Irish Folk Songs: An Exploration. “Weile Weile Waila” performed by The Dubliners.

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The Casey Sisters (Nollaig Casey, Mairéad Ní Chathasaigh, and Mairé Ní Chathasaigh). Irish harper Mairé Ní Chathasaigh with UK acoustic guitarist Chris Newman has performed in over 20 countries on 5 continents.

maire-ni-chathasaigh-and-friends-in-2010

Mairé Ní Chathasaigh with friends in 2010.

By John P. Walsh

There are thousands of Irish folk songs, a traditional and often nationalistic musical genre that is experiencing today a renaissance and renewal as song collections are widely available that began to be compiled in the nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth century at a productive pace. These folk song collections include the Francis James Child collection of 305 Scottish and English ballads (which has ramifications for the first Irish song discussed here) from the final decades of the nineteenth century to more recent collections including Folksongs of Britain and Ireland compiled by Peter Kennedy in 1975.1 The popularization of an extensive range of Irish folk songs proliferated in the last century with the inclusion of sound recordings and broadcast programs on mass media such as radio and television. Music and words that started in local communities returned to them by way of mass media such as the popularity of “Beidh ceol, caint agus craic again” (“We’ll have music, chat and craic”) used by Seán Bán Breathnach for his Irish-language chat show SBB inaShuí, broadcast on RTÉ from 1976 to 1982. Folk songs, local songs, are experiencing a twenty-first century renaissance with a return to traditional, local cultural sources through the prism of contemporary interpretations and arrangements by established and new musical performers in Ireland and other countries around the world including the United States. These artists find commercial value in performing mainly traditional material on their own terms.3 I hope to add more Irish folk songs, old and new, to this blog where I might offer further discussion on this topic which has been of great enjoyment for me over a lifetime. Now on to the first Irish folk song!

craicing-selfie-with-sean-ban-breathnach

Craicing Selfie with Seán Bán Breathnach.

wilson-with-the-clancy-brothers-and-tommy-makem-bassist-bill-lee-ca-1964-photo-don-hunstein

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem with bassist Bill Lee, ca. 1964. Photo: Don Hunstein.

the-dubliners-c-1970

The Dubliners, ca. 1970 (left to right. top: Ciarán Bourke, Barney McKenna, Luke Kelly; front: John Sheahan, Ronnie Drew).

Weile Weile Waila is a folk song that emerged in Ireland during the hardship of the Great Hunger of the 1840s and early 1850s when by necessity hundreds of thousands unto millions of Irish emigrated to the United States and Canada and to many other parts of the world out of sheer desperation.4  Weile Weile Waila is a children’s nursery rhyme specific to Ireland first catalogued by Harvard English professor and folklorist Francis James Child (1825-1896) who discovered over a dozen variants for this song titling them “The Cruel Mother.”5 In Child’s incomplete catalogue of ballads – his project interest in the British Isles in the 1880s and 1890s was more literary than musical – its overall subject offerings range from romance and legends, the supernatural, history, morality tales, and riddles, and in no way precludes even darker subjects and themes as is found in Weile Weile Waila. This folk song could be called a “murder” ballad as well as a “family strife” ballad or “abuse of authority” ballad, all of which are considered “Child” ballads named for Francis James Child who catalogued their type. Which of the 17 versions of this song that Child collected as“The Cruel Mother” best meshes with this Irish ditty belies traits they all appear to share: a woman gives birth and using a pen-knife kills the child, often with the descriptive relish to tear “the tender heart.”6

the-english-and-scottish-popular-ballads-5-volume-set

The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1882–1898 of Francis James Child.

an-undated-engraving-of-child-by-gustav-kruell-note-the-rose-at-the-upper-right

An undated engraving of Child, by Gustav Kruell (German, 1843-1907). Note the rose at the upper right.

The song’s title phrase Weile Weile Waila is itself murky. Likely medieval in origin, the term’s original meaning is lost to history although in Ireland in the nineteenth century it was primarily used for a popular exclamation of grief – an emotion much roused and justified on the island in that time period.7 This Irish version of Francis James Child’s “The Cruel Mother” poses its own specific plot. An “old” (no longer “cruel”) woman who “lived in the woods” stabs an infant “three months old” to death along the banks of the River Saile, a stream which may refer to one that flows today in and near Dublin.

poddle-tongue

The River Saile which features in the Irish folk song Weile Weile Waila may be a local name given to the River Poddle in the city of Dublin. The River Poddle is a tributary of the Liffey, rising in Cookstown to the north of Tallaght. From its source, it flows into Dublin City, and splits at Mount Argus at what is known as the “Tongue” or “stone boat.”

In the Irish version, the old woman is probably not the mother of the baby which provides a remarkable variant to a historic song that extensively describes a cruel mother. Yet the old folk song’s dark flavor is retained for use as a nursery rhyme obviously sung by a young mother to her child perhaps with humor and loving, benign menace. The old woman uses the song’s prevalent pen-knife (here made “long and sharp”) and is quickly approached and arrested by “two policemen” and “a man” to be “sent to jail” where she is dispatched to the gallows and executed for the crime. This series of events unique to the Irish lyric (some of it updated as recently as the 1970s) is that the cruel mother’s hope for eternal mercy or fear of eternal damnation that ends the many Child Ballad versions is replaced with harsh justice for the old woman in the here and now. The death of the baby also is specifically lamented.

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Suffering associated with The Irish Famine of 1845-50 depicted in a contemporary sculpture (1997) called Famine by Rowan Gillespie in Dublin. While causes and numbers are hotly debated, approximately one million people died and at least one million more emigrated from Ireland according to David Ross in Ireland: History of a Nation (2002, Geddes & Grosset, New Lanark).

The song retains in each verse that popular Irish exclamation of grief – Weile Weile Waila –injecting into its dark proceedings, now made into a nursery ditty, a forlorn lyric that stands on the precipice to describe with open eyes shocking and oftentimes glossed-over ancillary misfortunes in Ireland during years of mass starvation and disease in the mid-nineteenth century. Its specificity of Irish suffering –  the “end” of the old woman and the baby – describes a cycle of viciousness met by harsh earthly justice that makes for a sobering two minutes of Irish folk music. The song’s material carries forward to the present a sharp slice of  Ireland’s former meaner times when members of local communities could be driven to despicable acts when necessary resources for survival are long delayed. In this short nursery rhyme with an ample and well-documented folk song history (and popularized in the 1970s by the folk band The Dubliners) Irish parents and children alike could be entertained by others’ calamities where the guilty are meted out justice and the innocent are bemoaned.

woman_begging_at_clonakilty_ireland

Woman begging with baby in Clonakilty (County Cork), Ireland. Portrait print of a destitute mother holding her baby in one arm and a begging bowl in the other. These miserable conditions were brought on by the Great Famine and compounded by socio-economic practices such as forced evictions of poverty-stricken peasants from their homes and farms (“There was an old woman and she lived in the woods…”)

The Dubliners featuring Ronnie Drew perform Weila Weila Waila in a 1988 television performance (2:19 minutes). Twenty years later, at Ronnie Drew’s funeral in 2008, the large gathering of mourners sang this song to his memory in unison clapping and stamping their feet.8

LYRICS:

And there was an old woman and she lived in the woods
A weila weila waila
There was an old woman and she lived in the woods
Down by the River Saile

She had a baby three months old
A weila weila waila
She had a baby three months old
Down by the River Saile

She had a penknife long and sharp
A weila weila waila
She had a penknife long and sharp
Down by the River Saile

She stuck the penknife in the baby’s heart
A weila weila waila
She stuck the penknife in the baby’s heart
Down by the River Saile

Three loud knocks came knocking on the door
A weila weila waila
Three loud knocks came knocking on the door
Down by the River Saile

There was two policeman and a man
A weila weila waila
There was two policeman and a man
Down by the River Saile

They took her away and they put her into jail
A weila weila waila
They took her away and they put her into jail
Down by the River Saile

They put a rope around her neck
A weila weila waila
They put a rope around her neck
Down by the River Saile

They pulled the rope she got hung
A weila weila waila
They pulled the rope she got hung
Down by the River Saile

Now that was the end of the woman in the woods
A weila weila waila
And that was the end of the baby too
Down by the River Saile

NOTES –

  1. Child collection – see http://harvardmagazine.com/2006/05/francis-james-child.html; Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, Peter Kennedy, Schirmer Books, New York, 1975.
  2. Quote Seán Bán Breathnach – Fintan Vallely, Companion to Irish Traditional Music, New York University Press, New York, 1999, p. 9.
  3. New bands recording Irish folk songs include, in Ireland, The Corrs; in Britain, The Pogues; and in the United States, Dropkick Murphys as well as Flogging Molly. There are many others.
  1. There are many sources on the subject of Irish emigration in the mid-nineteenth century. What is noteworthy is that the causes for it and numbers involved in it frequently remain intensely debated.
  2. On the subject of Child Ballads – see Mary Ellen Brown, Child’s Unfinished Masterpiece: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2011 and E. Housman, British Popular Ballads, Ayer Publishing, 1969.
  3. Child’s 17 versions of “The Cruel Mother” – http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch020.htm.
  4. Meaning of term weila weila waila – Robert E. Lewis, Middle English Dictionary, 1999, University of Michigan Press. p. 232.
  5. Drew funeral – http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/mourners-give-ronnie-a-rare-ould-sendoff-26470805.html

©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by an means, electronic  or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.

 

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