Spancil Hill - the personal tragedy behind the classic Irish song

in Music

It’s often the case that great songs are written by people at a time when they are experiencing great personal tragedy in their lives.

The classic Irish ballad, Spancil Hill, is a perfect example of this. It was a written by a young man called Michal Considine at a time when he knew he didn’t have long to live. He wanted the song to be a memorial to him and a celebration of the people he had loved in his life.

Michal Considine who was born around 1850 near Spancil Hill, which lies between Ennis and Tulla in County Clare in Ireland.

Like millions of others, Considine was forced to leave his homeland because of the potato famine which devastated Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century. He went to Boston in 1870 but only stayed for a few years before moving to California.

It’s thought his plan was to earn enough money to be able to bring his true love over to America to join him. Her name was Mary MacNamara. Considine refers to her in the song as “Mac the ranger’s daughter and the pride of Spancil Hill”.

As the song became popular over the years, the name became changed to Mag or Nell “the farmer’s daughter”.

When Considine was about 23, however, he fell ill and realised he hadn’t long to live. He wrote Spancil Hill so it could be sent home to express his feelings to all who knew him, especially, of course, his beloved Mac

The lyric tells how he was dreaming one night when he “stepped on board a vision” which took him all the way to Spancil Hill back in Ireland.

Spancil Hill was the scene of a horse fair every year and Considine arrives the day before it’s about to take place. Once there he sees the familiar faces and sights of his youth. All the people named in the song are thought to be real people rather than fictional characters.

The most emotional reunion is with Mac, his “first and only love.” She throws her arms around him and he dreams that he kisses her “as in the days of yore”. The joy is short lived, however, as very soon the cock crows and he awakes from his reverie. Once awake, he is no longer in Spancil Hill but back in the real world, thousands of miles away in California.

Considine died shortly after writing the song and sadly was never reunited with his beloved Mary MacNamara. She remained true to his memory and never married.

For some people Spancil Hill is a little too sentimental but for others it is a perfect expression of love and devotion. Few people now know of the personal tragedy behind it but the moving lyrics and the beautiful melody mean this classic Irish song remains popular throughout the world.

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Michael Curran has 10 articles online

Michael Curran is a keen student of Irish folk music such as Spancil Hill. He writes for and likes to perform Irish songs at his local folk club.

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Spancil Hill - the personal tragedy behind the classic Irish song

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This article was published on 2011/01/07