Star of the County Down – love at first sight
The Star of the County Down is a story of love at first sight involving a young man who sees a beautiful young girl while out walking.
He first sees her as she walks down a boreen – a small country lane – one summer morning.
She has bare feet so she is a poor girl but that doesn’t diminish her beauty.
In fact, she is so stunning that the singer has to shake himself to make sure he is actually standing there and not dreaming.
The gem of Ireland’s crown
This girl is not just the Star of the County Down. She’s also considered to be the most beautiful girl in the whole of Ireland. When the singer asks a passer-by about her, he’s told that she’s “Rosie McCann from the banks of the Bann” and that she’s “the gem of Ireland’s crown”.
The chorus emphasises this as it sweeps the four corners of Ireland from “Bantry Bay up to Derry Quay and from Galway to Dublin town”. In none of these places, or anywhere in between, is there anyone to compete with the Star of the County Down.
She’d coax a spud from a hungry pig
There are many images and metaphors that have been used by writers to express a woman’s beauty but the Star of the County Down must sure have one of the most colourful ever.
We’re told she has lovely nut brown hair and soft brown eye, a lily-white throat and smile like a rose in June. All very nice but nothing compared to the wonderful Irish, agricultural, unashamedly peasant imagery encapsulated in these two memorable lines:
“when her eyes she’d roll she’d coax, on my soul,
A spud from a hungry pig.”
The singer tells us that no woman has ever enchanted him as much as this barefoot girl with the nut brown hair. His heart is surrendered instantly to the “charms of young Rosie McCann”.
Why doesn’t he approach Star of the County Down?
The singer doesn’t approach his newfound beauty despite being so smitten by her, or perhaps it’s because he is so smitten.
Instead, like many lovesick men before and since, he considers from afar how he might win her heart. He has our sympathy as he talks about going to the crossroads fair to impress her in his Sunday clothes. We can sympathise with him as he talks about making sheep’s eyes at her, but then he may lose us as he talks about telling her “deludhering lies” to win her heart. Is that any way to treat such a beauty!
A smiling bride by my own fireside
Whatever we think of his methods we can’t question his devotion. As soon as he sees her he vows that he will make her his bride.
He won’t yoke his horse or turn his plough; he won’t even smoke his pipe until he makes the Star of the County Down his bride and has her sitting by his fireside.
We never find out whether he wins the girl and makes her his bride. Perhaps he does, but perhaps, like many lovesick young men, he spends a long time planning his moves and never actually carries them out. We are left to make up our own minds.
The origins of the song
The melody is an old Irish ballad dating back hundreds of years. It was used for several songs, the best known perhaps being My Love Nell, before it became associated with the Star of the County Down.
The lyrics were written by Cathal Mac Garvey (1866 – 1927) who lived in Donegal. The first printed reference to the song is in Hughes’ Irish Country Songs.
Recordings of the Star of the County Down
The Star of the County Down has been recorded by numerous Irish performers including John McCormack, The Dubliners and The Irish Rovers. Van Morrison recorded a version with The Chieftains and it was also covered by the London-Irish band The Pogues.
The Serbian band The Orthodox Celts also had tremendous success with their recording of the song.
Variations on the Star of the County Down
The melody of the Star of the County Down has been used with several other songs including the hymn, Led by the Spirit. Loreena McKennitt also used the melody for her song, the Seven Rejoices of Mary, which features on her album, A Midwinter Night’s Dream, (find it here).
It was also well known as the ballad Dives and Lazarus, which was collected by the American scholar and folklorist, Francis James Child. He collected numerous ballads and folk songs which became known as the Child Ballads.
The ballads were published in five volumes between 1882 and 1898. Dives and Lazarus is listed as Child ballad 56. It was used by the English composer Vaughan Williams in his Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus.