Ballads for Bealtaine: Part Two

By Walter Lawler


In the first part of ballads for Bealtaine I looked at over 50 ballads of differing genres.  When it was completed, I felt there were at least another 50 ballads of merit that I wanted to discuss!  In this article I will include Scottish & Welsh, contemporary, love, rebel, political and military, anti-war, gaelic, emigrant, locational and other miscellaneous ballads.  Over the two articles I will have left out such well-known ballads as The Green Fields of France and The Fields of Athenry for a couple of reasons; firstly I think most people know what they are about and secondly, personally, I feel a bit of over load with these songs.  Too much exposure can do that to any song and doesn’t take from its value.  I think we all feel that about certain songs, it’s probably most common with pop songs in the charts.  Again, what I’m about to discuss are popular ballads, hopefully I’ll introduce a few new ones for all, and bring some freshness to all our repertoires!

Anti-War Songs

There Were Roses

‘There Were Roses’ is a moving Irish folk song based on a true story. It was written by the Northern Ireland folk singer and songwriter Tommy Sands.  It was first recorded in 1985 by Robbie O’Connell, Mick Moloney and Jimmy Keane as the title track of their first joint album titled ‘There Were Roses’.  It has been described as one of the best songs ever written about the Irish conflict known as The Troubles.  The song recounts the true story of two men, ‘Allan Bell’ from Benagh, a Protestant and ‘Sean O’Malley’from South Armagh, a Catholic. The two were very close friends despite the political strife between the Catholic and Protestant communities and they would meet at Ryan Road, near Mayobridge in South County Down, where the Sands family have a farm.  The Sands family were all musicians and singers and their house was a focal point for Catholic and Protestant neighbours to enjoy music and fun.  That’s how Sands had met them and ‘who were both good friends of mine’ as per the lyrics.  Sands had originally recorded the song using the real names of the two men, Scott and McDonnell, and did so with the agreement of their families.  But just prior to the release of the album there was a change of heart on the part of one of the families. A new version of the song recorded using the fictitious names Bell and O’Malley.  The song recounts the murder of ‘Allan’ just outside Newry Town by the Republican paramilitaries.  In the aftermath, Loyalist paramilitaries ‘came prowling ’round the lonely Ryan Road’ for a Catholic to kill in retaliation; ironically, the man they selected for the revenge killing (‘to even up the score’ as in the lyrics), was ‘Sean’ who pleaded for his life but he was not spared.  My favourite is this beautiful rendition by Dungiven, Co. Derry, songstress, Cara Dillon.

Where Have All The Flowers Gone

‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ is a modern folk-style song. The melody and the first three verses were written by Pete Seeger in 1955 and published in Sing Out! magazine.  Additional verses were added in May 1960 by Joe Hickerson, who turned it into a circular song.  In a 2013 interview, Seeger explained that he borrowed the melody from an Irish lumberjack song with the words ‘Johnson says he’ll load more hay.’ He simply slowed the tune and incorporated it to the lines.  Seeger wrote this song in 1955 at the height of the Cold War.  It has been an anthem for many peace and anti-war movements ever since-especially for those who opposed the Vietnam War.  The song was used more recently to support the peace process in Northern Ireland.  This version by Irish musicians Tommy Sands and Delores Keane, Bosnian cellist Vedran Smailovic and a chorus of Protestant and Catholic school children accompanied many of the peace negotiations and meetings.  This is a simple and powerful song about the futility of war.  It describes the cycle of life: Flowers grow in the fields; Young girls pick the flowers; The young girls marry; Their husbands become soldiers; The soldiers are killed in wars and are buried in graveyards; The graveyards become fields of flowers.  The song suggests that all war is futile, and we keep making the same mistakes, in life, and with our endless wars.  And the song keeps asking the question: ‘When will they ever learn?’ At the end ‘they’ changes to ‘we,’ because the question concerns us all.  Here’s the version by Irish musicians Tommy Sands and Delores Keane, Bosnian cellist Vedran Smailovic.

Children After Rain

‘I watch the film but I can’t see
Beyond the child refugee
Who never made the news at all.
And as the uniforms parade
She takes her hand down from her face
To see the mighty men of war.’

The words and music for this composition come from Paul Foskin and Paul Grant.  Although the song references troubles in Ireland, it might also apply to anywhere in the world where there is war or civil conflict.  It is a strong anti-war song.  I will post a link to the best known delivery, that of Liam Clancy below.

‘His father’s dead – his brother blames
The UVF, the IRA.
Or some such piece of alphabet.’

Cara Dillon, There Were Roses


Many of the contemporary ballads I will discuss are American and Country also.

The Dance

Garth Brooks has written and sung a lot of wonderful songs.  He has fallen from grace a little in Ireland after the 5-concert fiasco of 2014.  However, it’s a measure of how popular his music is in Ireland that he sold out 5 Croke Park gigs (82,000 population) in jig time that year.  I could have picked any number of his songs from ‘The Thunder Rolls’, ‘Somewhere Other Than The Night’, ‘Every Now and Then’ etc.  ‘The Dance’ is a song written by Tony Arata and recorded by Brooks as the tenth and final track from his self-titled debut album, from which it was also released as the album’s fourth and final single in April 1990.  It is considered by many to be Brooks’ signature song.  In a 2015 interview with Patrick Kielty on BBC Radio 2, Brooks credits the back to back success of both ‘The Dance’ and its follow up ‘Friends in Low Places’ for his phenomenal success.

‘Holding you, I held everything
For a moment wasn’t I the king
If I’d only known how the king would fall
Hey, who’s to say, you know I might have changed it all’

Remember When

Remember When is another modern-day country classic American ballad, written and sung by Alan Jackson.  It was released in October 2003 as the second and final single from his compilation album, Greatest Hits Volume II.  In ‘Remember When’, Jackson looks back on his life with his wife.  He describes their love from their first time together, through raising their children, and describes how he and his wife will ‘remember when’ the children were young after they are grown.  The music video features Jackson singing the song while sitting on a stool playing a guitar, as home movie footage of Jackson’s childhood and life plays in the background.  He is also seen in some scenes dancing with his wife Denise, Jackson married her in 1979.  I think it’s a really beautiful song.  Here’s a link to the video mentioned.

I Hope You Dance

‘I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance,
Never settle for the path of least resistance,
Livin’ might mean takin’ chances, but they’re worth takin’,
Lovin’ might be a mistake, but it’s worth makin’,
Don’t let some Hell bent heart leave you bitter,
When you come close to sellin’ out reconsider’

I Hope You Dance is a crossover country pop song written by Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers and recorded by American country music singer Lee Ann Womack with Sons of the Desert. It is an ode to courage, positivity, awe and thankfulness.  It is the title track on Womack’s 2000 album. Released in March 2000, the song reached number one on both the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks and Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks charts and reached number fourteen on the Billboard Hot 100.  It is considered to be Womack’s signature song.  The music video features Womack singing while in a blue room, as well as playing, frolicking, and sleeping with her two daughters.

The Beast in Me

Johnny Cash wrote and sung so many all time favourite songs that, for me, he will always feature in most compilations.  ‘The Beast in Me’ is a song by English musician Nick Lowe.  Lowe was married to Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter Cash and Carl Smith, from her first marriage, from 1979-1990.  The song features slow, mournful music and lyrics describing the narrator’s struggle with destructive habits and personality traits: “The beast in me / Is caged by frail and fragile bars”.  As such it’s very suited to Johnny Cash’s character and temperament and sings like his life story, a bit like his cover of ‘Hurt’ would do in his final years.  Here’s ‘The Beast in Me’ live on Later with Jools Holland in 1994.


This is about as contemporary as it gets!  The song’s genre is described as ‘country, folk, pop rock’ and makes it into my list of ballads as a song I feel will stand the test of time.  It’s performed by American singer Lady Gaga and American actor and filmmaker Bradley Cooper.  It was released through Interscope Records on September 27, 2018 as the lead single from the soundtrack to the 2018 musical romantic drama film, A Star Is Born.  ‘Shallow”’ was written by Gaga with Andrew Wyatt, Anthony Rossomando and Mark Ronson, and produced by Gaga with Benjamin Rice.  ‘Shallow’ received universal acclaim from music critics, who commended Gaga’s vocals, the dramatic nature of the composition and the songwriting.  Commercially, the song topped the charts in more than twenty countries and reached the top ten elsewhere.  It received numerous accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Original Song, the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song, the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music and the Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Song.

All The Ways You Wander

‘All the Ways You Wander’ is a song by Cork singer songwriter John Spillane. It is track 9 from the album Will We Be Brilliant or What? An album released in 2002.  John is known for the natural musicality of his language and quirky songs like ‘Dance of The Cherry Trees’ and ‘Dunnes Stores Girl’.  On his official website he describes himself as ‘a musician, songwriter, performer, recording artist, storyteller, poet and dreamer. Rooted in people, place and story’.

‘All the ways you wander, all the ways you roam
All across great oceans, all across the foam
Through the faraway houses, through the sunsets on fire
Searching for the island of your heart’s desire’

Mystic Lipstic

‘Mystic Lipstick’ written by Jimmy McCarthy, is a moving song about the history and problems of Ireland. The country is referred to as “she” in the lyrics. The fact that the song is about Ireland becomes obvious—or is confirmed—when Eire is mentioned. Eire is the Irish Gaelic name for the country.  The first verse of the song is shown below. Ireland has a rich heritage of myth, legend, and archaeological remains, which is reflected in the first two lines of the song.

‘She wears Mystic Lipstick; she wears stones and bones,
She tells myth and legend; she sings rock and roll,
She wears chains of bondage; she wears the wings of hope
She wears the gown of plenty, and still it’s hard to cope’

There are many versions and I include Maura O’Connell’s below.

A Rainy Night in Soho

‘A Rainy Night in Soho’ was written by Shane Mac Gowan and was originally included on The Pogues’ 1986 EP ‘Poguetry in Motion’, produced by Elvis Costello.  It has been described as ‘a love song in the purest sense’ and ‘a most beautiful declaration of scarred love’.  The lyrics describe a close, loving relationship that lasted ‘down all the years’ and even though circumstances have now changed, he still hears her talking in his head and she remains, as he so poetically describes it, ‘the measure of my dreams’.  The song is usually interpreted as a love song to musician and one-time bandmate Shanne Bradley with whom Shane had an on-off relationship from the late seventies to the mid-eighties.  Pogue guitarist, the late Philip Chevron, described how ‘Shane was still getting over Shanne when he wrote’ the song and believed ‘it was part of the process of coping with his torch for Shanne’.  The song is widely held to be one of MacGowan’s finest compositions and has been covered by many artists.

A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga


Land of My Fathers

A little unusual here in that I’m including a National Anthem, it tells a story so in that sense it qualifies as a ballad.  Its creation was a family affair: the lyrics were written by Evan James and the melody composed by his son, James James, in January 1856.  The Welsh have many great hymns and arias, like Bread of Heaven and Caolan Lan.  The Principality is noted for its male choirs and abundance of singers in general.  Land of My Fathers talks of Wales’ rich heritage and culture of poetry, music, patriotic heroes, linguistic pride and, of course, Wales’ inimitable landscape. Here’s an English translation of the chorus and first verse.

  1. This land of my fathers is dear to me
    Land of poets and singers, and people of stature
    Her brave warriors, fine patriots
    Shed their blood for freedom

Land! Land! I am true to my land!
As long as the sea serves as a wall
For this pure, dear land
May the language endure forever.

The clip below is one of the Welsh Rugby team and supporters in the Millennium Stadium belting out Land of Our Fathers before a match v England to decide the 2013 6 Nations.  The raw passion on display here is incredible and spine chilling.  I had the privilege of witnessing this raw energy first hand when Ireland played Wales for the 2009 Grand Slam.

Bread of Heaven (Cwm Rhondda)

Another choice which is a little borderline as it’s a hymn, but a hymn that tells a story!  Cwm Rhondda, taken from the Welsh name for the Rhondda Valley, is a popular hymn tune written by John Hughes (1873–1932) in 1907.  The tune and hymn are often called Bread of Heaven because of a repeated line in this English translation.  The words are by William Williams, also known as Williams Pantycelyn, an 18th century Welsh poet.  It is usually used in English as a setting for William Williams’ text Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer.  Apart from church use, probably its best-known use is as the ‘Welsh Rugby Hymn’, often sung by the crowd at rugby matches, especially those of the Wales national rugby union team.  Bread of Heaven performed by Michael Ball at the 1999 World Cup Opening Ceremony.

Parcel of Rogues (Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation)

‘Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation’ is a Scottish folk song whose lyrics are taken from a poem written by Robert Burns in 1791.  Burns decried those members of the Parliament of Scotland who signed the Act of Union with England in 1707.  Burns contrasted their supposed treachery to the country with the tradition of martial valour and resistance commonly associated with such historic figures as Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. The poet states that he wishes to have lain in the grave with Bruce or Wallace, than have seen this treacherous sale of Scotland in his lifetime.  The song was revived in the 20th century by Ewan MacColl, whose recording of it can be found on the collection The Real MacColl.  It remains a song of Scottish Nationalism today.

‘I would, or I had seen the day
That treason thus could sell us
My auld gray head had lain in clay
Wi’ Bruce and loyal Wallace!
But pith and power, till my last hour
I’ll make this declaration
We were bought and sold for English gold:
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

Here’s the best version I know, sung by Luke Kelly.

James Hook, Mike Phillips and Adam Jones singing Land of My Fathers in 2013


Oh Jealous Heart

‘Oh Jealous Heart’ was written by the late Kerry singer songwriter, Christie Hennessy.  In a 2008 documentary, filmed just before his death with cancer Christie said he was singing about Ireland and how her children were emigrating and her troubles in general.  There’s a gentle beauty in the song resonating through Christie’s distinctive vocals.  The song was also recorded by Maire Brennan of Clannad fame.

‘Oh troubled love, mother’s heart
You call your sons from afar
To pray for peace throughout your land
And peace becomes your lovely face
Jealous heart
Oh love of life, oh life of love
Jealous heart
Jealous heart’

Down By The Sally Gardens

‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ is a poem by William Butler Yeats published in The Wanderings of Oisín and Other Poems in 1889.  Yeats indicated in a note that it was ‘an attempt to reconstruct an old song from three lines imperfectly remembered by an old peasant woman in the village of Ballisodare, Sligo, who often sings them to herself.’  This old song may have been the ballad The Rambling Boys of Pleasure, the first verse of which is similar to Down By The Sally Gardens.  However, the rest of the later song is very different.  It has been suggested that the location of the ‘Salley Gardens’ was on the banks of the river at Ballysadare near Sligo where the residents cultivated trees to provide roof thatching materials.  Sally is a form of the Standard English word ‘sallow’.  The verse was subsequently set to music by Herbert Hughes to the traditional air The Moorlough Shore (also known as ‘The Maids of Mourne Shore’) in 1909.  In the 1920s composer Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979) set the text to her own music.  The composer John Ireland (1879–1962) set the words to an original melody in his song cycle Songs Sacred and Profane, written in 1929–31.  Here is a link to Dolores Keane’s renowned version, used in the end credits to the film Dancing at Lughnasa, 1998.

The Ferryman

‘The Ferryman’ is an Irish folk ballad, written by Pete St. John, set in modern-day Dublin, Ireland.  As with much of St. John’s work, ‘The Ferryman’ relates to cultural and economic change in Dublin.  The song is a monologue, by a former pilot of a ferry on the Liffey River to his wife, Molly, as he contemplates the implications of his unemployment.  Despite the disagreeable subject matter, the song ends optimistically, with the declaration ‘we’re still living, and … we’re still young, and the river never owned me heart and soul.’  The narrator’s love for Molly is implicit in the song.  The song has been recorded by the Dublin City Ramblers, Four to the Bar, The Dubliners, The Irish Rovers, Gaelic Storm, Patsy Watchorn, and Patrick Clifford.  Here’s The Dublin City Ramblers’ lively version.

‘Where the strawberry beds sweep down to the Liffey
You kiss away the worries from my brow
I love you well today and I love you more tomorrow
If you ever loved me Molly love me now’

I Will Love You Everytime

The song was written by Tom Paxton in 1965 and made famous in Ireland by The Fureys.  It’s a beautiful love song and another example of Tom Paxton’s talent.

‘Ev’ry time I hear a sweet bird singin’
I think of you and I, my dear,
I think of you and I.
When I hear the evenin’ bells a ringin’
I hang my head and cry, my dear,
I hang my head and cry’

Here’s a live version by the Fureys.

Peggy Gordon

‘Peggy Gordon’ is a Canadian folk song that has become popular in many English-speaking countries.  As a folk song it was first collected in the 1950s and 1960s in Canada, mainly in Nova Scotia.  In the 1820s and early 1830s, a song called ‘Peggy Gordon’ was published on American song-sheets: in New York and in Boston (available at the libraries of Brown University, RI and the New York Historical Society).  A couple of decades later, a song called ‘Peggy Gordon’ was mentioned in Fitz-Hugh Ludlow’s story The Primpenny Family.  The story was published in serial form in the magazine Vanity Fair in 1861.  Another version of this song, in the form of a vaudeville song called Sweet Maggie Gordon, was published in New York from 1880 on.  The song has been recorded by many artists since the 1950s.  Here’s Paddy Reilly’s version.

The Loving Time

Noel Brazil wrote this song and Mary Black recorded it on her album ‘The Holy Ground in 1993’.  It’s a story of a love that fails the test of time.

‘It didn’t come true in the end
They went their separate ways
He couldn’t change what he was
She wasn’t ready to wait
They couldn’t live in the daylight
They let the night close in
And the holy ground took care of everything’

Here Mary Black performs with Emmylou Harris in 1994.

Red is The Rose

‘Red is the Rose’ is a traditional ballad of unknown origin.  It is generally thought to be Irish though some claim its roots are Scottish.  The lyrics mention many Irish locations.  It’s sung to the same tune as the famous Scottish song ‘Loch Lomond,’ and has a similar theme: the sadness of parting with one’s lover.

Red is the Rose by yonder garden grows
And fair is the lily of the valley
Clear is the water that flows from the Boyne
But my love is fairer than any.

The Clancys and Tommy Makem sing a fine version.

The Dutchman

This is a song about an eldery couple, the Ducthman and his devoted wife Margaret.  The Dutchman suffers from dementia and cannot remember most of the things he used to know, but Margaret still believes in him, and what he cannot remember, ‘Dear Margaret remembers that for me.’  The ballad was written by Michael Peter Smith in 1968 and popularized by Liam Clancy, Brendan Grace and Steve Goodman.  At the time Smith wrote the song, he had never visited the Netherlands.  Here’s Brendan Grace’s rendition.

The Night Visiting Song

I always associate this song with a frail Luke Kelly’s last live performance.  December 1983 would be the last time Luke Kelly’s fans would see him perform live.  While the toll of his declining health could be seen on his face, he sang his last song with his characteristic depth and commitment.  It seemed fitting that the opening lines of the song start with ‘I must away now, I can no longer tarry’.  Within the following month, Luke Kelly’s mind and body had irrevocably drifted towards his passing and on 30 Jan 1984, the great performer succumbed to his illness.  The song is about a young man who comes visiting at his love’s window, pleading with her to let him in as it was a wild and stormy night and he was tired and drenched to the skin. Upon entering, they embrace and spend the rest of the night locked in each other’s arms. At daybreak, it was time for him to leave-he took his lovers hand as they kissed and parted. He then saddled his horse and rode away.

‘I must away now, I can no longer tarry
This morning’s tempest I have to cross
I must be guided without a stumble
Into the arms I love the most’

Here’s that poignant last performance by Luke accompanied by the Dubliners.

The Late Christie Hennessy, 2008

Gaelic Language

Mná na hÉireann

Originally this was a poem written by Ulster poet Peadar Ó Doirnín (1704–1796).  It is most famous as a song, and especially set to an air composed by Seán Ó Riada (1931–1971).  As a modern song, ‘Mná na hÉireann’ is usually placed in the category of Irish rebel music; as an eighteenth-century poem it belongs to the genre (related to the aisling) which imagines Ireland as a generous, beautiful woman suffering the depredations of an English master on her land, her cattle, or herself, and which demands Irishmen to defend her, or ponders why they fail to.  The poem also seems to favour Ulster above the other Irish provinces.  Kate Bush performed the song in the mid-1990s for her compilation album Common Ground – Voices of Modern Irish Music.  Kate’s mam being from Waterford.  The song has been recorded many times, often as a musical song without words, as in the Chieftains 1974 version, which was used part of the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film ‘Barry Lyndon’.

Fáinne Geal an Lae

‘Fáinne Geal an Lae’ (The Dawning of the Day) (sometimes called ‘The Golden Star”), is an air composed by the harpist Thomas Connellan in the 17th century.  An Irish-language song with this name (‘Fáinne Geal an Lae’) was published by Edward Walsh (1805-1850) in 1847 in Irish Popular Songs.  It has become well known as the melody to which Patrick Kavanagh’s On Raglan Road (covered in part 1 of Bealtaine Ballads) is sung.  The Irish-language lyrics of ‘Fáinne Geal an Lae’ describe an aisling where the poet encounters a mysterious beautiful woman.  In this case, she upbraids him as a frivolous rake and points to the approaching dawn.  I’m very fond of the Na Casaidigh rendition.

Cill Chais

Cill Cháis (Kilcash) was the great house of one of the branches of the Butlers near Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, until well into the eighteenth century.  To the east of the ancient church are the ruins of Kilcash Castle, where Lord Castlehaven, noted Confederate Catholic commander in the 1641-52 war, wrote his memoirs.

The haunting early 18th century song Cill Cháis mourns the death of Margaret Butler, Viscountess Iveagh (‘Lady Veagh’).  Her first husband, the attainted Jacobite Brian Maginnis (Mac Guinness), having died in the Austrian service, she married Colonel Thomas Butler of Kilcash Castle, a nominal Protestant who connived at her sheltering of Catholic bishops and priests there.

‘What will we do for wood now that the last of the forests are down…’.  One reason the English cut down the forests was so that the Irish couldn’t take refuge in them and raid the planters who were in possession of their former holdings.  The verse translations into English are by Thomas Kinsella.  Cill Chais- The Corrib Folk..

Songs of Place\Location

There is an Isle

This is a Shannon, Limerick Rugby song.  It originated as a Scottish poem and was put to music in 1924 by Anna Maria Lynch, who was music teacher in St. Mary’s girls’ school, at the time.  The phrase ‘alone it stands’ from the song is the title to a play about Munster’s victory over The All Blacks in 1978.  Since the late 1990s and the emergence of Munster Rugby as a power in European Club competition the song has become a popular Munster one.  The emotional performance below took place in Thomond Park after former Munster player and then trainer, Anthony Foley, passed away suddenly in 2016.

The Boys of Fairhill

The Boys of Fairhill is a traditional Irish folk song from Co.Cork.  It was made famous by Jimmy Crowley.  The Wolfe Tones also recorded it but with different lyrics.  The song is very popular in Cork city around this area.  It’s often sung prior to Cork GAA All-Ireland Final appearances on RTE programmes such as Up For The Match.

Streams of Bunclody

This is a Traditional folk / love song from Bunclody in Co. Wexford.  There is a local tradition that The Streams of Bunclody was written in America by an immigrant from County Wicklow and sent back to Ireland.  Bunclody was also known as Newtownbarry until 1950.  It’s a pretty town with a stream running through it.  Here’s Luke Kelly’s interpretation.

The Broad Majestic Shannon

The song is about the area Shane MacGowan’s (the author) grew up in during his early childhood, on the shores of Lough Derg by the Shannon River.  Shane was born in Pembury, Kent, England to Irish parents and spent his early years in Count Tipperary, Ireland before moving back to England when he was six and a half.  The choruses in the song seem to be that of a mother talking to her son, consoling him in sadder times.

‘I sat for a while at the cross at Finnoe
Where young lovers would meet when the flowers were in bloom
Heard the men coming home from the fair in Shinrone
Their hearts in Tipperary wherever they roam’

Here’s Liam Clancy singing the song, a year before his death, at The Bitter End, New York in 2008.

Dublin in The Rare Old Times

‘Dublin in The Rare Old Times’ is a song composed by Pete St. John in the 1970s for the Dublin City Ramblers.  It is sometimes called ‘Dublin in the Rare Ould Times’, ‘The Rare Old Times’, or ‘The Rare Auld Times’.  In the song, the narrator, Sean Dempsey, who comes from Pimlico, a working-class neighbourhood in the Dublin Liberties, recalls his upbringing.  He laments the changes that have occurred in the city since his youth, mentioning the loss of Nelson’s Pillar, the Metropole ballroom, the ‘Royal’ (Theatre Royal). He dislikes the ‘new glass cages’, the modern office blocks and flats being erected along the quays and says farewell to Anna Liffey (the River Liffey).  Here’s a pleasing Danny Doyle recording.

Homes of Donegal

‘The Homes of Donegal’ is an Irish ballad written by songwriter Seán McBride in 1955. It has been performed by many singers, most famously by Paul Brady.  McBride was a native of Cruit Island in The Rosses area of north-west Donegal. He was a school teacher at St. Baithin’s Primary School in the village of St. Johnston (East Donegal) for most of his life.  He died at the age of 90 in August 1996 and is buried on his native Cruit Island.  Seán only wrote the lyrics, the actual air itself may be 150 or more years old, there are many songs around using the same melody, the closest one is a song called ‘The Faughan Side’.

The Curragh of Kildare

Donal Lunny and Christy arranged this song into its present shape. The original was written by Scotland’s poet laureate Robbie Burns.  It tells the story of a young Scottish woman whose lover is away soldiering for the Queen in the Curragh of Kildare.  She decides to present herself for recruitment disguised as a young fellow.  We never get to hear the outcome!

‘And straight I will repair
To the Curragh of Kildare
For it’s there I’ll finds tidings of my dear’

I link the Johnstons’ melodic version here.

Jimmy Crowley- The Boys of Fairhill


Immigrant Eyes

Guy Clark and Roger Murrah wrote this powerful ballad of loss and emigration in 1989.  One of the first times I heard it sung was by Dolores Keane on the Late Late Show before Christmas in 1992.


Sometimes when I look in my grandfather’s Immigrant Eyes
I see that day reflected and I can’t hold my feelings inside
I see starting with nothing and working hard all of his life
So don’t take it for granted say grandfather’s Immigrant Eyes

Leaving of Liverpool

The Leaving of Liverpool is a traditional folk song which tells the story of a sailor who must leave his town and his true love behind while he goes off to earn his living on a long voyage at sea.  From the moment he leaves his only concern is to return to her as soon as possible.  ‘The Leaving of Liverpool’ has been recorded by many popular folk singers and groups since the 1950s.  Below is Johnny McEvoy’s rendition.

McAlpine’s Fusiliers

McAlpine’s Fusiliers is an Irish ballad set to a traditional air, popularised in the early 1960s by Dominic Behan.  This is a song about the Irish emigrating to work in Britain.  While humerous at times, one is left in no doubt as to the hardship endured.

‘I remember the day that the Bear O’Shea
Fell into a concrete stairs
What the Horseface said, when he saw him dead
Well, it wasn’t what the rich call prayers

I’m a navvy short was the one retort
That reached unto my ears
When the going is rough, well you must be tough
With McAlpine’s fusiliers’

No better man than Ronnie Drew to perform this high-spirited tune!

When the Boys Come Rolling Home

This is a Tommy Sands, Co. Down song.  The song looks forward in joyful fashion to the emigrants returning home.

And there’ll be dancing, romancing
And never more we’ll roam
There’ll be rolling in the hay, and whiskey in the tae
When the boys come rolling home’

The various emigrants have all trodden differing paths.
‘Now Joe he went to Boston and Jim to Montreal
And Pat went out as far as California’.

Here’s the Dubliners’ (feat. Sean Canon) version.

Nothing But The Same Old Story

One of the highlights of the Bringing it All Back Home series aired on RTE in 1991 for me was Paul Brady’s performance of ‘Nothing but the Same Old Story’ about his experiences as an Irish emigrant working in the UK.  The imagery of the 1950s/1960s Irish immigrant working in the UK, in the accompanying video, was very evocative also.  See the link below.

The Mountains of Mourne

The lyrics to the song The Mountains of Mourne (originally spelt The Mountains o’ Mourne) were written by Irish musician Percy French (1854–1920), the music was composed by Houston Collisson (1865–1920).  Another theory is that it is based on the traditional Irish folk tune ‘Carrigdonn’ or ‘Carrigdhoun’.  The latter was the same tune used by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) for his song Bendemeer’s Stream.  The song is a curious look at the styles, attitudes and fashions of late nineteenth-century London as seen from the point of view of an emigrant labourer from a village near the Mourne Mountains, County Down.  It is written as a message to the narrator’s true love at home.  It contrasts the artificial attractions of the city with the more natural beauty of his homeland.

‘There’s beautiful girls here, oh, never you mind
Beautiful shapes Nature never designed
Lovely complexions of roses and cream
But let me remark with regard to the same
That if at those roses you venture to sit
The colors might all come away on your lip
So I’ll wait for the wild rose that’s waitin’ for me
In the place where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea’

Don McLean did a lovely cover.

Ronnie Drew singing McAlpine’s Fusiliers in the early 1960s


Pat Murphy’s Meadow

It was originally a poem rearranged in the 1930s by Anne Devine Pitcher, John Martin Devine’s granddaughter, Pat Murphy’s Meadow is a field in King’s Cove, Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, where the author spent his childhood. The words were set to a tune composed in the 1950s by Peter McNulty. The Irish entertainer from Mullagh, County Clare, Patrick Joseph (P J) Murrihy, heard it at a party in Chicago in 1982, and published it by Ceol Music in 1989.  I include it here, in miscellaneous songs, as it’s a sweet tune I remember hearing sung as a child.  I always assumed it’s origin was Irish.


Colcannon is a traditional Irish dish of mashed potatoes with cabbage or kale.  The song ‘Colcannon’, also called ‘The Skillet Pot’, is a traditional Irish song that has been recorded by numerous artists, including Mary Black.

‘Did you ever eat Colcannon, made from lovely pickled cream?
With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream.
Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the melting flake
Of the creamy, flavoured butter that your mother used to make?’

The Black family from 1986.


Sonny by Emmylou Harris, Dolores Keane & Mary Black was written by Ron Hynes and was first released by The Wonderful Grand Band in 1978.  It was performed by Mark Black Emmylou Harris and Dolores Keane in 1991 for The Bringing it All Back Home series.  The chorus of the song explains all.

‘Sonny don’t go away, I’m here all alone
Your Daddy’s a sailor, never comes home
Nights are so long, silence goes on
I’m feeling so tired and not all that strong’

The Dublin Minstrel

This is an ode to Luke Kelly written by Paddy Reilly.

‘From Dublin streets and roads and down the years
Came great musicians and balladeers
There was a special one, a red haired minstrel boy
And when he passed away, a city mourned its favorite son’

A fine ballad, here’s Paddy’s performance..

The Famine Song

This is a song written by Johnny McEvoy about the Great Irish Famine.  I feel it’s worthy of inclusion for its beautiful melody.  It has musical echoes in its chorus of another song written by Johnny, ‘The Ballad of John Williams’.


All my [comrades they have fallen
By the roadside they have died
In the fields and in the hedgerows
Their hungry bones lie side by side’



This song written in 1985 by Frank and Seán O’Meara, became popular in Ireland and elsewhere and has been recorded by many musicians.  It concerns Grace Gifford, who married her fiancé, 1916 Rising leader Joseph Mary Plunkett, hours before his execution, in Kilmainham Gaol.  Jim McCann’s version is the best known, Rod Stewart recently recorded the song in 2018.  However my favourite version was recorded, as part of RTE’s 1916 Commemoration, by Danny O’Reilly, his sister Roisín, and their cousin Aoife Scott.


Father John Murphy was the parish priest in Boolavogue, a small town in County Wexford in Ireland, who led his parishioners in battle during the 1798 uprising. For his participation, Father Murphy was tortured, flogged, decapitated, burned, and ultimately, had his head put on a stake to warn his countrymen against further rebellion.  The song ‘Boolavogue’ was written in his honor in 1898 by Patrick Joseph McCall, at the centenary of the ’98 rebellion.  At the time the church was competing with the Fenians for the minds and hearts of militant nationalists in Ireland.  The Catholic Church denounced the Fenians and their secret society form of organization.  In Boolavogue, Fr. John Murphy was given a much greater role as a leader in 1798 than he actually had, as the Church wished to claim this rebellion as one sanctioned and led by them, unlike contemporary events and organisations like the IRB (Fenians).  In a sense it was an attempted rewriting of history.  The song was set to the lyrics of an ancient Irish air called ‘Eochaill.’  The ballad is rich in evocative imagery.  This is a link to a Jim McCann recording.

The Enniskillen Dragoon

‘The Enniskillen Dragoon’ also called ‘Enniskillen Dragoon’ or ‘The Enniskillen Dragoons’ is an Irish folk song associated with the Inniskilling Dragoons, a British Army regiment based at Enniskillen, County Fermanagh.  The song was originally about the Royal Inniskilling Dragoons of Ireland, a cavalry regiment raised by King William in 1688 at the time of the Siege of Derry.  Right up to the Battle of The Somme they fought with the Inniskilling Fusiliers as part of the 36th Ulster Division.  The air was used as the regiment’s signature quick march.   The oldest lyrics tell of the love of a local lady for a soldier serving in the eponymous regiment.  The song, naturally enough, is of Ulster origin.  Dr. George Sigerson, wrote a new song to it, in the late 1800s, which was published in Mr. A. P. Graves’s ‘Irish Song Book’ and in that publication. It is thought, the air appeared in print for the first time.  Here we have mention of the Peninsular War, where Wellington fought Napoleon, 1808-1814.

‘Oh, Spain it is a gallant land where wine and ale flow free
There’s lots of lovely women there to dandle on your knee
And often in a tavern there, we’d make the rafters ring
When every soldier in the house would raise his glass and sing’

I love Sean Keane’s version of this ballad.

Follow Me Up To Carlow

We’re getting quite local here!  Rebels Fiach McHugh O’Byrne of Wicklow and Rory Og O’Moore of Laois are mentioned for their exploits against Queen Elizabeth I of England and her generals.  Aswell as Carlow of course.  The air is reputed to have been played as a marching tune by the pipers of Fiach MacHugh in 1580.  The song was written by Patrick Joseph McCaul, in the late 1800s and and appears in his Songs of Erinn (1899) under the title ‘Marching Song of Feagh MacHugh’.  The ballad celebrates the defeat of an army of 3,000 English soldiers led by Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne at the Battle of Glenmalure, during the Second Desmond Rebellion in 1580.  The Irish are being urged to stop brooding on the past and to stop worrying about the strength of the British. They have a leader in O’Byrne who is capable of leading them on to victory.  There was a British military base at Carlow and so the call in the song title could refer to a proposed attack.  I’ve chosen this short Declan Hunt performance due to the beautiful accompanying video with images of the places mentioned and paintings from the era.

The Irish Soldier Laddie

The Irish Soldier Laddie was written Patrick Joseph ‘Paddy Joe’ McGuigan (1939-2014) – an Irish musician born in Belfast. He played with the group Barleycorn and wrote several rebel songs including, The Boys of The Old Brigade.  It’s a modern song about the events of 1798.

‘Will ye stand in the band like a true Irish man,
And go and fight the forces of the crown?
Will ye march with O’Neill to an Irish battlefield?
For tonight we’re gonna free old Wexford town!’

Here Danny Doyle delivers this lively modern rebel ballad.

Meet Me At The Pillar

A song about the 1916 Rising written by Sean and Frank O’Meara, Jim McCann is probably most associated with its performance.  The lyrics recount Padraig Pearse urging a young Irish man to fight for freedom and to meet him at the Pilar (Nelson’s Pillar).  It appears the episode may be a dream ‘That awful night I lay awake and many times I cried, I could not answer his commands, no matter how I tried’.  It’s a pleasant, charming ballad.

Meet me at the Pillar son, meet me there at noon
I need you brave young Irishmen, there is something we must do
Meet me at the Pillar son, still it’s not too late
It’s time to sing a Freedom’s song, come soon I cannot wait’

Galtee Mountain Boy

‘The Galtee Mountain Boy’ is an Irish folk ballad, originally written by Patsy O’Halloran.  The song is a monologue, documenting the narrator’s enlistment and travels with one of Tipperary’s flying columns, from Cork, through Tipperary and Wicklow, to Dublin.  Although not mentioned in the song lyrics the proximity of the Galtee mountains with neighbouring Limerick in which it splits between the two gives due mentioning of the east & west Limerick Galtee battalions who fought jointly with Sean Hogan throughout the War of Independence, the lyrics include farewells to both Tipperary and the town of Clonmel.  It references historical figures from the Irish War of Independence and subsequent Irish Civil War, including Seán Moylan, Dan Breen, Dinny Lacey, and Seán Hogan.  It portrays the Free State forces as enemies, suggesting that the narrator was fighting in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

‘We tracked the Dublin mountains we were rebels on the run
Though hunted night and morning we were outlawed but free men’

Paddy Reilly sings a fine version.

The Boys of Kilmichael

The subject matter of this ballad is the IRA ambush at this location during the War of Independence.  Thirty-six local IRA volunteers commanded by Tom Barry killed seventeen members of the Royal Irish Constabulary’s Auxiliary Division.  There’s still debate today as to whether the British forces engaged in a ‘false surrender’.  Tom Barry and the IRA men recount how the Auxiliaries called out a surrender and that some dropped their rifles but opened fire again with revolvers when three IRA men emerged from cover, killing one volunteer instantly, Jim O’Sullivan, and mortally wounding Pat Deasy.  In ‘The IRA And Its Enemies’ revisionist Professor Peter Hart took issue with the false surrender, focusing on Tom Barry’s account.  The author is unknown, though Patrick Galvin added the last verse, and the ballad is sung to the air of 1798 song ‘The Men of The West’.

‘Oh forget not the boys of Kilmichael
Those brave boys both gallant and true
They fought with Tom Barry’s bold column
And conquered the red, white and blue’

I couldn’t find a name for the artist who gives this rendition of the ballad.

The Boys of The Old Brigade

It was was written Patrick Joseph ‘Paddy Joe’ McGuigan (1939-2014).  It is an Irish rebel song written by Paddy McGuigan about the Irish Republican Army of the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), and the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

‘Oh, father why are you so sad
On this bright Easter morn’
When Irish men are proud and glad
Of the land that they were born?
Oh, son, I see in mem’ries few
Of far off distant days
When being just a lad like you
I joined the IRA’

The Wolfhound Folk Group perform here.

Lonely Woods of Upton

The Upton train ambush took place on 15 February 1921, during the Irish War of Independence. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) mounted an attack on a train carrying British soldiers at Upton, County Cork. The action was a disaster for the IRA; three of its volunteers were killed and two wounded. Six British soldiers were wounded, three seriously. Six civilian passengers were killed and ten wounded in the crossfire.  Cornelius McEleney wrote this song, a mournful one that recounts the martyrdom of those who died.


Let the moon shine out along the valley
Where those men who fought for freedom now are lain
May they rest in peace those men who died for Ireland
In the lonely woods of Upton for Sinn Fein

Kilmichael Veterans in 1970, 50 years after the ambush, Tom Barry centre front.


I hope anyone who reads this essay will enjoy some of the ballads covered.  Hopefully there’s something for everyone.  I think over the two parts of ‘Ballads for Bealtaine’ a wide range of material has been covered.  I certainly have made some new discoveries as I charted my way through some wonderful musical history.

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