She moved through the fair – strange and mystical
She Moved Through the Fair is probably one of the most ancient of Irish folk songs yet is immensely popular with contemporary singers and modern day audiences.
It has a strange, mystical sounding melody and tells the story of a young man and the beautiful woman he hopes to marry. Unfortunately for him, he is destined to be disappointed.
It will not be long now until our wedding day
The first verse opens optimistically with the young woman assuring her suitor that her parents won’t slight him or mind his lack of wealth. She then leaves him but first assures him that it won’t be long until their wedding day.
The young man watches her leave as she moves through the fair and makes her way homeward. She has beauty and elegance, and glides along as the “swan in the evening moves over the lake”.
That was the last I saw of my dear
The wedding theme continues in the third verse though it has a melancholy twist. There’s a comment that “no two were e’er wed but one has a sorrow that never was said”.
We’re still absorbing the negative sentiment when we hear of the young woman smiling to passersby as she makes her way homeward. The end of the first verse then takes us by surprise as we hear that the young man never sees her again.
Last night she came to me – is she still alive?
We are not told what happened to her but we hear that the young man dreams that she visits him and lays her hand on him. Again she reassures him that it “will not be long love, till our wedding day”.
In some versions of the song, including one of the earliest recordings by John McCormack, we are told that the woman is dead and so it is her ghost that visits the young man rather that it just being a dream.
Were there more verses to She Moved Through the Fair?
One explanation for the incomplete narrative in the song is that some verses may be missing. It’s a very old song, possibly dating back to medieval times.
It would not be unusual for verses to be modified or discarded over time. Audiences were familiar with stories of loss and heartbreak and could fill in the gaps themselves. Also, the beauty of the melody and the general sense of melancholy in the lyrics is enough to make the song satisfying and complete.
Our wedding day – a song with a similar lyric
There is another Irish folk song called Our Wedding Day which has a similar lyric. One verse is very close to She Moved Through the Fair.
Then I dreamt last night that my love came in,
And she walked up so soft that her feet made no din.
I thought that she spoke and those words she did say,
It won’t be long now, love, till our wedding day.
This version gives more information about how the couple broke up. She arranges to meet him at midnight but when he arrives at her room, he finds that she has escaped though the window and eloped with another man. In spite of the rejection, he still loves her and dreams about her returning.
Origins of She Moved Through the Fair
The song is undoubtedly very old but it wasn’t widely known outside the Irish oral tradition until it was first collected by Padraic Colum from Donegal at the start of the 20th century. It was then published in 1909 by Boosey and Hawkes.
Colum was a poet and writer as well as a collector of traditional songs, and it’s likely that he rewrote and edited the original to make it more appealing (in his eyes) to contemporary audiences.
The fact that he was a writer might also have made it impossible for him to resist the temptation of “improving” it and putting his own stamp on it. This could also account for why some verses may have been removed.
Recordings of She Moved Through the Fair
The song has attracted the attention of a host of modern performers ranging from folk singers to pop and rock stars. Notable recordings have been made by Art Garfunkel, Loreena McKennitt, Cara Dillon, Van Morrison with The Chieftains, Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention, Odetta, Charlotte Church and many more.
Sinead O’Connor also recorded a beautiful version of the song which was then used on the soundtrack of the film Michael Collins.
Instrumental versions by rock guitarists
She Moved Through the Fair has been performed as an unlikely showpiece guitar instrumental by several rock guitarists including Rory Gallagher and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin.
Davey Graham was one of the first great acoustic guitarists to do an instrumental version of the song. Graham used the DADGAD guitar tuning which adds extra harmonic depth. Other great guitarist like Bert Jansch also recorded instrumental versions using similar techniques.