Tiny harp

Danny Boy—The Mystery Returns! , or,
The Young Man's Dream

by Michael Robinson

Lady with a harp I have finally found Irish words for Aisling an Óigfhir ("The Young Man's Dream"). The place I found them was in James Hardiman's Irish Minstrelsy, published in 1831. This was one of the first published collections of Irish poetry, and contains many well-known Irish songs.

In his notes on Aisling Gheal, a similar song, Brian O'Rourke points out:

For most people who have been through the Irish educational system, the word 'aisling' will connote a poem or song in which the poet sees — or dreams that he sees — a beautiful woman who turns out to be Ireland lamenting her woes. It is not generally realized that his type of political aisling developed out of an earlier non-political kind, which was the Irish version of the French reverdie, — a song-type in which the poet is approached, in pastoral surroundings, by a beautiful otherworldly woman who symbolizes spring and Love. There are about a dozen examples of the reverdie to be found in the Irish folksong tradition, and 'Aisling Gheal' is a clearer specimen than most. In view of the fact that it is not a political aisling, it is somewhat strange to find, in the second half of the first verse, a quasi-political reference which is not developed, and which has no obviously place in what is basically the account of a dream about love. In his Irish Minstrelsy, Hardiman published a related song, 'Aisling an Óigfhir', in which the corresponding lines refer to birdsong, fish-filled streams, and honey-making bees, — all more appropriate to the context.

Hardiman's book is published in a rather odd, barely legible, Gaelic typeface (actually one of the first Gaelic typefaces to be used in Ireland). The poems are accompanied by translations into English which are more to the taste of the early 19th century than to that of today. In the introduction to the facsimile reprint of 1971 by the Irish University Press, Máire Mhac a tSaoi describes "the English 'poetical' translations supplied with Hardiman's Irish text, versions so remote from the original, so bowdlerized and drawing-roomized out of all semblance of reality or genuine feeling that it is a positive—and supremely unrewarding—effort to plough through them".

The following reproduces the words exactly as published (possibly with a few typing mistakes). Both the Irish and the English texts have some eccentric spellings. The verse structure of the translation is not the same as the original, but very little has been omitted from the translation (except, one might be unkind enough to say, a feeling for poetry).



Aisling ghéur do dhearcas féin,
Go rabhas go faon sealad a'm luidhe,
Faoí ghéugaibh crann chois amhan a'm aonar,
Mar a m-bíodh aér agus spóirt a' t-saoíghil ;
Bhídh ceileabhar eun ann ; a ngcaiseadhaibh ngéura,
Bídh gleacaídheacht éise ann le feicsin trídh,
Monbhar beach agus mil 'na slaodaibh
Le fághail ag gach aein neach d'á ngeabhadh an t-slígh.
In a dream of delusion, methought I was laid,
By a brook overarched with a fluttering shade ;
A delicious recess, where silver-tongued rills,
And far cataracts deep roar echoed round from the hills :
Gleaming fish in clear waters were wontonly playing,
And hoarse murmuring bees o'er wild flow'rets were straying ;
While sweet honey distilled from old oaks to regale,
The young and the fair in that odorous vale.
Rinn me stad tamall ag éisteacht
Le ceileabhar éin bhídh a m-bárr na craoíbh',
Ag síor-chur nótaídhe a g-cóir a chéile,
A's dhearc mé sbéir-bhean mhín, dheas le'm thaoíbh,
A gruadh ag lasadh air dhath na g-caér-chon,
A rosc mar réult ghlan seaca bhídh,
A scuab-fholt ómrach fighte go bróig léi,
'S le cúmhaibh na deóigh súd ní mhairfead mí.
A beautiful bird on a blossomy spray,
Was warbling a varied and rapturous lay ;
As I listened entranced in delightful surprise,
A lovely enchantress astonished my eyes ;
Her cheeks like the quicken's rich clusters were glowing,
Her amber silk locks to her white ancles flowing ;
Like a keen freezing star gleamed each sparkling blue eye,
Alas! in one month, for her loss, I must die.
Do bhiodhg, do phreab an ainfhir mhaordha
A's labhair go séimh de chómhrádh chaoín ;
" A thogha na bh-fear mo slad ná déun-si
"' S gur maíghdean mé casadh a'd líon,
" Ná bídh-si ciontach le cam le claon-bheart
" O taoím a'm aonar air mo chliú bhuain díom,
" Oir gheabhainn-si bás trídh náire an sgeil sin
" Nó'm gheilt do bheídhinn-si air feadh mo shaoighil."
When first she descried me, startled, alarmed,
And with coy supplication my sympathy charmed :
" Oh favoured of men ! do not ruin a maid,
By fate to your power unprotected betrayed ;
For with sorrow and shame broken hearted I'd die,
Or for life thro' wild desarts a lunatic fly."—
A thogha na mban, ná tuig-si féin,
Do shlad go n-déanfainn air aen t-slíghe,
Le cam, le cleas, ná le beartaibh claona,
Oir tá mac Dé aguinn ós cionn ag t-saoíghil ;
Cuirim-si m'ímpidhe chum Rígh na gréine
A's chum gach Naomh eile ghabhann le Críost,
Tu-sa agus me-si bheith ag á chéile,
A mhaighdion mhaordha, air feadh ar saoíghil.
" Oh peerless perfection ! how canst thou believe,
That I could such innocence hurt or deceive ?
I implore the Great Fountain of glory and love,
And all the blessed saints in their synod above ;
That connubial affections our souls may combine,
And the pearl of her sex be immutably mine.
A phlúir na m-ban—a dheallradh na scéimhe,
Ní fhásfaidh féur glas tré thalamh a níos,
Ni bhiadh teas ann ná neart na gréine,
Agus ní bhiadh réulta ann a d-torach oídhch',—
Ní dhéanfaidh an ghealach solus d'éin-neach,
'S ní bheidh éisg ann air muir nó air tír,
Beidh aghaidh gach srutha a g-coinne na sléibhte
Tráth bheidhead-sa claon duit, a ghrádh mo chroídhe !
The green grass shall not grow, nor the sun shed his light,
Nor the fair moon and stars gem the forehead of night ;
The stream shall flow upward, the fish quit the sea,
Ere I shall prove faithless, dear angel to thee."
Her ripe lip and soft bosom then gently I prest,
And clasped her half-blushing consent to my breast ;
My heart fluttered light as a bird on the spray,—
But I woke, and alas, the vain dream fled away.
Taréis gach geallaibh d'á d-tugas féin di,
Phog mé a béilín go dlúith arís,
Leag mé lamh air a brághaid bhreagh, ghléigheal,
A's rugas am ghéagaibh air rún mo chroidhe :—
'N-uair d'úmhluigh si gabhail liom mar chéile,
Bhi'dh mo chroídhe mar éun ag dul le gaoith ;
Trí lár mo shúgradh do mhúscail mé,
'Smo chúmhaidh nír bh' aén read acht aisling í.

Young Man's Dream Score Animated Victrola I've now added a MIDI version of Bunting's arrangement, for people who would like to hear the original tune. This includes the bass line published by Bunting, which is not shown in the musical score above, except implicitly by chord names. It is not known whether the bass line was actually played by Hempson, but most authorities think that it was composed by Bunting. Only the melody lines in the Bunting collection were as originally played (we think), although in some cases Bunting has put them into different keys.

The Mystery Returns!

Well, just when I thought that the mystery was solved, new information turned up, so now a new mystery has appeared! After all that work showing that the tune Aisling an Óigfhir is indigenous to a particular area of Co. Derry, it has turned up about half a century earlier in another country!

Denis HempsonSome time after I posted the article about Danny Boy on our website, I was contacted by Bruce Olson, who is quite knowledgeable on such topics. He provided me with the information given below. It seems there are English words to The Young Man's Dream which appear in an 18th century Scottish manuscript (when Denis Hempson was only middle-aged!). The tune appears to have been in circulation in both countries, which is not uncommon. This new set of words is not a translation from the Irish words given above, but the theme of the composition is basically the same. If the English words are older than the Irish words (and the publication date doesn't necessarily indicate this to be true), in which country did the tune originate?

If the words are of English-language origin, that might indicate that the tune originated perhaps in Lowland Scotland. (Wouldn't that be a shock!) Whether the text first originated in Irish or English, and was then translated into the other language, is difficult to ascertain. It's even possible that the two were independent compositions. However, I think this is unlikely. Just one person singing could leave a version, or a title, in the tradition in a particular area. Because the reference to the English version is earlier, we must consider the possibility that it is the original.

Countryside around Limavady, photo by Jochen Lueg Another possibility occurs to me, though. The words shown below have the style of the Irish school-master poets of the 18th century. (Some of the components of this style being: some influence from folk material, allusions to classical Greek and Roman mythology, and the showing-off of ornate vocabulary.) In the early 18th century most such poets composed in Irish, but as time went by many more such compositions appeared in English.

The tune appears to have been in oral circulation in Co. Derry until at least Miss Ross's time. Because of the "Plantation of Ulster" in Elizabethan times, there was an English-speaking population in place fairly early. Hence it would be quite plausible for a local school-master to compose English-language words to a local tune. Given the close ties between Ulster and Lowland Scotland, it would then be plausible for the song to be transmitted to a friend in Scotland (perhaps even by means of the same MS still in existence).

Or, or it could be argued, those same close ties would make it easy to transfer a Scottish song to Ulster. However, I think the song is of Irish descent, for the following reasons:

The following information from Bruce Olson describes the manuscript version in question:

The Young Man's Dream, Scots MS of the 1740's. MS was rebound at one time (and one page replaced at wrong place) and there is some loss of text from reduced margins.

A recast version of this song is attributed to James Tytler, in The Scots Musical Museum, #126. The tune there is minor mode version of SMM #146, the earliest known copy of the Irish tune The Young Man's Dream. The manuscript text below was obviously inspired by 17th century Loves fancy or The Young Mans Dream as the broadside of 1663-74 entitles it. The 17th century English tune is in C. M. Simpson's The British Broadside Ballad and Its Music, 1966, as She lay all naked in her bed, Simpson's #425, or his #182, both 4/4 tunes. Love's Fancy or the Young Man's Dream is an expansion of a song found in Wit and Drollery, 1656. A few related early songs are (1) Last night I thought my true love I caught in Percy Folio MS: Loose and Humorous Songs, and in Folger Lib. MSS V.a. 339, V.a 345, both of c1625-30; (2) I dreamed my love lay in her bed (or Loves Dream in 'Merry Drollery') in 'Percy Folio MS, Loose ..', and BL MS Harl. 7332; (3) Now ffye on Dreams, 'Percy Folio MS, Loose..' and, c 1625-30, in Folger MS V.a. 345. Maiden's Dream, G. R. Kinlock, Ballad Book, p. 37.

Other copies of the tune for the Irish song are: The Young Man's Dream, Bunting's first collection, #17, 1796: The Young Man's Dream; Himes New Selection... Irish Airs, p. 6, c 1800: Young Mans Dream; Riley's Flute Melodies, #64, New York (1814): The Young Man's Dream [for Moore's song, As a beam o'er the face of the waters]; Moore/ Stevenson A Selection of Irish Melodies, 1st issue, #11, 1807: Oh! When that mild eye is beaming. Air-The Young Man's Dream; Crosby's Irish Musical Repository, p. 259, 1808: The Young Man's Dream Irish; O'Farrell's Pocket Companion for the Irish or Union Pipes, II, p. 44. (1811?): O'Neill's Music of Ireland, #382, gives a simplified copy of Bunting's version.

I asked Bruce whether there was any other music of Irish origin in the MS, or what else was in it, and with characteristic thoroughness, he replied:

Poorly described in NLS Catalog as songs copied from Ramsay's Tea Table Miscellany and Herd's Scots Songs. Many songs are in TTM, but usually with different titles. The MS is considerably older than Herd's collections. One Scots song in MS is from an Edinburgh ballad opera of 1738.

Irish songs in the MS:

folio/ opening line/ title+tune (if any designated)/comments

So you can see that there is a lot of other Irish material in the MS, including some relating to the Gaelic song tradition. Therefore, this supports the contention that The Young Man's Dream is Irish in origin. What about the 17th century Loves fancy or The Young Mans Dream in the broadside of 1663-74, as mentioned by Bruce? Was it also inspired by the Irish song? This is not impossible. I maintain, however, that the concept of a young man falling asleep and dreaming about a beautiful girl is not unusual. The English words are not a translation of the Irish words; they have been influenced by the earlier song. My guess is that the anonymous poet attempted to set the English words to the Irish tune.

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