Putting a poem to music is an old folk tradition, one that I have written about elsewhere (see the posts about Victor Jara and Joe Hill). The poem “Spancilhill” was written by an ordinary Irish worker who emigrated to the United States in the late 19th century. It was Michael Considine’s intention to save enough money to bring his sweetheart to the new world so they could get married and start a family.
Considine’s biographic details are sketchy, which is common amongst people of his class and era. The only reason he is known to history at all is this poem. He was in his early 20s when he left his home in County Clare and travelled across the sea, and he became very ill after a few years. When he realised he was dying, he wrote “Spancillhill” and sent it home.
The poem was kept safe by his family, and the authentic version came to the County Clare-born Irish singer Robbie McMahon several decades later.
Jim Carroll tells it this way:
“The story goes that, in the late 1930s or early ’40s, Robbie McMahon announced he was going to sing ‘Spancilhill’, when the woman of the house, Moira Keane, a relative of Michael Considine, handed Robbie McMahon the original text of the song saying “If ye are going to sing that song ye might as well sing it right.” This text was confirmed some time later, around 1953, at another session, when Robbie was asked to sing it and a local man first resisted him, saying: ‘Don’t sing that song’. When asked why not, the old man replied, ‘because ye don’t know it’. Robbie sang the song anyway using the version given to him by Moira Keane.
As he got into the song, he noticed the old man paying more attention, fiddling with his cap and looking a little flustered. When the song was finished the old man asked: ‘Where did you get that song?’ McMahon told him and the old man seemed both perturbed and pleased at the same time. The old man was John Considine, the nephew of the songs’ composer. John was seventy-six at that time and had kept his uncle’s song safe for seventy years. He gave his approval to Robbie’s performance after hearing that he had sung the original version.”
If you like your stories musically told, I recommend track 7 on this playlist– Robbie McMahon’s “Myself and Spancil Hill.” (You can also listen to his version of “Spancillhill” itself). Robbie McMahon’s lyrics are the ones reprinted below.
by Michael Considine
Last night as I lay dreaming, of the pleasant days gone by,
My mind being bent on rambling and to Erin’s Isle I did fly.
I stepped on board a vision and sailed out with a will,
‘Till I gladly came to anchor at the Cross of Spancilhill.
Enchanted by the novelty, delighted with the scenes,
Where in my early childhood, I often times have been.
I thought I heard a murmur, I think I hear it still,
‘Tis that little stream of water at the Cross of Spancilhill.
And to amuse my fancy, I lay upon the ground,
Where all my school companions, in crowds assembled ’round.
Some have grown to manhood, while more their graves did fill,
Oh I thought we were all young again, at the Cross of Spancilhill.
It being on a Sabbath morning, I thought I heard a bell,
O’er hills and vallies sounded, in notes that seemed to tell,
That Father Dan was coming, his duty to fulfill,
At the parish church of Clooney, just one mile from Spancilhill.
And when our duty did commence, we all knelt down in prayer,
In hopes for to be ready, to climb the Golden Stair.
And when back home returning, we danced with right good will,
To Martin Moylan’s music, at the Cross of Spancilhill.
It being on the twenty third of June, the day before the fair,
Sure Erin’s sons and daughters, they all assembled there.
The young, the old, the stout and the bold, they came to sport and kill,
What a curious combination, at the Fair of Spancilhill.
I went into my old home, as every stone can tell,
The old boreen was just the same, and the apple tree over the well,
I miss my sister Ellen, my brothers Pat and Bill,
Sure I only met my strange faces at my home in Spancilhill.
I called to see my neighbors, to hear what they might say,
The old were getting feeble, and the young ones turning grey.
I met with tailor Quigley, he’s as brave as ever still,
Sure he always made my breeches when I lived in Spancilhill.
I paid a flying visit, to my first and only love,
She’s as pure as any lilly, and as gentle as a dove.
She threw her arms around me, saying Mike I love you still,
She is Mack the Rangers daughter, the Pride of Spancilhill.
I thought I stooped to kiss her, as I did in days of yore,
Says she Mike you’re only joking, as you often were before,
The cock crew on the roost again, he crew both loud and shrill,
And I awoke in California, far far from Spancilhill.
But when my vision faded, the tears came in my eyes,
In hope to see that dear old spot, some day before I die.
May the Joyous King of Angels, His Choicest Blessings spill,
On that Glorious spot of Nature, the Cross of Spancilhill.
There are of course many versions of this song by many (mostly Irish) singers (mostly, according to McMahon, wrong). I have picked this one because it is a wonderful duet, featuring two of my very favourites. You wouldn’t think Christy Moore and Shane McGowan would mesh, but they do.