The subject of love songs comes up fairly frequently on Irish language forums. Usually the topic is brought up by a visitor: “Can you give me the titles of some happy Irish Gaelic love songs?”
Sometimes the visitor has a specific song in mind…perhaps something he or she has heard at a concert or on a CD. For example:
“I just heard An Mhaighdean Mhara (The Sea Maiden) and it’s so beautiful! I want it sung at my wedding! Can you give me a translation? It must be a wonderful love song!”
Well, it is beautiful, and it’s a love song of a sort, but it’s probably not something you’d want sung at your wedding (more on this in a little bit).
The problem is, most Irish love songs aren’t happy at all. Some are humorous; some are sad; many are downright tragic.
It’s not just the Irish
Of course it’s not only the Irish who have love songs that are…well…somewhat less than romantic. Themes of loss, betrayal, obsession, and disillusionment are rife in the folk tradition:
Write me a letter, send it by mail/Send it in care of the Birmingham Jail.
Sweet William died of love for me/ and I will die of sorrow.
But love grows old and waxes cold/then fades away like morning dew.
Your true love John lies dead and gone/on the lonely banks of Yarrow.
Plenty of angst to go around in the folk tradition, no matter what country it hales from!
But there’s a difference
Most folk music traditions, though, have what we might call “happy love songs.” For example, songs that praise the virtue of the beloved:
Drink to me only with thine eyes, and I will pledge with mine/Or leave a kiss within the cup, and I’ll not ask for wine.
Songs of hope:
And fare thee well, my only Luve/ And fare thee well, a while! /And I will come again, my Luve, /Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.
Songs that celebrate the joy of love in the moment:
Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine/I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine.
The Irish Gaelic song tradition seems curiously lacking in this kind of love song.
A sorrowful edge
Love songs in the Gaelic sean-nós (“old style”) tradition are different in that even the most optimistic of them seems to have a sorrowful edge.
For example, the singer praises the virtue of the beloved, and in the same breath, laments his or her unattainability, as in An Cailín Álainn (The Beautiful Girl):
Tá cailín álainn a dtug mé grá dí/’Sí is-deise ‘s is-áille ná bláth na rós./Gan í ar láimh liom is cloíte atá mé./A chailín álainn, is tú fáth mo bhrón.
(There is a beautiful girl to whom I’ve given my love/She’s lovelier and more beautiful than the bloom of the rose./Without her in my arms, I am desolate./O beautiful girl, you’re the cause of my sorrow.)
There’s almost always the sense that the singer’s true love is unattainable. He or she may not return the singer’s love, or may be promised to another.
In some cases, the loved one is unattainable because he or she has died, emigrated, or been deported. Sometimes the family objects, as in Casadh an tSúgáin (Twisting the Straw Rope):
Gur casadh mé isteach mar a raibh searc/Is grá geal mo chléibh/Is chuir an tseanbhean amach mé/Ag casadh an tsúgáinín féir.
(I came into where my love was/And the bright love of my heart/And the old woman put me outside/Twisting the little straw rope)
Sometimes we don’t know what happened to the loved one. Has he died? Did he marry someone else? Did he ever share the singer’s love in the first place? Consider Fear a’ Bháta (The Boatman):
Théid mé suas ar an cnoc is airde/Féach an bhfeic mé fear a’ bháta./An dtig tú anocht, nó an dtig tú amárach?/Nó muna dtig thú is trua atá mé.
(I went up to the highest hill/To see if I could see the boatman./Will you come tonight, or will you come tomorrow?/If you don’t come, I will be sad.)
Sometimes it happens that the singer’s beloved isn’t a human at all, but one of the fairy folk.
For example, in the aforementioned An Mhaigdean Mhara (The Sea Maiden), the woman is a merrow, or selkie: A seal that can take the form of a human while on land.
In legend, if the merrow’s skin is captured while she’s on land, she must remain with whoever has it. But if she ever regains her skin, or touches salt water, she must return to the sea forever.
In the song, the merrow woman’s human husband and daughter call out to her in grief as she re-enters the sea, never to return:
“A mháthairín dhílis!” duirt Máire bhán/Fá bhruach an chladaigh is fá bhéal na trá/”Is maighdean mhara mo mháthairín ard!”/Siud chugaibh Mary Chinidh is í i ndhiaidh an Eirne shnámh.
(“O my dear mother!” said fair Máire/From the bank of the strand and from the mouth of the beach/”My beloved mother is a merrow!”/Thus is Mary Chinidh after swimming the Erne.)
(Still want that one at your wedding?)
Why so sorrowful?
Given that all cultures have plenty of sad love songs, why is it that they seem to predominate in the Irish Gaelic song tradition?
Marriage for love was certainly not a part of early Gaelic culture. People married for wealth or for status, to cement relationships between clans, or to secure heirs…love really wasn’t part of the equation.
But that’s true of most other cultures as well. I suspect that at least part of the reason for the predominance of sad loves songs in traditional Irish culture lies in Ireland’s own troubled history.
In a time and place where war, poverty, injustice, famine, deportation, and emigration are the norm, lost love is a bleak reality…and that has been the situation for much of Ireland’s history.
Such a situation also breeds a certain ruthless practicality when it comes to love and marriage. Often marriage has much more to do with survival and stability than with love.
In fact, arranged marriages remained quite common in parts of Ireland right up through the 19th century.
Are there no happy Irish love songs, then?
I wouldn’t go that far. They’re out there. But you can’t necessarily tell them by their tunes (often the loveliest Irish airs accompany the saddest songs, and a happy, bouncy tune may well tell of a tragedy!)
One very well-known Irish love song, Eibhlín A Rún (Eibhlín My Love, often Anglicized to “Eileen Aroon”) has quite a happy ending.
After the singer declares his love for Eibhlín, he asks her “will you come [with me] or will you stay?” She replies:
Tiocfaidh mé is ní fhanfaidh mé/Tiocfaidh mé is ní fhanfaidh mé/Tiocfaidh mé is ní fhanfaidh mé/Is éalóidh mé le mo stór.
(I will come and I will not stay/I will come and I will not stay/I will come and I will not stay/And I will escape with my love.)
Sometimes true love wins out in the end…even in Ireland!
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