album for MCA in her 1987 album Lone Star State of Mind.  It’s a poignant song, combining sadness, hope and love.  The song spent 17 non-consecutive weeks in the Irish Top 30 during 1988, peaking at number nine in April.  Here’s a clip of Nanci performing the song on RTE programme ‘Coulter and Company’ in 2003.

This Old Guitar

American singer-songwriter John Denver paid tribute to his most prized possession in his 1974 song ‘This Old Guitar.’  Denver wrote the song about his 1910 Gibson acoustic jazz guitar, which his grandmother gave to him when he was only twelve years old.  This was the same guitar his grandmother used to play as a young girl.  The vintage instrument then played an essential part in Denver’s development.

‘This old guitar gave me my lovely lady
It opened up her eyes and ears to me
It brought us close together
And I guess it broke her heart’.

I came upon the song recently when sung by Bradley Grace, son of Brendan.  Here’s Bradley’s version.


Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson sing Sunday Morning Coming Down


Irish Rebel and Military


Rising of the Moon

The anthem of the oppressed everywhere.  This is a ballad rich in hope and full of beautiful evocative imagery as the pike men await their chance to strike for freedom.

‘Out from many a mud walled cabin eyes were watching through the night
Many a manly heart was beating for the blessed morning’s light
Murmurs ran along the valley to the banshee’s lonely croon
And a thousand pikes were flashing by the rising of the moon’

‘The Rising of the Moon’ is a traditional Irish folk song that was written in the mid-1860s and tells a story about the 1798 Rebellion. The words were penned by John Keegan Casey, a poet who was an activist with the Fenian movement, which sought to liberate Ireland in a failed uprising in March of 1867.  Here’s a lovely rendition and video by Na Casaidigh.   Sibéal Ní Casaidigh is the youngest member of that clan to achieve fame, after her performance of Mise Eire at the RTE 1916 Centenary Commemoration.

Michael Dwyer’s Escape

This ballad tells the story of Micahel Dwyer’s escape from British soldiers in the Wicklow Mountains after 1798.  It’s a rousing story told with great literary merit.  On 15 February 1799 at Dernamuck, he and about a dozen comrades were sheltering in three cottages when an informer led a large force of British soldiers to the area.  The cottages were quickly surrounded, the first two surrendering, but, following consultation, Dwyer and his men decided to fight on in the third one, Miley Connell’s cottage, after negotiating the safe passage of women and children.  In the hopeless gunfight which followed, the cottage caught fire and only Dwyer remained unwounded.  At this stage, Dwyer’s comrade, Antrim man Sam McAllister, stood in the doorway to draw the soldiers’ fire on him, which allowed Dwyer to slip out and make an incredible escape.  Enjoy this superb version by Andy Irvine.

The West Awake

The West Awake was written by Thomas Davis in the 19th century.  The Young Irelander was a pacifist.  The song recounts how Connacht is asleep but will awaken again.  It was sung by Joe McDonagh of Galway, in the Hogan stand when Galway won the All-Ireland hurling title in 1980 for the first time in 57 years.  It has become a Connacht sporting anthem in later years.

‘But, hark! A voice like thunder spake
The West’s awake! The West’s awake!
Sing, Oh! Hurrah! Let England quake!
We’ll fight till death for Ireland’s sake’

Joe McDonagh’s 1980 version;

James Connolly

Patrick Galvin wrote this song about the Irish Labour and Republican leader, shot dead by firing squad in 1916 while strapped in a chair.  The song is laden with anti-British sentiment and could be described as a lament.

‘God’s curse on you, England, you cruel-hearted monster
Your deeds they would shame all the devils in hell.’

Here Johnny McEvoy’s dulcet tones do justice to the ballad.

Kelly of Killanne

This ballad by P.J. McCall (1861–1919), recounts the exploits of John Kelly, one of the most popular leaders of the Wexford rebels in 1798.  Kelly was noted for his courage and stature ‘seven feet is his height with some inches to spare’.  The song encapsulates the esperience of the rebels in Wexford in ’98.  From initial euphoria and amazement at their success to sorrow and despair as the outcome of the rebellion became clear.

‘But the gold sun of freedom grew darkened at Ross
And it set by the Slaney’s red waves
And poor Wexford stripped naked, hung high on a cross
With her heart pierced by traitors and slaves’

Sung here by Luke Kelly, worth a look for Luke’s hair style alone!

The Battle of Benburb

Here we have a ballad about the Battle of Benburb when Owen Roe O’Neill defeated an Anglo-Irish army under Scottish Robert Munro.  Owen Roe was a skilled military leader who fought on the continent.  He died in 1649 and never faced Oliver Cromwell in the field.  He was 64 by this stage also.  It really is an accident of birth what ballads/songs are in your repertoire.  If I had been born on a different part of the island I might have grown up with The Sash, Portadown 1641, Lilliburlero etc.  Tommy Makem performs ‘The Battle of Benburb’.

The Shan Van Vocht

The 1798 Rebellion provided us with many songs which derived from traditional airs.  Ireland being the poor old woman in this allegory, the Shean Bhean Bhocht.  The earliest reference to the song dates from 1797 and is clearly contemporary: The Shan Van Vogt declares that the French are at hand and will rescue Ireland.  The troops are called together; they will wear green; they will free Ireland and proclaim liberty.  It’s a simple uplifting tune.  Written versions (in which it was sometimes spelt Shan van Vough) appeared first in the 1820, and were employed in the campaigns Daniel O’Connell led, first for Catholic Emancipation, and then, in the 1830s and ’40s, for the restoration of an Irish parliament through a repeal of the 1800 Acts of Union.  I provide a link to Liam Clancy’s version with the RTE Philharmonic Orchestra, from 1998, when the bicentenary of the rebellion was commemorated.

The Boys of Barr na Sraide

‘The Boys of Barr na Sráide’ is a well-known Irish song from a poem written by Irish poet Sigerson Clifford (1913–1985).  It is named after a street (Irish: Barr na Sráide, meaning “top of the street”) in Cahersiveen in County Kerry, Ireland. Clifford was born in Cork city, though both his parents came from Kerry.  The poem recalls the life of the author’s boyhood friends starting from when they were young children through to the Black and Tan period, and up to Civil War.  The poem speaks of the Irish tradition of ‘hunting for the wran’ (wren), a small bird, on St. Stephen’s Day, 26 December.  It was the favourite song of legendary 8-time All-Ireland Kerry player and manager, Paidi O’Sé (1955-2012).  O’Sé would always sing the song before big games to ground himself and as a reminder of where he came from and the Kerry people he represented on the field.  It was sung at his funeral.  Ron Kavana sings a memorable version here..

Clare’s Dragoons

The song refers to the second Clare’s Regiment which was raised in 1696.  This regiment was briefly named O’Brien’s Regiment.  When Clare’s Dragoons left Limerick with the Flight of the Wild Geese after the Treaty of Limerick they became a regiment of infantry. Clare’s Dragoons remained loyal to the dethroned James II of England and had fought against the army of William III of England, during the Williamite War in Ireland.  In 1775 this second Clare’s Regiment was disbanded, and its troops incorporated into Berwick’s Regiment.  ‘Clare’s Dragoons’ survives today as the regimental march of the 27th Infantry Battalion of the Irish Defence Forces.  The song is one celebrating the elan and dash of this regiment.

‘When on Ramilles’ bloody field
The baffled French were forced to yield,
The victor Saxon backward reeled
Before the charge of Clare’s Dragoons.’

Na Casaidigh sing a wonderful version.


Michael Dwyer, 1772-1825



Cuchulainn’s Son

Tom Williams wrote this song as an ode to the great Wexford hurler Nicky Rackard, 1922-1976.  Rackard was a 6ft 3in giant for Wexford hurlers, he played with the senior team since 1940 and was instrumental in the winning of back to back All-Irelands in 1955/56.  He was noted for his physical power and ability to score goals.  He scored 59 championship goals, a record which stands to this day, and scored 7-7 in an All-Ireland semi-final v Antrim in 1954.  Off the field Rackard struggled with alcoholism.  He finally quit by 1970 after joining Alcoholics Anonymous.  With the AA he travelled the country helping people who were troubled by alcohol.  In 1975 he spoke out in the Irish Press newspaper about his alcoholism, becoming one of the first people to break the taboo of alcoholism in Ireland.  Rackard died, age 53, at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin in 1976 from cancer and was universally mourned by the GAA community throughout Ireland.  My dad and his brother had known Rackard and his brothers through cattle fairing and dealing from the 40s on.


‘And Blackstairs men who saw you then
Still speak of you in awe
On Carman’s green where you had been
They tell of what they saw
We watched you on September fields
And lightning was the drive
You were the one Cuchulainn’s son in 1955’

George Lawlor’s rendition is one of the best.

Jim English left, and Nicky Rackard, right. Wexford hurlers.

The Ballad of Dawn Run

Dawn Run made history by becoming the first horse to win both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. Dawn Run was trained by Paddy Mullins and ridden by Jonjo O’Neill.  She won the Gold Cup in 1986 and became an Irish sports superstar. Val Joyce, who presented a music programme on RTE for many years, wrote a ballad in the horse’s honour and Foster and Allen made it popular! The ballad chronicles the life of Dawn Run from birth.  From the archives, it’s quite lively, like the mare herself!

The Contender

‘The Contender’, was written by Irish songwriter Jimmy MacCarthy, around 1983, about Irish boxer Jack Doyle, 1913-1978.  Jack Doyle, known as ‘the Gorgeous Gael’ for his film star looks had a promising start to his boxing career but all his promise disappeared as he drank and caroused to excess.  The song takes the form of a nostalgic look back over his life, a story of what could have been.  It has a beautiful melody and lyrics which are quite poetic.  Jack was born in Cobh, Cork and was also an actor and tenor.  A man gifted with many talents, he stood 6ft 5in tall.  He died in 1978 at St. Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, from cirrhosis of the liver.  At the time it seemed he would be buried in a pauper’s grave in London. However, when news of his death reached Ireland members of the Cork Ex-Boxer’s association decided to act.  In conjunction with Cobh undertaker Paddy Barry they brought Jack’s remains home.

‘I was born beneath the star that promised all
I could have lived my life without Cassandra’s call
But the wheel of fortune took me
From the highest point she shook me
By the bottle live by the bottle I shall fall

There in the mirror on the wall
I see the dream is fading
From the contender to the brawl
The ring, the rose, the matador, raving

Jimmy McCarthy himself singing.


Jack Doyle


International Songs of Freedom, Rebellion and War

And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ is a song written by Scottish-born Australian singer-songwriter Eric Bogle in 1971.  The song describes war as futile and gruesome, while criticising those who seek to glorify it.  This is exemplified in the song by the account of a young Australian serviceman who is maimed during the Gallipoli Campaign of the First World War.  The protagonist, who had travelled across rural Australia before the war, is emotionally devastated by the loss of his legs in battle.  As the years pass; he notes the death of other veterans, while the younger generation becomes apathetic to the veterans and their cause.  At its conclusion, the song incorporates the melody and a few lines of lyrics of the 1895 song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ by Australian poet Banjo Paterson.  I like Liam Clancy’s version and here is that link.

Viva La Quinta Brigada

This is a passionate Christy Moore song about the Irishmen who fought in the Spanish Civil War against Franco.  Moore recounts the various individuals who fought in the International brigade, some of the battles they fought and their opposition in Ireland of the 1930s.  It’s a particular favourite of my Laois Library colleague, Liam Timmons.  It’s a really rousing, rallying song that I feel is underrated.

‘Viva la Quinta Brigada
‘No Pasaran’, the pledge that made them fight
‘Adelante’ is the cry around the hillside
Let us all remember them tonight’

A brilliant live version by Christy Moore can be found here.

Victor Jara

I’m following up a Christy Moore song with this sad, simple and beautiful song about Victor Jara, 1932-1973, from Chile.  He was a Chilean teacher, theater director, poet, singer-songwriter and political activist tortured and killed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.  The ballad recounts his life.

Victor Jara of Chile
Lived like a shooting star
He fought for the people of Chile
With his songs and his guitar
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

Christmas 1915

Christmas 1915 is a song about hope, peace, humanity, recalling the First World War Christmas Day truce between the Germans and English and French.  In essence an antiwar anthem, written by Irish writer, Cormac MacConnell.  I often thought the song was mis-named.  The main Christmas Truce was in 1914, though there were sporadic truces in 1915.  The song ends on a sad not as the killing starts again and the narrator says he shot the boy who sang in no man’s land.  Tommy Fleming sings a nice version.

Eric Bogle who wrote ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’

Scottish Ballads

A Man’s a Man for a’ That (Is There for Honest Poverty)

A few Scottish ballads have taken my interest over the years.  They are mostly the works of Robbie Burns.  I loved this song which cuts through class structure to say titles and wealth don’t a man make.  The poem begins with the speaker describing how man’s value is not contained in how much he owns or how he acts.  It comes from somewhere deeper.  The speaker believes that honesty is much more important to one’s worth than clothes or what foods a man eats.  This is expanded so that the principle can take down princes and lords from their high position.  They are ‘coof,’ meaning foolish, and the independently minded man is elevated above them.  In conclusion, the narrator expresses his hope that one day the world will change; and all men will ‘Brothers be’ one day, society will rid itself of its hierarchical class structure.  The work was written in the 1790s.  Paolo Nutini gave the song an energetic, contemporary twist in 2010.


Caledonia is a modern Scottish folk ballad written by Dougie MacLean in 1977.  The chorus of the song features the lyric ‘Caledonia, you’re calling me, and now I’m going home’, the term ‘Caledonia’ itself being a Latin word for Scotland.  ‘Caledonia’ has been covered by various artists and is often dubbed Scotland’s ‘unofficial national anthem’.  MacLean wrote the song in less than 10 minutes on a beach in Brittany, France, while feeling homesick for Scotland.  He was in his early 20s.  Dolores Keane recorded a very popular cover of the song on her self-titled solo album Dolores Keane in 1988.  Here’s a link to Dougie MacLean singing his famous composition.

Ae Fond Kiss

Here we have a Robbie Burns love song, though some would say unrequited love, or at least the love was a bit one sided.  Burn’s lover seems much more enamored than him.  Nancy Maclehose went to her grave at 86 years old, and every year she wrote in her diary on 6th December, ‘this day I will never forget for this was the last day I saw Robert, in the year 1791, never more to meet in this world. Oh, may we meet in Heaven!’.  She did this for almost 50 years until her death in October 1841.  She was one of Burn’s many lovers.  The song is painfully sad, yet captivating.  Here Eddie Reader does it justice.

Annachie Gordon

Or Lord Saltoun and Auchanachie , is a Scottish folk song.  Its heroine, Jeannie, is to be married off at the insistence of her father to a wealthy man, Lord Saltoun, but she is in love with Annachie Gordon, the subject of the song.  The song chronicles her resistance to the marriage before she is literally dragged to the church.  Jeannie refuses to sleep in the same bed until her father tries to force her.  Jeannie collapses at her father’s feet and dies for love of Annachie.  Annachie, having been away at sea, returns where Jeannie’s distressed maidens tell him that Jeannie has been married in his absence and has now died of a broken heart.  Annachie tells the maidens to take him to the chamber where Jeannie lies and then, having kissed her cold lips, also dies of a broken heart.  Here’s a lovely performance from Loreena McKennitt.

Loving Hannah

Loving Hannah is a folk love song, most likely of Scottish origin, however it has been claimed by England and Ireland.  It’s a song I wasn’t familiar with until I first heard it sung by Marti Pellow in 2007, I link his version.

My Love is Like A Red Red Rose

‘A Red, Red Rose’ is a 1794 song in Scots by Robert Burns based on traditional sources.  The song is also referred to by the title ‘Oh, My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’, ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’ or ‘Red, Red Rose’ and is often published as a poem.  Other contemporary sources have been suggested as an inspiration for Burns.  A poem, ‘O fare thee well, my dearest dear’, written by a Lieutenant Hinches bears a striking similarity to Burns’s verse, notably the lines which refer to ‘ten thousand miles’ and ‘Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear’. A ballad originating from the same period entitled ‘The Turtle Dove’ also contains similar lines, such as ‘Though I go ten thousand mile, my dear’.  The lyrics of the song are simple but effective.  ‘My luve’s like a red, red rose/That’s newly sprung in June’ describe a love that is both fresh and long lasting.  When asked for the source of his greatest creative inspiration, American singer songwriter Bob Dylan selected Burns’ 1794 song A Red, Red Rose, as the lyrics that have had the biggest effect on his life.  The song is highly evocative, including lines describing rocks melting with the sun, and the seas running dry.  The song has become a classic love song, often used at weddings.  There are so many beautiful versions of the ballad, this Andy M. Stewart one is up with the best of them.

Robbie Burns, who wrote so many beautiful works.

Classic Love Songs

Blue Green Bangle

The Blue Bangle is a traditional love song, while researching I couldn’t quite pin down its origin, though given its lyrics it’s most probably Irish/American.

‘Its black clouds scudding ‘cross the midland sky
In the bedroom window Sandy catches her eye
Full of tears as she watches the Texan’s car fade away
In the distance’

I’m particularly fond of Sean Keane’s rendition of the song, due to the unique character of his voice and the storytelling imagery and tempo of the song.

Mary From Dungloe

‘Mary from Dungloe’ is an Irish song originally penned by a Donegal stonemason Pádraig Mac Cumhaill in 1936, telling a tragic story of love and heartbreak.  A modified version of the song was re-released by The Emmet Spiceland Ballad Group and reached number 1 in the Irish singles music chart on February 24, 1968.  This success prompted the creation of the Mary From Dungloe International Festival, an Irish music festival held in Dungloe, County Donegal.  There exist two versions of the song, the original long version by Pádraig MacCumhaill and a shorter version by Colm O’Laughlin, the latter version is the most popular today.

‘Oh then fare thee well, sweet Donegal The Rosses and Gweedore I’m crossing the main ocean. Where the foaming billows roar.’  This is Daniel O’Donnell’s sweet delivery (accompanied by Christy Moore on a 1992 Late Late Show performance).

Nancy Spain

This is a love song written by Barney Rushe of Sallynoggin in the 1960s.  Barney would send Christy Moore a copy of his song.  Christy recalls, ‘When he was writing this love song, he needed a name to tie it all together. Nancy Spain was a famous English journalist back in the 1960s, and Barney really liked the sound of her name. That was the name he chose for the subject of his song.’  This lament for Nancy is full of potent imagery.

‘Of all the stars that ever shone
Not one does twinkle like your pale blue eyes
Like golden corn at harvest time your hair’

Take it away Christy..

Will Ye Go Lassie Go? (Wild Mountain Thyme)

‘Will You Go Lassie Go?’ (also known as ‘Purple Heather’ and ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’) is a Scottish/Irish folk song.  The lyrics and melody are a variant of the song ‘The Braes of Balquhither’ by Scottish poet Robert Tannahill (1774–1810) and Scottish composer Robert Archibald Smith (1780–1829), but were adapted by Belfast musician Francis McPeake (1885–1971) into ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ and first recorded by his family in the 1950s.   In her book ‘Fragrance and Wellbeing: Plant Aromatics and Their Influence on the Psyche’, author Jennifer Peace Rhind describes ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ as essentially a love song, with the line, ‘Wild Mountain Thyme grows among the Scottish heather’ this may be an indirect reference to the old custom of young women wearing a sprig of thyme, mint or lavender to attract a suitor.  I always associate the song with The Clancys and Tommy Makem.

Nancy Miles

The author is thought to be Kevin Sherin.  The ballad tells the story of the beautiful Traveller girl, Nancy Miles, and her sad demise.

‘Any man who loved her then never was the same again
His memory was haunted with thoughts of Nancy Myles’

Here’s Foster and Allen’s account.

Raglan Road

Raglan road was a poem written by Paddy Kavanagh.  He approached Luke Kelly in The Bailey Pub in Dublin in the 60s and said, ‘I’ve got a song for ya’.  Luke Kelly recounted later that he was delighted to have gotten the imprimatur from the great man himself to sing the song.  It’s a masterpiece and Luke’s rendition is the gold standard.

‘On Raglan Road on an autumn day I saw her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I passed along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.’

The Planter’s Daughter

I’ve always had a soft spot for Johnny McEvoy as a singer, and the beautiful timbre in his voice.  Johnny wrote this song for his wife Odette and it’s on his album The Basement Session released in October 2014.  Johnny described it as an extremely personal love song written from the depths of his heart and soul.  The song centres around his first meeting with Odette on Grafton Street in March 1967.

Sweet Sixteen

This favourite was a chart topper for the Fureys and Davey Arthur in 1981.  It was written by James Thornton (detail is sketchy whether he was born in Dublin or Liverpool, but he emigrated to the US) in 1898.  Thornton’s inspiration for the song came from a comment he made to his wife. She had asked if he still loved her, to which he replied, ‘I love you like I did when you were sweet sixteen’.  Here’s the classic version..

The Galway Shawl

‘The Galway Shawl’ is a traditional Irish folk song, concerning a rural courtship in the West of Ireland. The first known version was collected by Sam Henry from Bridget Kealey in Dungiven in 1936. The song has been popularly recorded by many ballad groups in Ireland.  It is basically a story that takes place in May in Oranmore.  The narrator sees a girl wearing a bonnet with ribbons and a Galway shawl around her shoulders.  He and the girl go to her father’s cottage.  The girl tells him to play ‘The Foggy Dew’ to please her father.  The man plays some hornpipes and the girl sings them as she cries tears of joy.  The song ends as the narrator bids the girl farewell as he’s bound for County Donegal.  I’m particularly fond of this version by Welsh singer Cerys Matthews (formerly of Catatonia).

The Meeting of the Waters

The lyrics are by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) Irish poet, singer/songwriter, musician, and author.  It is set to the music of a traditional Irish melody called The Old Head Of Dennis.  The Meeting Of The Waters (Cumar an dá Uisce) is where the Avonmore and Avonbeg rivers come together to form the River Avoca situated in County Wicklow, Ireland.  This enchanting area where Moore spent many special moments with his dearest of friends was immortalized by him in this famous song.

‘There is not in this wide world a valley so sweet
As the vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet,
Oh! the last rays of feeling and life must depart
Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart.’

Tommy Fleming sings this old classic here.

Thomas Moore, 1779-1852


 Emigrant Songs

Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears

The song was written by Brendan Graham; lyricist, songwriter and novelist from County Tipperary.  His other famous compositions include, The Voice, and You Raise Me Up.  The ballad is about Annie Moore, the first Irish emigrant to the United States in 1892 to pass through the Ellis Island facility in New York Harbour.  She was fifteen years old and was accompanied by her two younger brothers, Anthony and Philip. Their parents had come to America in 1888 from County Cork, Ireland, and were living in Manhattan, New York City when they were re-united with their children 4 years later.  Four million people left Ireland and emigrated to America from 1820 – 1920 via the Port of New York.  They saw America as ‘the land of hope’ with the prospect of a brighter future with freedom and greater opportunities to provide for their families and loved ones.

‘On the first day of January,
Eighteen ninety-two,
They opened Ellis Island
And they let the people through.
And the first to cross the threshold
Of that Isle of hope and tears,
Was Annie Moore from Ireland
Who was all of fifteen years.’

Sean Keane performs this unique rendition.

My Own Dear Galway Bay

This song is known alternatively as ‘Galway Bay’, or ‘The Old Galway Bay’.  It was composed in London by Frank A. Fahy (1854–1935), a native of Kinvara, Co. Galway, on the shores of Galway Bay.  It was originally written to air of ‘Skibbereen’.  One of the most renowned recordings of the later version was by the Irish singer Dolores Keane.

‘It’s far away I am today
from scenes I roamed a boy
And long ago the hour, I know
I first saw Illinois’.

The brilliant Dolores Keane version.

Green Among the Gold

Written in 1988, Green Among The Gold came from the pen of English singer/songwriter Steve Barnes.  Having emigrated himself to Australia, this song is, in a way a composite story from a number of Irish families that Steve has played music with over the years.

‘Dusty plains and iron chains met Erin’s sons and daughters
Cast upon a barren land, a far off distant shore.
They dreamed of misty mountains in their home across the water,
They sang of Connemara and the home they’d see no more.’

Beyond the Pale recorded this version in 2002.

As I Leave Behind Néidín

This is another beautiful Jimmy McCarthy song.  Néidín being the Irish for Kenmare.  The song has become associated with Mary Black.  Some say the song is not about emigration and that McCarthy explained he had just passed through Kenmare on his way back to Cork when his car passenger inquired where he got inspiration.  Jimmy looked in his reer mirror and saw the road-sign ‘Néidín’ set among the rhododendrons.  Thus, showing that his inspiration was all around.  The song was used as a backdrop to Irish emigration on 1986 RTE Reeling in the Years.  For those reasons and the sad tone of the ballad I’ve put it in the ‘emigrant’ section.

‘As I leave behind Neidin
In the halls where we have been
Rhododendrons in her hair
In the scent of mountain air’

Mary Black performs with Jimmy McCarthy.

The City of Chicago

‘In the City of Chicago
As the evening shadows fall
There are people dreaming
Of the hills of Donegal’

This is a song of longing, yearning for the old country by Irish emigrants.  It also tells of the Great Famine.  Barry Moore wrote this ballad and it was recorded by his brother Christy.

Jimmy McCarthy, Singer Songwriter


Báidín Fheilimí

As school children we all learnt this song!  And perhaps it’s for this reason that it’s unappreciated.  It’s a warm, harmonious song, even if Feilim’s little boat met a sorry end in Tory.  And of course, it’s an Irish language song. Old favourites Na Casaidigh perform this lovely rendition.

The Jug of Punch

The singer sits weaving at his loom and hears a thrush singing ‘a jug of punch’. The singer then goes on to describe the pleasures of drink – nothing better than sitting down by a roaring fire with a tidy wench on his knee and a jug of punch in his hand.  The song becomes more raucous as it moves along.

‘And when I’m dead and in my grave
No costly tombstone will I have
Just lay me down in my native peat
With a jug of punch at my head and feet@

Here’s the Clancys and Tommy Makem version of this old song, from the Late Late Show in 1984.

Come Down From the Mountain Katie Daly

Eamonn O’Shea is the composer and lyricist of this tune.  It’s a song about Katy Daly who knew how to make a fine brew!  She was eventually arrested for illegally brewing Irish whiskey and sent to jail where she died and went to Heaven – here she would continue her great work!  My favourite version is by late Clare man Dessie O’Halloran.

Scorn Not His Simplicity

Phil Coulter wrote this very personal song about his firstborn son who had Down Syndrome.  He first played the song to Luke Kelly.  Because of the personal sentiment of the song, Luke Kelly felt that the song should not be sung except for special occasions, and not during every performance.   Luke’s performance is the definitive recording of the song.  It’s a song many people can relate to.

‘See the child
With the golden hair
Yet eyes that snow the emptiness inside
Do we know
Can we understand just how he feels
Or have we really tried’

Holy Ground

The Holy Ground appears to be a drinking song.  It comes from the sea shanty tradition and is thought to have been used by sailors to keep up their spirits and help them work in unison as they performed various tasks around the ship such as hauling up the anchor or the raising the sail.  The Holy Ground, in its broadest sense, refers to Ireland and more specifically, the town of Cobh in County Cork. The song is sometimes referred to as the Cobh Sea Shanty.  Cobh was a thriving seaport in the 18th and 19th centuries when the song first became widely known and popular with sailors.  Here it is performed by the Dubliners.

Long Long Before Your Time

This song, written by Johnny McEvoy, relates the tale of a man whose young wife dies.  He later sees his late wife in his daughter’s eyes.  From what I have found it’s a work of fiction, but the pathos in the song makes one wonder is it related to something factual.  It’s a beautiful song.  Here’s the link to Johnny’s work.

Oh Shenandoah

‘Oh Shenandoah’ is a traditional American folk song of uncertain origin, dating to the early 19th century.  The song appears to have originated with American and Canadian voyageurs or fur traders traveling down the Missouri River in canoes and has developed several different sets of lyrics. Some lyrics refer to the Oneida chief Shenandoah and a canoe-going trader who wants to marry his daughter. By the mid-1800s versions of the song had become a sea shanty heard or sung by sailors in various parts of the world.

This is fine rendition by Van Morrisson.

The Shoals of Herring

The Shoals of Herring is a ballad, written by Ewan MacColl for the third of the original eight BBC Radio ballads, Singing the Fishing, which was first broadcast on August 16, 1960.  Ewan MacColl writes that the song was based on the life of Sam Larner, a fisherman and traditional singer from Winterton-on-Sea, Norfolk, England.  It has been recorded by many artists, Liam Clancy in particular.

Little Musgrave

Also known as ‘Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard’ or ‘Matty Groves’ is a ballad probably originating in Northern England that describes an adulterous tryst between a young man and a noblewoman that is ended when the woman’s husband discovers and kills them.  This song exists in many textual variants and has several variant names. The song dates to at least 1613.  My first introduction to the song was on hearing it sung by Planxty.  According to Christy Moore he came upon the words to the ballad at an auction room in Dublin, in the 1970s, and himself and Andy Irvine put music to the words.

The Travelling People

The song portrays the lifestyle of Britain’s nomadic people. It was first broadcast in 1964 as one of eight BBC Radio Ballads.  It’s another song composed by the genius Ewan MacColl.  In Ireland The Johnstons produced an outstanding version.

Song For Ireland

This ballad was written by Phil Colclough (1940-2019) an English contemporary folk singer and songwriter.  ‘Song for Ireland’ was inspired by a trip Phil and June Colclough took to the Dingle Peninsula.  It has been recorded by numerous artists, including Enya, Dick Gaughan, Luke Kelly, Mary Black, Ralph McTell, Celtic Spirit, The Dubliners, Brendan Hayes and Damien Leith.

Ewan MacColl


When discussing ballads there are easily another 50 which I could have mentioned.  But I have to stop somewhere!  Hopefully it’s a flavour of the ballads which were commonly heard and sung in Ireland in the last half of the 20th century.  Compiling the various songs has been a labour of love.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *