The Ballad Singer - 11th Aug. 1945


The Ballad Singer: Text Version

11th August 1945


He strode down the village street, a big brave man of about fifty summers. The July sun had tanned him a deeper brown than even the most optimistic young lady had ever hoped to acquire from the repeated application of the most expensive bottle of "suntan." As he approached the centre of the village he slowed down. Finally he stood still unrolling a little sheaf of coloured papers in his hand. Next, and not without some ceremony, he removed his hat, looked hopefully up and down the deserted thoroughfare, cleared his throat twice, half closed his eyes, became lost to the world, and shattered the silence with an unexpected song.

"Bold Robert Emmet the darling of Erin,

Bold Robert Emmet will die with a smile;

Farewell companions both loyal and daring,

I'd lay down my life for my own Emerald Isle."

The mellow tones of the dust-covered singer worked like magic. Heads appeared out of doorways, and open-eyed youngsters gathered round the stranger in an admiring circle of fast increasing dimensions. The stir which his presence was causing in the village pleased him. He was a good singer and gave of his best. The heroic of Robert Emmet was more to him than the words of a song, and he sang the last chorus with a sadness and solemnity of one who, in the mind's eye, say the ghastly tragedy of Thomas Street.


After a second's pause he commenced "The Hills of Donegal," and, as the words were wafted on the evening air, you could almost sense the yearning of the exile for the blue peaks of Tir Chonaill.

"Oh hills of Donegal to me you ever call."

His audience continued to expand, and the closing notes of his second song were greeted with such waves of applause as well might have hailed the final rapturous flourish of a Gigli. A tiny voice piped an appeal for a third song, and the good-natured singer was only too eager to oblige. This time he went to Charles Kickham:

"She lived beside the Anner,

At the foot of Slievenamon.

A gentle Irish colleen,

With mild eyes like the dawn."

Having finished his third song he set about selling his wares, and many a polished penny out of a breeches pocket was handed to him in exchange for a green or yellow broadsheet. He passed down the street, and even when he didn't sell a ballad he usually received a little donation by way of gratitude for his entertainment. But singing is thirsty work, and the long white roads make one's throat dry as a limekiln. So no one was surprised when the ballad singer, having gleaned the street, strolled leisurely into the local pub. In their hearts all drank his health, and said "slainte" as he raised his glass. Having put a frothy pint inside his shirt (if he had one) he emerged once more, and journeyed on to the crossroads, where he halted for a moment. Like all shuilers who ever stood to think at a crossroads it could also be said by him:-

"D'fheach me soir, siar, o thuaidh, is o dheas.

Is d'iarr me ar Dhia me do chur ar mo leas."

He made his decision and struck the westward road that led to the next village, four miles away.


Long after he had gone the lads were comparing their ballads. One had secured "Master MacGrath," another "The Dingle Puck Goat." A lad with a foxy head was trying to find an air for:-

"My name is Pat O'Donnell,

I hail from Donegal,

I am you know a daring foe

To traitors one and all."

Somebody else was immensely proud of his copy of "Skibbereen." Two had received "The Queen of Connemara," and were singing at each other:-

"Oh she's neat; oh, she's sweet,

She's a beauty every line;

She's the Queen of Connemara,

That bounding barque of mine."

Fine old songs of the countryside all of the, it is indeed a pity that they are being treated with cold neglect to-day. They are a last link with a world that is the ballad singer in English to the Gaelic poets of the eighteenth century, to Eoghan Ruadh O Suilleabhain – Eoghan an Bheil Bhinn – the red haired singer who sang along the roads of Munster, aye, and further still, to the bards and minstrels of the Gaelic world that was. With their passing goes the melody and magic of the still sad music of humanity.

I often think of that ballad singer, and of all the ballad singers who sang for a while in the village streets and then bent their wandering steps over the hills and far away, leaving behind them only the fading echoes of their songs.

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