Most Irish traditional tunes have names. Some go by many different names. So what’s in a name? Do names help us associate tunes with people, or remember vast numbers of melodies… or is there another agenda afoot? In this episode, Colm Gannon, Nic Gareiss, Mick Moloney—and renowned 20th century literary figures Dick and Jane—explore the meaning behind the names.
Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Michael Maggs, Matt Jensen, Paul DeCamp, Gerry Corr, Jonathan Duvick, Sean Carroll, Brian Benscoter, Isobel McMahon, Mike O’Malley, Mike Voss, Finian McCluskey, John Ploch, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, Chris Murphy, Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, David Vaughan, Suezen Brown, Bob Suchor, and Tom Frederick.
Episode 62-Daughters, Maids, and Boys
Considering bonny, hale and hearty Irish tunes
This Irish Music Stories episode aired July 19, 2022
Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories
>> Nic Gareiss: Michigan-born acclaimed dancer, musician, and dance researcher
>> Mick Moloney: Limerick-born folklorist/musician and National Heritage Fellow who has taught at universities, directed festivals and arts tours, and recorded and produced numerous albums
>> Colm Gannon: Massachusetts born accordion player from a musical family who toured with Riverdance, lived in Clare, and opened a traditional music shop in Connemara.
>> Shannon: I’m Shannon Heaton, and this is Irish music Stories. The show about traditional music…
…and the bigger stories behind it.
[ Music: “Fisherman’s Lilt,” from Heathery Breeze
Artist: Matt Molloy ]
Like what’s up with all the tunes names?
A tune can be called anything.
And the same tune can go by many names.
Take Redican’s Mother: that’s the name of a slip jig in D. Well, that’s what I call it. I learned it in sessions along the way, but I think I have it originally from an album that Galway flute player Jack Coen made with his brother, Father Charlie Coen in 1977. Apparently they learned it from fellow New York musician Larry Redican: he got it from his mom, who was originally from Sligo and played flute and tin whistle (She lived to be 104.)
So I call it Redican’s Mother. But a lot of people know this tune as Ryan’s Slip Jig. Others call it the Fisherman’s Lilt. I’ve also heard it called the Whinny Hills of Leitrim, and the Blackhaired Lass. And back in 1800, O’Farrell called it Trealock Lauder in his Pocket Companion.
Then there’s Gan Ainm, which means without a name. That one gets around. Especially because Irish music is learned by ear, often in social settings. So it’s easy to pick up a tune in, say, the middle of a session… and never get a name or much context for it.
I guess for me it matters less what the name is, and more that I have the tune, and some sort of association with it. But names can be a handy way to place tunes; to remember them and who taught them to you… a great way to pass them on.
[ Music: “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched,” from Get Up the Yard
Peter Staunton & Niamh Varian-Barry ]
I suppose a tune name can set a tone. Like “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched.” It’s a moody little slip jig. And maybe it feels a bit darker thinking of poor Larry due to be hung the next morning.
Or a tune like “Off She Goes!” I guess I could imagine seeing a boat push off… Off she goes!
[ Music: “Off She Goes” ]
Or watching an active kid run to meet some friends on the playground… Off she goes!
[ Music: “D Chimes,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
A name can put a little personality and a vibe on a tune. And naming tunes after charming, attractive people—well, when you have a whole index of these kind of tunes, you start to set a scene. It can kind of convey a time, or a mood, or a culture.
The Shoemaker’s Daughter, the Milliner’s Daughter, McFadden’s Handsome Daughter…
The Gatehouse Maid, the Sligo Maid, the Maid on the Green…
The Boys of Bluehill, the Boy on the Hilltop, the Boys of the Town…
I imagine these watercolor illustrations of darling children strolling down grassy paths, carrying bundles of flowers, or pails of milk.
[ Music: “Meaning of Life,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
Maybe they pass a napping boy whose face is hidden under a straw hat; but his little slingshot is peeking out of his pocket.
Or maybe that’s what’s in my head, because I just saw some Dick and Jane books when I was teaching at the excellent O’Flaherty Irish Music Youth Camp. The books were not part of the Irish music camp. They were just on display in several rooms at the church we were using for the event. But I’m gonna go ahead and weave them into this episode of Irish Music Stories.
Yep. I’m going to dwell, in this month’s episode, on a couple of these impossibly cheerful (dare I say, cloyingly named) tunes: McFadden’s Handsome Daughter…the Maid on the Green… the Boys of the Town.
* * * *
[ Music: “Dark Low Jig,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
So after the Texas camp, on my plane ride from Dallas back home to Boston, I was one of the only travellers still wearing an N95 face mask. Doesn’t really seem like much to talk about: I’m wearing it. It’s obvious. It’s kind of boring.
But as I made my way to seat 12C, the big guy in 11B felt the need to comment. “Hey, little lady! I’ll bet you’re real pretty under your mask.” And then he coughed on his seat partner.
I did not respond. I just folded into my seat, and opened my book, and ignored him. He lost interest. But it took me a while to turn my mind away from that exchange. I mean, he objectified me. He mocked me. And he might have coughed some Covid, or flu, or cold, or RSV, or pox, or bad breath into our shared space. Or onto his Christian Youth Group tee shirt.
Yeah. Either he used to be in a Christian Youth Group as a really big kid. Or his kids go to one. Or he teaches one? Does he read those Dick and Jane books to them? Do people at the church where the Irish Music Youth Camp was held read those books to the Sunday School kids? Or do they just think the pictures will promote something wholesome?
Well, the camp had nothing to do with those books. It was about playing jigs and reels together. We were in this church. Filled with jigs and reels. Dick and Jane. And a Luck o’ the Irish St. Patrick’s Day poster left over from March.
[ Music: “St Patrick’s Day,” from Cover The Buckle
Artists; Seán Clohessy, Sean Mccomiskey, And Kieran Jordan ]
When Patrick and other saints came to Ireland back in the 5th century, they established a religion and a Christian Church built on existing Celtic traditions. It was sort of an Irish spirituality that fused existing beliefs and customs with the practice of Catholicism.
In the 12th century, church reforms took most of the organizing power from the different local communities and gave it to a small group of bishops. Then Henry VIII declared himself head of the English Church, which also controlled Ireland. And noom: Independence — and existing traditions were out. People caught speaking the Irish language and playing Irish music were persecuted.
So Irish people used the religion that they’d been handed. And with Catholicism, they united to gain more independence from British imperialism. They used it to reinvent a Gaelic culture and to create a national identity. At least, one rosy-cheeked notion of nationalism.
In 1926, Eamon DeValera organized an opposition party to help sever ties to Great Britain for 26 counties of Ireland. He went on to serve as Taoiseach and then President of the Republic. And in 1943 he described his vision of an ideal Ireland. He says,
>> Nic: The Ireland we’d always dreamed of where there’s the laughter of comely maidens, the contests of athletic youths, the romping of sturdy children
This is dancer, musician, and researcher Nic Gareiss.
>> Nic: This paints a very particular gendered perspective and say nothing of the kind of unwaged labor when families are involved. And the expectation that when people in Ireland, people who perform female gender came to get married, their work career was over, until very recently in the constitution.
[ Music: “Triumph Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Shannon: DeValera’s big “IRELAND THAT WE DREAMED OF” speech came just a few years after the Constitution of Ireland recognized that “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.”
Officially, woman gave to the Irish State at home until 2021, when that article was amended to recognize other caregivers and to reframe domestic labor.
[ Music: “The Whistler at the Wake/The Humours Of Glynn,” from Notes from the Heart
Artist: Mick, Louise & Michelle Mulcahy ]
Now just one year later in the United States, where we also have a strong tradition of playing Irish music, we’ve rolled back reproductive rights; we’ve expanded gun rights; and apparently we are still reading Dick and Jane.
Zerna Sharp created Dick and Jane in 1930. She designed the format and content, and plugged in William Gray’s methods of teaching literacy. Eleanor Campbell did most of the illustrations. And this collaborative venture was meant to help elementary school kids learn to read, and learn about white middle class people. Yeah, yeah, the very last edition in 1965 introduces one Black family, in one book. But whatever the agenda, reading Dick and Jane cannot be to instill a love of storytelling, or dynamic conversation, or diversity.
Like… Chapter one of OUR BIG BOOK starts with sandy-haired Dick.
[ Music: “Pound the Floor,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
He’s wearing a red jumper and khaki shorts. He’s lying in the leaves. And we read:
Next, we cut to blonde Jane in a green dress trying to roller skate and failing miserably:
Then very blonde Baby appears in a skirt and pink blouse, holding an oversized umbrella, which she then closes on herself:
Look and see.
Oh, oh, oh.
Maybe the big lad inSeat 11B Boy was reared on these books. Maybe he reads them to his grandkids, or his Bible Study Group. And those simple dialogs and watercolor kids are such a deep part of his inner life that he sees some chick with a black face mask on, and he just needs her to be Pretty Jane… or the Shoemaker’s Daughter… or the Red-haired Lass…or the Maid on the Green.
[ Music: “Maid on the Green,” from Live Session
Artists: Conal OGrada & John Wynne ]
Though it has such a generic title, this jig, The Maid on the Green is a surprisingly well travelled tune. It’s been popular in Ireland, Scotland, Cape Breton, and America for a long time. Henry Hudson printed it in The Dublin Monthly Magazine in March 1843. His title was “The Night of the Fun.” But it was the same tune.
County Leitrim piper and fiddler Stephen Grier was probably the first to call it “Maid on the Green” in print. He included it in Book 3 of his huge manuscript collection, published around 1883.
And then William Bradbury Ryan also published it in his 1883 Mammoth Collection.
[ Music: “G Chimes,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
And In 1885 fiddle player Ernest Kohler in Edinburgh included the jig in his Violin Repository. He called it “Trip to Dublin.” And because the Cape Breton tradition was built by displaced Scottish Highlanders in Canada, that’s what players there call the tune today.
Flute player and Chicago Police Captain Francis O’Neill included “Maid on the Green” in his Music of Ireland, which he published in 1903. He called it “Maid on the Green.” But then in his follow up book four years later, he called the same tune by its earlier title, “The Night of Fun.”
O’Neill said he thought it was known all over Ireland—including his boyhood home in County Cork. But when he visited Ireland 40 years after he’d left, he found that the competitors at the Munster Feis seemed to be unacquainted with the tune.
Well, the “Maid on the Green” has been around for a while and seems to have survived and circulated in the U.S. and Canada before re-rooting in Ireland. It’s a pretty solid little construction. And it’s more interesting than Dick and Jane’s Big Book. There’s a narrative flow.
There’s a question [sings first phrase]. And then an answer [sings second phrase]. It kind of goes somewhere. And that’s just the very beginning.
Francis O’Neill recorded piper Patsy Touhey playing the tune on a wax cylinder in 1904.
Ann McNulty also played the tune on melodeon. She was a seriously crafty Vaudeville performer who knew how to put on a show. Here she is playing the Maid on the Green in 1941, with her daughter dancing.
[ Tune: “Maid on the Green,”
>> Mick: This is high art, and it’s popular art, and it’s to some degree it’s traditional art, too. There’s recitations, songs, an Irish jig. This is variety. Variety theatre.
>>Shannon: This is banjo player and scholar Mick Moloney/
>> Mick: She looks like the Mae West of Irish music! [ Ann McNulty sings in background ]
She could be dressed for Carnegie Hall. They all could. And they’re on this tiny little stage. And in a way we should all have some variety in our program, whatever it is. Combining singing and dancing. And what comes after a fast song? Is it a slow song? Well sometimes it is.. You know the way it is…
>> Shannon: I learned a bit about Ma McNulty from banjo player and scholar Mick Moloney for Episode 26 of Irish Music Stories. And when I called accordion player Colm Gannon this afternoon—he was on his way to a gig—I asked him if he knew her version of Maid on the Green.
>> Colm: Hello! How ya doin’. I was driving down the highway and got a call off a good friend of mine, Shannon Heaton. Shannon asked me to play a tune called The Maid on the Green. So I gave it a shot and tried to play it in the kind of essence of Ma McNulty.
>> Shannon: Colm has hands on experience with this style. Literally. He has Ann McNulty’s actual instrument. He’s also worked with her recordings, and played those McNulty tunes with his dad John, who has a lot of the same old style approach that she did. But Colm doesn’t claim ownership of Ma McNulty’s box.
>> Colm: Who has Ma McNulty’s box? Who owns it? Well, nobody owns it. I’m custodian of it, thanks to Ted McGrath and the McNulty family. They gifted it to me. I’m never allowed to sell it. But I can gift it to somebody else. So I’m honored to have it, because she was one of the first entrepreneurial women musicians ever. She recorded over 200 tracks, and I have her box with the rhinestones and all that on it!
But I’m sitting here in a parking lot, behind the Druid, about to do a gig. And I hope the neighbors like it. But this is the Maid on the Green, a couple of times through, with a little bit of Ma McNulty flavor. And the box I’m playing here actually isn’t the Ma McNulty box, because I didn’t have it with me at the time when she had called. But it’s a box that I designed kinda based on that box. ‘Cuz Ma McNulty’s box wasn’t an easy box to play. Big square buttons. You’d need to have biceps in your fingers to play it. But, ah, my dad has no problem with it, all right. But this one has a little bit easier of a keyboard. So it goes to show what a powerful, strong woman she was in every which way.
I hope this does it a little bit of justice.
[ Music: “Maid on the Green,” from the Front Seat
Artist: Colm Gannon ]
>> Shannon: Like Ma McNulty, Colm Gannon is also a parent. I wonder if he’s every read Dick and Jane to his kid…
[ Music: “John’s Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
Now if anybody is digging in heels about these books—and claiming them as literacy tools, not storybooks, I think that’s a powerful point of consideration. What does it mean to be able to read words or read music notation? Hopefully it’s a tool to help with communication, and expression, and social intelligence and connection, right? So I think it really matters how we learn and teach one another.
A student can learn the Maid on the Green—and a student can also learn to read the tune notated in a book. But that doesn’t mean we need to reduce the tune to g – d – G in order to teach it. It means we pore over the notes and the content together—repetition, delight from the teacher AND the student, and soon you’re both playing the tune together, or reading the book together… and eventually, the newer reader or musician finds more confidence and independence.
I didn’t start my kid on Dick and Jane. We read clever, beautiful, excellent picture books… over and over and over again. Because of Lemony Snickett’s 13 Words, one of Nigel’s first words was haberdashery. Because of I am so Strong, we started going on forest walks becuase they are “Just the thing for the digestion.”
Elegant, funny books promote elegant, funny communicators and readers. Here’s my kid Nigel to acknowledge this month’s sponsors:
>> Nigel: Thank you to Michael Maggs, Matt Jensen, Paul DeCamp, Gerry Corr, Jonathan Duvick, Sean Carroll, Brian Benscoter, Isobel McMahon, Mike O’Malley, Mike Voss, Finian McCluskey, John Ploch, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, Chris Murphy, Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, David Vaughan, Suezen Brown, Bob Suchor, Tom Frederick, and Dick, Jane, and Baby.
Thank you. To kick in, please visit IrishMusicStories.org.
[ Music: “G Meditation,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
The Boys of the Town is another strong and sturdy G Major Jig, with a hearty title. There are several versions of The Boys of the Town. But the two main settings I know go like this [ sings first two phrases ]
PW Joyce included the first version in his collection from 1890.
Francis O’Neill had it in his 1903 Music of Ireland.
And here’s Frank O’Higgins & Sean O’Sullivan on fiddle recording it with the Colmcille Ceilidhe Band back in 1938.
[ Music: “Boys of the Town,” from 1938
Colmcille Ceilidhe Band with Frank O’Higgins & Sean O’Sullivan et al ]
The second version is in the first volume of the Roche Collection from 1912. It goes [ sings first two phrases ]
That feels like a pretty different tune. There’s more overlap in the second part though. But it’s just the last two phrases. [ sings last two phrases ]
This is Kitty Hayes, who was from Clare, playing the second “Boys of the Town” on concertina. She called the tune “Down the Back Lane.”
They’re both called the Boys of the Town. And the first one seems especially popular among Cape Breton players. Here’s Wendy McIsaac playing it Cape Breton style.
The Boys of the Town
The Boy in Seat 11B.
The Maid on the Plane.
In addition to the Boys, and Maids, and Lasses tunes, there are a number of celebrated daughters of Irish music—the Collier’s Daughter, the Gardener’s Daughter, the Miller’s Daughter, and McFadden’s Handsome Daughter.
Unlike the Maid on the Green and the Boys of the Town, McFadden’s is not a double jig in G Major.
Instead, it’s a single three-part reel in A: it’s got one A part, one B part, and one C part.
[ Music: “McFadden’s Handsome Daughter,” from Molloy, Brady, Peoples
Artist: Matt Molloy & Paul Brady ]
It was flute player Matt Molloy’s version that I probably first imprinted on. And then when the band Solas recorded it in 1997, it started really making the rounds at sessions.
[ Music: “McFadden’s Handsome Daughter,”
Artist: Seamus Egan banjo with Solas ]
But well before groovy Solas, Francis O’Neill included the tune in his 1903 collection, connecting the name to John McFadden who was the guy who gave the tune to him. McFadden had come to Chicago from Mayo, near Westport. And O’Neill, a flute player and tune collector, admired his inventive fiddle playing. And his tune, McFadden’s Handsome Daughter (named, I presume for his kid) has a number of turns and twists.
Here’s how James O’Neill, who helped Francis O’Neill notate the tune put it down on the page. If I read it exactly out of their book, here’s how it goes.
[ plays McFadden’s Handsome Daughter as it appears in O’Neill’s Music of Ireland 1850 Melodies Tune #1289 ]
Now, I don’t really play it exactly the way that it is in the book, because I’ve learned it and played it with people sort of along the way. And so actually, here’s how Matt Heaton and I recorded it with our friend George Keith a few years ago.
It’s an interesting, lovely little tune. Buut… whether it’s a virtuosic Matt Molloy performance, or a simpler approach to the tune, at the end of the day it’s the practice, the performance of all these little tunes… and passing them around from player to player. It’s about the melody, the rhythmic organization, and the social sharing of these tunes. Not the names. Though tune names can be handy for organizing and remembering.
A tune named after the daughter of a specific player feels like a good way to attribute the source of the tune. I’m sure it’s more about that than conjuring a scene of a charming and bonny young person. But when I read through a tune list like McFadden’s Handsome Daughter, the Milliner’s Daughter, the Shoemaker’s Daughter… and then I come across the Maid Behind the Bar, the Maids of Mt Kisco, Kiss the Maid Behind the Barrell … and I think of those Rollicking Boys of the Town, and the Hilltop, and the Fair… well I imagine I’m tapping into the Ireland that Eamon DeValera dreamed of. Or of the plane ride that the Boy of 11B wishes he was having with the Maid on the Plane.
[ Music: Meaning of Life reprise ]
The Jig in G.
Another Jig in G.
A Reel in A.
[ Music: “The Milliner’s Daughter,” from Traditional Music On Fiddle, Banjo & Harp
Oisin Mac Diarmada, Brian Fitzgerald, Micheal O’Ruanaigh ]
This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Big thanks to Matt for production music. Thanks, Nigel, for acknowledging this month’s sponsors. And thank you, Colm, for the last minute Maid on the Green from the front seat of the truck. Thank you, Mick Moloney, for first introducing me to Ma McNulty. Thanks to Nic Gareiss for talking to me about hale and hearty tune names—and for being my esteemed guest in Episode 15, 21, and 23. For playlists, transcriptions, and more, please visit IrishMusicStories.org
Episode guests in order of appearance
Limerick-born folklorist/musician and National Heritage Fellow who has taught at universities, directed festivals and arts tours, and recorded and produced numerous albums.