The Curragh of Kildare

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Curragh of Kildare, also known as The Winter, it is Past, is a folk song particularly associated with the Irish tradition. Elements of some versions of the song suggest that it dates from at least the mid-18th century. In the 19th Century the Curragh was used to rally the British Army and then, in 1922 onwards, the Irish Army.

The 5,000-acre plain in County Kildare had, since the earliest times when the legendary men of the Fianna were believed to have trained there, been a welcoming sward to military men. From the end of the sixteenth century onwards there are records of encampment there.

The camp attracted thousands of spectators and camp followers; that is, prostitutes, who soon earned for themselves the sobriquet of wrens. This term was applied to the women as many of them lived all the year round in the furze bushes which are the only ground cover on the plain.

The Curragh was the place chosen by Richard Talbot, Earl of Tyreconnell to prepare his Army for the cause of James II. Wellington passed through here on his way to the peninsular wars. It was the Crimean War (1855-1856) which led to the construction of the first permanent camp at the Curragh. Queen Victoria visited in 1861 to visit her son the Prince of Wales (Edward VII), who was serving in the Curragh, and to inspect troops. 

The history of the text is rather complicated. Versions were taken down at different times in Ireland by  various collectors. The song has also been collected  in Scotland and England; the singer Frank Purslow collected a version (The Winter’s Gone and Past) in Dorset. Petrie thought that it was an “old Anglo-Irish song” and argued that the Scottish versions were most likely developed from it.

Several printed ballad versions exist, under titles such as The Lamenting Maid. The most well-known version of the text, usually referred to by the title The Winter it is Past, is attributed to Robert Burns. He appears to have developed it from a popular stall-ballad, The Lovesick Maid, which referred to a highwayman called Johnson, who was hanged in 1750 for robbery in the Curragh. Burns polished the original text considerably and removed two stanzas referring directly to Johnson. The resulting ballad was published in the collection of the Scots Musical Museum.

Different airs have been used for the song. Petrie suspected that one had been composed expressly for the stall-ballad, probably in Scotland around 1750, but expressed an opinion that “the same song united to a melody unquestionably Irish has been […] known in Ireland […] for an equal or much longer period”. The tune used for Burns’ version has been identified as a (distant) relative of that used for the American ballad Fare You Well, My Own True Love.

The song as currently performed was popularised by The Johnstons, who are said to have received it from Christy Moore, who uncovered a version in a Dublin library in 1961. (notes above taken from Wikipedia and )

Did I know anything of the tangled history of the song before indulging in a bit of online research? Not a bit of it. But I do remember clearly The Johnstons singing this in the late 1960s. In my view, no one has come close to their version of this song in the half century since they recorded their take on it.

IMHO, the song has in it that indefinable “something” that all great songs possess. I don’t attempt to compete with the luminaries who have recorded this song down the decades, but merely offer my interpretation of this classic. No chorusing, just a straight ballad.

The Curragh of Kildare

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