Musical Musings by David Harris and Dymphna Lonergan

Mondegreens are those misheard lyrics we’ve all experienced. In my childhood for the words ‘Holy Infant so tender and mild’ in the carol ‘Silent Night, I heard ‘Holy Dymphna so tender and mild’. My mother told me a story of when she was a child a certain hymn had the words ‘I will not sin again’. She misheard it for ‘I will not sing again’ and was perpetually puzzled when the congregation kept on singing while she remained silent.

Adelaide’s David Harris counts playing the Irish tin whistle and the flute as one of his ongoing pastimes. He began to learn Irish a few years ago in part to further enhance his learning of Irish tunes whose titles were often in that language. Now, David’s language study is informing his music. Recently he investigated a kind of mondegreen, but of a more sophisticated nature. Here are David’s musings on the macaronic song ‘Siúil a rúin’ and the ongoing puzzle of one of the line endings:

Remember Walton’s ‘If you feel like singing, do sing an Irish song’?

I play Irish flute and tin whistle in a couple of sessions around Adelaide. Part of my repertoire is the lovely song ‘Siúil a rúin’. The verses of this song are in English but the chorus is in Irish, with the last line of both in Irish. Clannad’s version on YouTube is one of the best. Typically, I learn new songs from YouTube, but I have found that the singers – or at least, the people who add the on-screen lyrics – are a bit free with both the Irish and their English versions.

The last line of both verses and chorus of Siúil a rúin’ is:

Is go dté tú mo mhuirnín slán

Literally, in English – ‘it’s to you my darling, goodbye’.

So clearly, the song is about a sad lovers’ parting.

A line in one of the verses can be found in two versions:

Siúil go doras agus éalaigh liom or

Siúil go doras agus éalaigh líon

Most of the singers on YouTube sing the first of these. In English it means:

Walk to the door and elope with me. This seems odd, given that the rest of the song has nothing to do with eloping, just about parting.

In English the second version (which I found on the internet) means:

Walk to the door and keep on going (using a bit of poetic license)

Another line which is a bit puzzling is:

I’ll sell my rock, I’ll sell my reel, I’ll sell my only spinning wheel.

Why a rock? And the reel – a fishing reel? What about a rod and a reel? But this is a woman singing, and women would not be going fishing.

Let’s try substituting a couple of Irish words:

Instead of rock, try Irish roth – a wheel, in particular the wheel of a spinning wheel. In some dialects its pronunciation is quite close to the English ‘rock’.

And ríl – a reel, part of a spinning wheel.

The original bilingual line may have been

I’ll sell my roth, I’ll sell my ríl, and later misheard as ‘I’ll sell my rock…’. A true modegreen!

I have had pointed out to me even stranger versions of ‘Siúil a rúin’ . In its most sung version, it is a powerful and poignant song. The lovers part, he with his new sword, and off he goes to France. She acknowledges that ‘if he returns t’will be by chance’. Other versions just seem to try to create a happier ending (he comes back, they elope and presumably live happily ever after) but I find this sugary, and degrading to the pathos of the original.

As is often the case, although the song dates back to the 18th century no-one is sure of an ‘original’ version. As it is rated ‘traditional’ and its author ‘anonymous’, I guess anyone’s version is legitimate. If I had my druthers I’d take the Clannad version and substitute líon for liom!

Dymphna is a member of Tinteán’s editorial collective. David Harris is a regular contributor to Tinteán’s poetry collection.

2 thoughts on “Musical Musings by David Harris and Dymphna Lonergan

  1. Although ‘líon’ can mean ‘yarn’ (as in the stuff you put on a spinning wheel, rather than a story you spin), it makes no sense in the context of the sentence, so is simply wrong I would have thought.

    I have always understood ‘Siúil go doras agus éalaigh liom’ as ‘come to the door and escape with me’ rather than elope, although ‘éalaigh’ does carry both those meanings’. I took ‘…to France to try his fortune to advance’ to mean that he was going to war. Many an Irishman went to war for the money and food. She of course mentions selling the tools of her trade and fortune to procure him a sword. Therefore, the ‘escape with me’ was a plaintive cry to leave their situation/life and be together elsewhere where there may be more opportunity for them to survive without the risk and horror of a foreign war.

    She’ll beg for her bread to make him stay, even though it will shame her and her parents.

    A rock was also used as an early spindle I believe to provide tension via gravity for the thread, so I don’t think that is wrong.

    Whatever the case, a fantastic song.

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