Carrickfergus – the song of mystery
Carrickfergus is a great but unusual song because, although it is undoubtedly an integral part of the Irish folk tradition, there seems to be no reliable reference to it before it was recorded by Dominic Behan in the mid 1960s.
Behan said he had learned the first and third verses of the song from the actor Peter O’Toole, who considered it one of the best of the great Irish ballads. Behan claimed to have written the second verse himself.
The mystery is, where did Peter O’Toole get the song from?
Carrickfergus has no clear historical lineage
Carrickfergus is thought to have been based on a Gaelic song called Do bhi bean uasal which dates from the 18th century.
Over the next two hundred years it may have resurfaced in various macaronic formats, in which English and Gaelic words are interspersed.
This was sometimes done to create witty wordplay between the two languages but it could also simply reflect the fact that for many people, the two languages co-existed side by side.
Many variations of the “water is wide” theme
However, prior to the 1960s, there was no known version of Carrickfergus that could be seen as a forerunner of the Behan/O’Toole offering. Behan was not slow to claim authorship of songs so it is unlikely that he wrote it and then attempted to pass it off as a folk song.
O’Toole had no song writing background so it’s unlikely that it had anything to do with him, which brings us back to the question, where did it come from?
Did O’Toole preserve an otherwise forgotten song?
It may be that O’Toole inadvertently helped to preserve a song that might otherwise have been overlooked and forgotten.
If he did so, it’s likely that his memory may not have been all that accurate.
One of the intriguing things for many people listening to Carrickfergus is that the lyrics don’t always seem to follow as might be expected – even allowing for the inconsistencies that often appear in folk songs that have been handed down as part of an oral tradition for hundreds of years.
What does “only for nights in Ballygran” actually mean?
For example, the opening line is: “I wish I was in Carrickfergus, only for nights in Ballygran.” The first part about Carrickfergus is fine, but what does the second part mean?
It doesn’t seem to mean anything and one possible explanation is that O’Toole, or Behan or whoever passed on the song, may not have remembered the words correctly and so glossed over them.
I would swim over the deepest ocean
The second line brings us into familiar territory involving water keeping him apart from his love but then it gets a little strange again.
As in most “water is wide” songs, he wishes for a boat to ferry him over to his love but it is expressed in a strange way: “to ferry me over to my love and die.” Does he mean he wants to be ferried over to see his love once more so he can die in peace? It is not convincing.
Are Carrickfergus anomalies down to mishearings?
Again, could the explanation be a mishearing? Other lyrics in similar songs have lines like: “Give me a boat that will carry two, and both shall row my love and I.” The last two words, “and I,” make sense in this version but they could easily could be misheard as “and die,” in the O’Toole/Behan version.
Behan’s second verse is consistent and straightforward
Behan claimed to have written the second verse and there is no reason to doubt him. On the contrary, his claim is supported by the fact that the second verse is consistent and contains none of the anomalies of the other two verses which may have been modified over hundreds of years.
These inconsistencies are particularly marked in the third verse.
They’ve marble stones as black as ink
The third and final verse refers to marble stones in Kilkenny, supporting his love with gold and silver before suddenly announcing that the singer will perform no more until he gets a drink.
The song then takes a dramatic shift in mood as we discover that the singer is seldom sober and believes that his days are numbered and he hasn’t long to live. These appear as disconnected thoughts and may be a truncated version of an earlier, longer lyric.
Carrickfergus – a great but incomplete song
Carrickfergus is a great but possibly incomplete song. Whether the O’Toole link to its discovery is right or not, it seems likely that what has now become the generally accepted lyric is in fact an inaccurate recollection of a fuller and more consistent earlier version.
Not that any of these issues have done much to affect the popularity of Carrickfergus. For all their faults, the lyrics still conjure up a sense of sadness and nostalgia and when coupled with such a beautiful, soaring melody, the effect is quite magical.
It is a song that moves people deeply and it is little wonder that it has become one of the most popular of all Irish ballads.
Recordings of Carrickfergus across the world
Carrickfergus has been recorded by numerous artists across the world. The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers both recorded what many people consider the definitive versions and it has also been covered by Loreena McKennitt, De Dannan, Orla Fallon, Loudon Wainwright, and Van Morrison with The Chieftains.
Pop stars Ronan Keating and Bryan Ferry have also recorded the song, and Joan Baez helped to make it popular in America. The Welsh singer Charlotte Church also recorded Carrickfergus when she was still a teenager, the words being sanitised to suit her tender years at the time.