The beautiful folksong ‘Spancil Hill’ began life as a poem by Michael Considine (1850-1873), an Irish emigrant to the USA who went there in 1870 with the hope of earning enough money to pay passage for his sweetheart Mary MacNamara to come over and join him so that they could be married. But, dogged by ill health, he never managed to do this, and knowing that he had not long to live sent the poem home in remembrance of his love.
Now, in theory I feel that an author’s intentions ought to be respected and it is really not right to go around hijacking original poems and rewriting them. But when the folk tradition gets hold of something, what can you do? And the fact is that the version that has evolved seems to me a good deal better than the original, which is a bit prolix and religiose in places. Indeed, it is fascinating to watch the tradition at work, like a flowing stream smoothing and shaping a stone: here substituting a full rhyme for a clumsy half-rhyme, there quietly dropping lines about a golden stair to heaven and having the sense to dump the last pious stanza altogether and end with that poignant crowing of the cock, yet still preserving all that is essential about the poem, the fine specificity of its longing and heartache.
So, with apologies to Michael Considine, here is the folk version that I know best. For those interested, the original version, and a great deal of discussion about the song, can be found on the Mudcat site.
Last night as I lay dreaming of pleasant days gone by
My mind being bent on rambling to Ireland I did fly.
I stepped on board a vision and I followed with a will
And I shortly came to anchor at the cross of Spancil Hill.
It being the 23rd June the day before the fair
When Ireland’s sons and daughters in crowds assembled there,
The young and the old, the brave and the bold their duty to fulfill.
There were jovial conversations at the fair of Spancil Hill.
I went to see my neighbors to hear what they might say
The old ones were all dead and gone and the young ones turning grey.
I met with the tailor Quigley, he’s as bold as ever still
Sure he used to make my britches when I lived in Spancil Hill.
I paid a flying visit to my first and only love
She’s white as any lily and as gentle as a dove
She threw her arms around me saying ‘Johnny I love you still’.
Oh she’s Mack the Ranger’s daughter and the flower of Spancil Hill.
I dreamt I held and kissed her as in the days of yore.
She said, ‘Johnny you’re only joking as many’s the time before’.
The cock crew in the morning, he crew both loud and shrill.
I awoke in Californi-ay, many miles from Spancil Hill.