Spancil Hill (redux)

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.

In Song 44: Spancil Hill, I wrote: “Another much loved and requested song from the 70s onwards, in my experience. It was originally a poem written by Michael Considine, who left for America in the wake of the Great Famine. He hoped to make enough money to return home and marry his sweetheart. He died at age 23 in 1873, without ever having fulfilled his dreams. But he sent a poem to his nephew on which the song is based. The punch and power of the ballad, even in its popular, abbreviated form is a testament to his feeling for “my first and only love”.” Now, almost a decade on, I’ll put a bit more info around this.

Spancil Hill is in County Clare…its fair is one of the oldest horse fairs in Ireland…held annually on 23 June. Spancil refers to the practice of “spancilling,” which was to use a short rope to tie an animal’s left fore-leg to its right hind leg, thereby hobbling the animal and stopping it from wandering too far.

Michael Considine… emigrated to the United States of America around 1870. He left intending to make enough money to send for his sweetheart so they could be married. Her name was Mary MacNamara, and she is mentioned in the original song as ‘Mack the Ranger’s daughter’.

Considine worked in Boston for two years or so before moving to California. In failing health, he wrote the poem in memory of the hometown he would not live to see again and posted it to his young nephew in Ireland. Michael Considine died in California in 1873 at the age of twenty-three.

The rendition of the late singer/songwriter Robbie McMahon, who died in 2012 at the age of eighty-six, is widely regarded as the definitive version of Spancil Hill. [There is an external link in the Wikipedia article, from which the information above is taken, on Spancil Hill of Robbie singing the song in Dublin in 1993- it’s worth checking out.]

A lilter, he was renowned for his performance of the Mason’s Apron, in which he simulated the sound of both the fiddle and accompanying banjo.

Possessed of a store of jokes, ranging from the hilarious to the unprintable, he was as much a character as a singer and was more comfortable with the craic and banter of casual sessions than with formal concerts.

He was the subject of a film documentary Last Night As I Lay Dreaming. Clare County Council hosted a civic reception in his honour in 2010, and he was the recipient of the Fleadh Nua Gradam Ceoil in 2011.

The best known version of the song is that sung by the Dubliners and Christy Moore, which is highly abbreviated and makes a number of changes to the lyrics – for example renaming the protagonist “Johnny” instead of “Mike”, and describing his love as daughter of a farmer instead of the local ranger. (Notes above from The Irish Times obituary of 29 December 2012.)

I first learned the song from a Johnny McEvoy record in 1972 and I sang it around Wollongong when we moved there. At present, Sam the Man sings it with our group Banter (now in suspended animation thanks to the virus).

Here I use Band-in-a-Box/Real Band and n-Track 9 to present a folk-pop version with drums, bass, piano, two guitars, mandolin, fiddle and harmonica (not all playing at once!) If you want to check out the version that is closer to the Banter sound go to Song 44 and compare.

If I ever get around to re-recording the song, I will sing the Robbie McMahon version as truer to the original poem.

Spancil Hill (redux)

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