Winnie Wann

This is a rough translation of “Úna Bhán,” possibly the most popular of all the Irish-language Love Songs (and tunes) of Connacht. “Úna” is  the Irish version of “Winifred,” and “Bhán” means “White,” or “Pale.” When Douglas Hyde was collecting songs around Roscommon, he was told that this one was written in “crap-Ghaeilge,” i.e., “crippled,” or very poor, Irish. It was not written by a bard trained in the rules of verse, but was the out-pouring from the heart of a frustrated lover, Tomás Láidir Mac Coisdealbha, (strong Tom Costello).

In the days of Cromwell, the entire Barony of Costello (east Mayo and north-west Roscommon, stretching from Ballaghadereen to Knock)) was taken off the Costelloes and given to Theobald Dillon, 1st Viscount Dillon. So, when Tomás Láidir came courting Winnifred McDermottroe, despite his noble blood, he was nothing but a landless peasant, and Winnie’s father soon put a stop to the courtship. He put guards on the approach roads and set his dogs on Tomás.

Tom sent word to Winnie to meet him at a ford on the Donoge River, but she didn’t turn up. Soon afterwards, she died of a broken heart, (or was it of TB: who can tell?), and was buried on an island in Lough Key. Tom swam out to the island and stayed all night grieving on her grave, and composing his famous lament. As dawn approached, her ghost rose up out of the grave and said to him: “Be off with you now, and leave me some peace.”

Tom swam back to shore through the freezing water and treacherous currents for the second time, an enterprise that would have killed a weaker man, and set out on the road to Sligo, receiving food and succour on the way.  In Sligo, the local wrestling champion was challenging all comers, and Tom, full of anger, took him on. With one blow, he broke the champion’s back and became the new champion, a position he held for many years. Since the peasants always bet on the challenger, the landlords, who sponsored the champion, coined by betting on Tom and paid him very well. So, Tom became very wealthy and was a thorn in the side of the Mount Dillons.

Finally, Dillon put out a contract on his life, and one of Dillon’s tenants, of surname Ruane, hid behind a cock of hay, and shot Tom dead as he passed. However, the word was soon put out that it wasn’t Tom he shot at all, but his brother, and the Dillons are still looking over their shoulder to this day in fear of Tomás Láidir Costello.

In translation, I have tidied up the metre and the rambling verses, (and left out the accumulations that folk transmission adds on). As a result, the air of the song is also modified.

Winnie Wan, Winnie Wan,

I’ll never get over you.

Though you’ve gone to the grave,

I will never stop loving you.

Here I stand at the ford

Where I planned to elope with you,

Till your parents and friends

Spoiled all my hope of you.


Winnie Wan, Many times

I tried to get near to you,

But they stopped me each time

Out of care and of fear for you.

They were wrong, Winnie Wan:

My love would be good for you;

To keep me from you,

That’s the thing that has done for you.


Winnie Wan, Winnie Wan,

I marked your decline in health:

Each day you slipped back

Because of your confinement.

My arms to enfold you

Would revive you and bring you back,

But your clan didn’t know

You could die of a broken heart.


Winnie Wan, Winnie Wan,

Do you see what they did to me?

They have blackened my eyes,

They have bruised every bit of me.

They have punched me and knocked me

And laid all their kicks on me;

Even worse, for your brothers

Have set two fierce dogs on me.


Winnie Wan, Winnie Wan,

You could have eluded them,

Could have sneaked out at night

And crept past all the crew of them.

The dogs would not fright;

You could slip by and come to me;

We could start a new life

In France or in Germany.


Winnie Wan, Winnie Wan,

I’ll never get over you.

Though you’ve gone to the grave,

I will never stop loving you.

Here I am at the place

Where I was to elope with you:

I must face the cold wave,

That’s the way I must go to you.


I will face the cold wave;

That’s the way I will go to you.

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