Eugene Dunphy continues his series on popular folk songs and ballads


The subject of the ballad, Margaret (‘Maggie’) Clark, was born on the 14th of July, 1841, in the Canadian town of Glanford, about twelve miles south of Hamilton, Ontario. It was there she met her future husband, George Washington Johnson, a young teacher and poet from Binbrook, a short distance from Glanford.

They soon fell in love and began a courtship, the couple frequently taking day trips to the scenic Twenty Mile Creek, where Maggie’s father Joseph had a sawmill.

In mid-1864, George self-published a book of poems entitled Maple Leaves, which included When You and I Were Young, an endearing ode to his sweetheart from Glanford.
A few months later, 21st of October, 1864, twenty-five-year-old George married twenty-three-year-old Maggie at Glanford Methodist Church. Alas, tragedy soon visited the home of the newly-weds, when on the 12th of May, 1865, Margaret Clark Johnson died from tuberculosis.

After being laid to rest at Whitechurch Cemetery, not far from her birthplace, her grief-stricken husband left Glanford and returned to his home town of Binbrook.

George clearly saw merit in When You and I Were Young, so much so he asked James Austin Butterfield (1837-1891) if he would consider setting it to music, to which he agreed; originally from Hertfordshire, England, Butterfield had been in America since 1856 and had established himself as a successful composer and choirmaster.

The Johnson/Butterfield composition was published in sheet music form in 1866, by Oliver Ditson & Co., Boston, under the new title of When You and I Were Young, Maggie. Interestingly, it included a memorable four-line chorus, which was not part of Johnson’s original poem.

Almost immediately, Canadians and Americans took the ballad to their hearts, and within four years it was being sung in concert halls across the Atlantic. Such was its popularity in Ireland, readers often wrote to newspaper editors in Dublin, Cork and Belfast, asking them to supply the lyrics.

This, for example, from the Dublin-based Irish Emerald, June, 1892: ‘Denis Cronin, Ash Grove, Queenstown, County Cork, would be much obliged to any reader for the words of When You and I Were Young, Maggie. A few weeks later, the same paper published yet another request for the ballad, this time from ‘Denis O’Donoghue, Lack West, Kilmihill, County Clare’.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own