I listened to young Cathal Clarke in the Bridge Grill Bar last Sunday night. Cathal, from Ardoyne, is an accomplished ballad singer with a wide repertoire of mainly Irish songs. He put in a marathon session of over two hours. The bar was by no means packed. Many of his offerings drew little response but occasionally a ripple of applause would emanate from different corners.

It was obvious that most people present were appreciative of his singing. What struck me was the currency of the old Irish songs and how they have become woven into the fabric of the nation. Each ballad has a story. Love, emigration and the desire for freedom are ever-present ingredients in many of the songs.

When Handel first heard Eileen Aroon he told his friends that he would rather have written it than any of his great oratorios. This song has survived from the thirteenth century. It was written by Carroll O’Daly from Sligo who was inspired by his love of Eileen Kavanagh, daughter of of a local chieftain. Her parents did not approve of O’Daly and when he was absent from Sligo – he was a travelling musician – they persuaded her that his interests lay elsewhere and that he had forgotten her. They conveniently provided an alternative rival and plans were made for the wedding. O’Daly returned from his travels and found himself barred. In his grief he composed Eileen Aroon. He did not give up his pursuit and joined in the pre-wedding festivities disguised as a harper. He sang his love song to his beloved Eileen. She recognised his voice and when the singer pleaded that she come with him she indicated that she would. ‘Céad míle fáilte, Eileen Aroon,’ sang O’Daly to finish his song.


The famine years gave us many ballads which have lasted over 150 years. Recently I heard a rendition of The Irish Emigrant sometimes known as I’m Sitting on the Stile, Mary.

It was written by Lady Helen Dufferin, after whom Helen’s Bay is named. It’s said she was walking along a country road near Killyleagh when she saw a young man sitting on a stile which led to a graveyard. It was obvious that he was suffering great grief. She stopped to speak to him and was overcome by his story. His name was Phelim Magennis and he had married the lovely Patricia McAnulty three years earlier. Tragically she and her young child were struck with cholera. They were buried in the little graveyard. Phelim decided to emigrate to America and was bidding his farewell.

I'm bidding you a long farewell,

My Mary, kind and true.

But I’ll not forget you darling,

In the land I'm going to.

They say there's bread and work for all,

And the sun shines always there,

But I'll not forget old Ireland,

Were it fifty times as fair.”

Lady Dufferin died in 1867, the year Tim Sullivan penned God Save Ireland, which was inspired by the Manchester Martyrs. A raid on a police van to release two Fenian prisoners resulted in the death of a police sergeant. Three men, William Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien, were convicted and hanged on November 23, 1867 in front of a crowd of 10,000.

This execution sent shock waves throughout Ireland. During the trial another defendant, who was later reprieved as he was an American citizen, Edward O’Meaghar Condon, addressed the court and cried out, “God Save Ireland!”

Sullivan used these words as his first line and the poem was set to the marching tune Tramp, Tramp, Tramp and became the unofficial anthem of Ireland for nearly 50 years.

Cathal sings many other songs with great sensitivity. The Fields of Athenry always brings a good response but his rendition of Patrick Kavanagh's Raglan Road is so evocative. “The Queen of Hearts was making tarts and I not making hay.”