Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | October 12, 2012

Songs of Logan #4: Women of Ireland (Mná na H-Eireann)

“The Beautiful Irish Woman” by Gustave Courbet

Logan’s #4 is neither a Scottish tune nor a sea shanty.  Hell, it isn’t even “traditional.”  It has to be included, however, as it is one of the most haunting songs I know and as a piece of music suits the fictional mood of Logan to a tee.  “Mná na H-Eireann,” translated from Gaelic as “Women of Ireland,” started life as a poem by Peadar Ó Doirnín, one of a group of eighteenth century poets from Ulster in what would now be Northern Ireland.  The song is a paean to the titular women but, according to Wikipedia (although with uncited sources), took on a “rebel” context in the early years of Irish nationalism.  This would have included the United Irishmen of which one fictional member was O’Brian’s Dr. Stephen Maturin.  Someone at the lyrics site has posted both the original Gaelic and an English translation here; as I will guess you can’t read Gaelic, here is only the latter:

There’s a woman in Ireland who’d give me a gem and my fill to drink
There’s a woman in Ireland to whom my singing is sweeter than the music of strings
There’s a woman in Ireland who would much prefer me leaping
Than laid in the clay and my belly under the sod

There’s a woman in Ireland who’d envy me if I got naught but a kiss
From a woman at a fair, isn’t it strange, and the love I have for them
There’s a woman I’d prefer to a battalion, and a hundred of them whom I will never get
And an ugly, swarthy man with no English has a beautiful girl

There’s a woman who would say that if I walked with her I’d get the gold
And there’s the woman of the shirt whose mien is better than herds of cows
With a woman who would deafen Baile an Mhaoir and the plain of Tyrone
And I see no cure for my disease but to give up the drink

Séan Ó Riada

The poem would have been lost to obscurity had it not been set to music as a slow air by the legendary Séan Ó Riada and then recorded in 1969.  That recording was by the group Ceoltóirí Chualann, a key group in the revival and popularization of Irish traditional music.  One of the members of Ceoltóirí Chualann, Paddy Moloney, went on to gather his own band, which (ahem) you might have heard of–The Chieftains.  As an instrumental, “Women of Ireland” has been recorded by everyone from Mike “Tubular Bells” Oldfield to hard rock guitarist Ronnie Montrose.  The instrumental form is the one I adore, but luckily in recent years singers in both the traditional and popular realms have revived the words.  It is a song that I put on regularly just to sink into emotionally.  Music makes make me weepy like that; gimme a break.  Of the many recordings, here are my top three:

  • The Chieftains, from The Chieftains 4.  I have been a big fan of the Chieftains since I was in college.  I have seen them a number of times–even in Fairbanks, Alaska–and have, at least electronically, their complete, 50-year discography.  Their arrangement of “Women of Ireland” is the standard and still the best.  It was originally included on their 1973 ‘fourth’ album.  Two years later, director Stanley Kubrick placed it prominently in the gorgeous film Barry Lyndon, which starts in rural Ireland in the 1750’s.  The soundtrack to Barry Lyndon can be recommended not only because it also includes a solo harp version of “Women of Ireland” by the late, great Derek Bell but also for its fabulous selection of period orchestral music.  Chieftains 4 is available on iTunes, and “Women of Ireland” can be found here on YouTube.  The film Barry Lyndon is also available from iTunes but not its music, while the soundtrack CD has, unfortunately, become a collector’s item; keep your eyes (real or virtual) open, it’s worth it.
  • Kate Bush from Common Ground:  The Voices of Modern Irish Music.  Anyone with any taste in the 1980’s will remember The Dreaming (“Sat In Your Lap”) and Hounds of Love (“Running Up That Hill”).  Anyone who was paying attention will recall the Irish touches to Kate Bush‘s music.  This was partly the result of Bush’s friendship with Bill Whelan, later of Riverdance fame, who brought men like Irish bouzouki player Dónal Lunny and Uillean pipes player Liam O’Flynn, veterans of such critical Irish traditional bands as Planxty and The Bothy Band, to record on Bush’s albums.  More importantly, it’s in Bush’s blood.  Although Bush herself was raised in South East London, her mother was Irish, while her dad’s mom was a former Irish folk dancer.  In 1996, Bush contributed to the compilation Common Ground:  The Voices of Modern Irish Music a version of “Women of Ireland” sung in the original Gaelic, which she had to learn phonetically.  Authenticity aside, Kate’s version carries her usual emotional weight over a sweeping orchestral backing, a cinematic piece in under three minutes.  It is available on iTunes as part of a different compilation, Éist, on which well-known Irish artists sing in Gaelic.  It can be found on YouTube here.
  • Sinéad O’Connor, from Ain’t Nuthin’ But A She Thing.  My introduction to Sinéad O’Connor is a unique memory.  In 1991, I was part of the second, smaller field crew excavating at the Three Saints Bay site on Kodiak Island, Alaska.  Phil McCormick–Kodiak Native from Karluk, trained chef, and archaeologist–had brought ONE cassette tape, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.  Picture it:  a half a dozen men wearing Helly Hansen overalls, digging in the wet dirt for Russian artifacts, the ocean behind us and towering mountains before, 10 miles from the nearest village of Old Harbor, listening to Sinéad O’Connor over and over and over.  Perhaps surprisingly, Sinéad’s remains one of my favorite voices, able to glide along at a whisper and then explode into a rant.  Her Irish rebel identity is certainly no secret, and she made her love of traditional Irish music known on her 2002 album Sean-Nós Nua.  A hidden gem is her recording in Gaelic of “Mná na H-Eireann,” contributed to the 1995 MTV project Ain’t Nuthin’ But A She Thing.  This is a spacious arrangement that begins with little more than a drone and slowly introduces fiddle, harp, and whistle, with plenty of room for Sinéad’s subtle, emotive singing.  The CD is long out of print, but used copies are common and cheap.  It is not available on iTunes but can be found here on YouTube.

Coming up next:  Hands down, my favorite shanty.



  1. Hi! How do you think, have your writting skills improved so far?

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