Part Seven of Eugene Dunphy’s series on Irish Ballads
In early November 1921, during the course of a meeting of the Board of Guardians, in Trim, County Meath, Councillor John King read aloud the contents of a letter written by an unfortunate woman (unnamed) who had ended up in the Trim Workhouse.
She implored board members to consider doing two things this winter: to provide the women of the workhouse with warm shawls, and to ensure that the cold milk, served twice a week with their ‘dinner’ (bread only), was heated. Concluding her letter with a line from a beautiful song, she said that if these requirements were not met, ‘we never will be able to plough the Rocks of Bawn’.
But was the Rocks of Bawn a County Meath song? According to logainn.ie, there is indeed a townland called ‘Bawn’ in Meath, but there is also a Bawn in counties Westmeath, Laois, Louth, Leitrim, Longford, Offaly, Mayo, Cork, Tipperary and Kildare. Additionally, Bawn is in the parish of Mullahoran, south-west County Cavan, near the Longford border, not far from Granard.
Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, the acclaimed traditional singer from County Galway, attributed the song’s geographical roots to the craggy fields of Connemara, but folk song collector Sam Henry placed it firmly in Cavan. Henry began looking for the song in 1924 and, ‘after 2 years search’, sourced the words from County Derry man Patrick Lagan, and the melody from Jim Doherty, also from County Derry.
Henry further stated that Pat Magill had heard the song at a fair in Strabane, County Tyrone. Songwriter and novelist Dominic Behan was of the opinion that the ballad could well have been written by Cavan man ‘Martin Swiney’ (Sweeney).
Similarly, Antóin Mac Gabhann, an accomplished fiddler from Cavan, believes the ballad was composed in his home county, and a TG4 documentary from 2016 shows presenter John Spillane conducting an interview with MacGabhann in a rock-studded field in Bawn.
Eking out a living on unforgiving plots of land was the lot of many Irish families, so it’s not surprising that the Rocks of Bawn became popular, especially among those who boarded the emigrant ship.
Observations made by one émigré, Joseph Maguire, reinforce the belief that the song had Ulster origins.
Born in 1899, in Ballinamallard, County Fermanagh, Maguire left Ireland for New York at the age of twenty-four. Apart from opening and running a successful restaurant on 157th Street on Broadway, he contributed a series of articles, ‘Old Irish Ballads’, to the Advocate newspaper.