No Irish sing-along is complete without a rendition of Spancil Hill.
Heading off to ‘The Fair of Spancil Hill’
Its subject matter is a familiar one in the Irish ballad tradition: emigration. It tells of the longing an immigrant has for his home in Spancil Hill in the county of Clare.
The name of Spancil Hill comes from the ancient horse fair that takes place there every June. Spancilling was an old and rather cruel practice in which a rope was used to tie a horse’s left foreleg to its right hind leg in order to stop it from wandering off.
The ballad of Spancil Hill was written by Michael Considine who did wander off. Born in Spancil Hill in 1850, Considine took himself off across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a better life at the age of 20.
Considine spent his first few years of emigration in Boston before moving west to follow the gold rush in California. He fell into bad health at the very young age of 23 and it was during this time that he wrote the poem of Spancil Hill which then turned into a ballad. Considine did not see past his 23 years and died in 1873.
Johnny McAvoy’s rendition of the famous ballad complete with the lyrics.
Before he succumbed to death he managed to send his ballad to his six-year-old nephew John Considine in Clare who kept it safe.
In the ballad, we hear the emigrant pine for the girl he left behind. In Michael Considine’s case, he left Spancil Hill for America with the intention of bringing his sweetheart over when he had made enough money but, sadly it never materialised.
As is the case with many folk ballads, it’s real lyrics have been altered over the years. In the 1940s while renowned folk singer Robbie McMahon was at a music session in Spancil Hill, he was approached by a woman who identified herself as a relative of Michael Considine and handed McMahon the original lyrics of the ballad.
In the original lyrics of Spancil Hill, the emigrant tells of his heartbreak of leaving a girl, ‘Mack the Rangers daughter.’ The real story is that her name was Mary MacNamara who lived near the Considines at Spancil Hill. Over the years as the lyrics changed so too did her identity. Some versions refer to her as Mag or Nell the farmer’s daughter.
The song plays out as a dream the emigrant is having of his home in Ireland and the people he left behind. We meet his friends and family such as a tailor named Quigley who in real life lived near the Considines and made their shoes but, it is his sweetheart that he enjoys meeting the most yet their union is short lived as the emigrant is woken from his dream and he realises he is in California, many miles from Spancil Hill.
Just like the ballad he wrote, Considine’s story also ends on a rather sad note. He died never seeing the girl he wanted to wed and she, in turn, decided to live her life mourning him and never married.
Some of Michael’s siblings also took the ship to America but some stayed behind, including his brother Patrick who died young and left a widow and five-month-old son named John. It was this same John to whom Michael sent his ballad of Spancil Hill before he died, thus ensuring its permanent place in Ireland‘s folk ballad tradition.
Courtesy of Pauline Murphy. Irish Central.