The White Strand Song

From the Irish: Amhrán na Trá Báine.

When I first heard this song, over 50 years ago, I thought the first line (which translates, word for word, as "My thousand farewells to poor Ireland, and isn't Spring itself a fine thing") was rather akward. Of course, word for word is not the way to translate and the sentence really meant "My thousand farewells to poor Ireland, where Spring is wonderful."

It was forty years later that I became aware of the  power of the line. A number of emigrants had returned to Ireland to celebrate the 50th anniversary of graduating from Cloon Fane school. One told me that, if ever he came back to Ireland again, which he doubted because of his advanced age, it would be in the Spring time.

"Why so?"

 "Because the vision of all the hedgerows, in  Spring, bursting into white blossom, and the fields peppered with buttercups, is my abiding memory of Ireland."

This is one of the "Big Songs" of Connemara. A "Big" or "Great" song ("Amhrán Mór") is a song that encapsulates the whole experience of a generation, whereas an ordinary song expresses a single emotion or event, (such as love, hate, anger, outrage, jealousy, patriotism, anguish, loneliness, sadness or death).

The writer, Breed O'Malley, emigrated to escape the poverty of the West of Ireland, at the end of the 19th century, after her four brothers had drowned in sea accidents involving a curragh, the flimsy canvas boat of the west of Ireland. Her life in Boston, however, turned out to be anything but pleasant. Irish girls found work as servants in the houses of the rich. Her experience was of harsh bosses who treated her with contempt and made her really earn every penny. There was no work for the Irish menfolk in her community, so they spent the day (and the women's hard earned cash) in the pub, drinking and reminiscing.

Nobody warned her that life could be tough in America. Everybody encouraged her to go, hoping to gain from the bit of land she was abandoning. Eventually, I understand that she saved enough money for her fare back to Ireland, where she lived to a very great age in Carna in Connemara.

The song is sung everywhere in Connemara. Breed, however, made not a penny in royalties, for the song, in the traditional fashion, spread by word of mouth. The YouTube version I insert here, by the Hothouse Flowers, is exceptionally artificed and effectively introduces the Diggeridoo from Australia.

O, farewell to  poor Ireland, where Spring is oh, so fair,
Where farmers have no bosses, but they are free as the air.
Collect the seaweed, dig the spuds, cut and cock the hay,
Though the work is hard, with low reward, I wish that I could stay.

My curse upon the curraghs, but not the trawlers grand;
My curse upon the curraghs they have out in the White Strand.
In that wee craft on the murderous sea my four fine brothers drowned,
And Kelly does not care a whit, for he made their farm his own.

O, life is hard in Boston; the bosses tough and cruel.
They make you earn each penny, and call you a dolt and fool;
And every hard-earned dollar that you manage to bring home,
The men will drink it in the pub, for they've no work of their own.

And why did no one tell me this, before I left my home?
My cousins, neighbours, friends and priest all urging me to go.
I set out on the sailing ship, with a heart that was filled with hope,
Until hardship and misfortune sent me scurrying home.

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