Category Archives: Irish Folk Song

Irish Folk Song: Bríd Óg Ní Mháille (Young Bridget O’Malley).

 

Featured Image is La Ghirlandata. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). 1873. Oil on canvas. 124 x 85 cm. Guildhall Gallery, London. City of London Corporation.

 

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Bríd Óg Ní Mháille is an Irish Gaelic folk song about a young man who lost his love, “the beauty of Oriel,” to another suitor. This painting is Clytie by French (born English) Symbolist painter Louise Welden Hawkins (1849-1910). Clytie is a Greek mythological figure whose love was unrequited by Helios, the Sun god.

St Brighid of Ireland
All variations of the name Brigid have the Irish word brígh, which means “fire,” as its root word.

By John P. Walsh

In Ireland a generation ago the girl’s first name of Brigid (along with Mary) was one of the island’s most popular. Growing up in Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s, it seemed that a lot of Irish-American girls were named Brigid, or wished to be. By the 2010s the name of Brigid was no longer, in Ireland at least, very popular as other girls’ names replaced it.1 In Ireland the name Brigid is rendered in a healthy variety of ways. The well-known Bridget is the English variant. In this Irish folk song Bríd Óg Ní Mháille (Young Brigid O’Malley), it is the Irish language Brid (pronounced Breed). Irish also offers Bride, Brídín, Brighid, Brighidín, Brigit, Breeda, and others. With so many alternatives for a very ancient name it may be surprising that none of them rank high on the popularity charts although their accumulated usage may do so.2 With its root word being breo (which means fire), all variations of Brigid have the Irish word brígh in common. According to the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of the Irish Language, brígh has multiple definitions and meanings. It primarily connotes “power, strength, force, and authority” but also translates as “vigor, virtue and fortitude.” In medicine, brígh refers to the antidote which proves to be strongly effective.3 As Brid is sometimes translated as “strong-willed” and “high born,” it becomes clear that this girl’s appellation possesses excellent qualities that, along with the beauty of its sound when spoken and its venerable ancient history,  may presume to reach into the top 100 Irish names for girls some time in the future.

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Saint Brigid of Ireland (c. 451 – 525) with St. Patrick and St. Columba is one of today’s three patron saints of Ireland. From the moment of her birth in the mid-fifth century her story is shrouded in Christian legends and tales. St. Brid is a direct descendant of the older pagan Celtic goddess of the same name. St. Brid’s fire – a flame kept constantly alight in her honor by nuns in the monastery she founded – burned for 1000 years until her monastery along with most others was closed during the Protestant Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century.

The first Irish historical figure directly associated with the name Brid or Brigid that is most relevant to the name in Ireland today is St. Brigid (c. 451 – 525). Along with Sts. Patrick (418-493) and Columba (540-615), she is one of Ireland’s three patron saints. Legends swirl around this early Christian figure from the moment of her birth, including the story of angels seen hovering over the Irish cottage where she was born near Dundalk at the foot of the Cooley Mountains. History records that her mother was a Christian slave and her father was a pagan chief. Soon after Brid’s birth, her mother was sold and had to leave her father’s house although young Brid stayed. There are many Irish fioretti relating Brid’s fantastical holy exploits during this period of her early youth. One appealing story among many tells of her disobeying her father so to journey to visit her enslaved mother. Traveling alone along Ireland’s wild pathways, Brid located her mother who was tending her owner’s cattle.  Mother and daughter worked side-by-side until their labors’ fruit proved so abundant that Brid was able to secure her mother’s freedom. How Brid later chose to consecrate her life to God as a nun which led to her founding Ireland’s first monastic community of women is also explained in legends.4

St. Brigid of Ireland’s misty past is informed by a pre-Christian Celtic goddess named Brigid whose mythology as we know it today was first recorded, ironically perhaps, by early Irish Christian monks. As in St. Brid’s story of liberating her enslaved mother, the pagan goddess Brid is closely aligned to the cow as well as the sheep, but also animals with mythological qualities of regeneration such as the rooster and snake. Surrounding this more remote Brid is a panoply of supernatural qualities and events told in legends and folklore.5 Yet this ancient pagan Celtic goddess has her older forebears in the Proto-Indo-European goddesses that are over 5,000 years old. In ancient Mesopotamia one finds a certain Brid who was deity of the hearth.6

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Brigit is a powerful religious form in Irish history, as she is one of the most complex and contradictory goddesses of the Celts. The pagan goddess is patroness to healers, poets, metal workers – all the practical and inspired civilized arts. Associated with fire and light she is also guardian of inner vital energy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9a9SBdJNCo

Bríd Óg Ní Mháille is an Irish folk song in a long line of Irish musical taste about forsaken love. It is performed here brilliantly in the Irish by singer Gillian Fenton who is accompanied on traditional Irish harp by Fiachra O’ Corragáin. There are many traditional and contemporary renditions, however, of this popular late nineteenth-century Irish Gaelic song. Its surge of popularity is an entirely local Irish story.  There was a certain young man in mid-20th-century County Mayo who was a Gaelic teacher. He took particular fancy to this tune about a young Irishman who lost his love – the titular Bridget O’Malley – to another suitor and was left “heartbroken…the arrows of death…piercing my heart.”7 The Gaelic teacher, armed with this air about “the beauty of Oriel without any doubt…now married to another…” took it with him back to the county just next door, his native Donegal, where its popularity first flourished.

St. Brighid of Ireland

Saint Brighid of ireland
St. Brighid of Ireland is shrouded in ancient legends and myths.

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The Beguiling of Merlin, Edward Burne-Jones, 1872–77, Oil on canvas, 186 cm × 111 cm (73 in × 44 in), Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, Merseyside. There is a 12th century story in which Merlin is beguiled by a female figure whose vision thereof inspires or causes History. This female form is sometimes associated with Brigantia. In some stories she is the one who nurtures development of human potential.

St. Bride by John Duncan 1913St. Bride by John Duncan, 1913. Bride is one of the many variations for the English Bridget or Irish Brighid. Others include Brid, Brídín, Brighidín, Brigit, and Breeda.

There is another Irish Gaelic song referencing the name Brid that is titled Fair Bridget (Brid Bhan) and also emanates out of Donegal. It is not as popular as Bríd Óg Ní Mháille, but speaks about a modern young Brid – similar to the mother of ancient St. Brid – who is taken out of her home to tend cattle in a far-away place not her own. It is heartbreak for this fair Brid to begin a new life where the cows graze on the “sour grass” of the mountain sides. Like St. Brid’s mother, this fair Brid, it is told, eventually returned to her native place, although the song doesn’t tell us, only local legend. The listener, however, can be assured of the veracity of these melancholy verses for in Bríd Óg Ní Mháille it says: “There is nothing more beautiful than the moon over the sea or the white blossom, and my love is like that with her golden tresses and her honey-mouth that has never deceived anybody.”

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La Ghirlandata. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). 1873. Oil on canvas. 124 x 85 cm. Guildhall Gallery, London. City of London Corporation.

Oh Bríd O’Malley
You have left my heart breaking 
You’ve sent the death pangs
Of sorrow to pierce my heart sore
A hundred men are craving
For your breathtaking beauty
You’re the fairest of maidens
In Oriel for sure

I’m a handsome young fellow
Who is thinking of wedlock
But my life will be shortened
If I don’t get my dear
My love and my darling
Prepare now to meet me
On next Sunday evening
On the road to Drum Slieve

‘Tis sadly and lonely
I pass the time on Sunday
My head bowed in sorrow
My sights heavy with woe
As I gaze upon the byways
That my true love walks over
Now she’s wed to another
And left me forlorn

(2.49 minutes).

Notes

  1. Topping the list of the 100 most popular girls’ names in Ireland today are Emily, Emma, Sophie, Ella, and Amelia, in that order. Mary ranks number 84 and Bridget is not even on the list. See – http://www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com/Irish-girl-names.html
  2. In 2015, within the family of girl names directly related to Brígh, Brianna was the most widely used. Brian is the male form of the name.
  3. http://edil.qub.ac.uk/6813 retrieved March 29, 2017.
  4. See Irish Saints, Robert T. Reilly, Avenel Books, New York, 1981, pp. 16-26.
  5. Carey, John. “Tuath Dé” inThe Celts: History, Life, and Culture, edited by John T. Koch. ABC-CLIO, 2012. pp.751-753.
  6. See The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, J.P. Mallory; D.Q. Adams, 2006, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  7. Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, edited by Peter Kennedy, Schirmer Books, New York, 1975, p. 82.

dun aengusDun Aengus, Aran Islands (Inishmore), Ireland. Prehistoric fort at the edge of a 100-meter (328 foot) cliff. Constructed around 1100 BC with its triple wall added about 500 BC.

©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.

John P. Walsh

Irish Folk Song: “Weile Weile Waila” as performed by The Dubliners.

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

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The Dubliners, ca. 1970 (left to right. top: Ciarán Bourke, Barney Mckenna, Luke Kelly; front: John Sheahan, Ronnie Drew).
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Craicing Selfie with Seán Bán Breathnach.
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The Casey Sisters (Nollaig Casey, Mairéad Ní Chathasaigh, and Irish harper Mairé Ní Chathasaigh). With UK acoustic guitarist Chris Newman, Mairé Ní Chathasaigh has performed in over 20 countries on 5 continents.
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The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem with bassist Bill Lee, ca. 1964. Photo: Don Hunstein.

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

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

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The River Saile that 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” pictured above. 

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.

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(“There was an old woman and she lived in the woods…”) 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.

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.