Carrickfergus - the Lyrics of a Song Not Really About a Place

A ferry passing the County Antrim cost - maybe the last chance for emigrants to see a piece of the old sod, like evoked in the song
••• A ferry passing the County Antrim cost - maybe the last chance for emigrants to see a piece of the old sod, like evoked in the song "Carrickfergus". © Bernd Biege 2016

The Irish song "Carrickfergus", as in "I Wish I Was in ...", is one of the best known laments for the "auld country". Who has not heard this heart-rending memory of home by a man ageing in exile, longing for his emigrant days to be over, just to be once more in Carrickfergus, County Antrim. Well, he would, wouldn't he? Despite Carrickfergus today not being a town that evokes a lot of nostalgia, famous castle notwithstanding.

"Carrickfergus" is one of those typical songs popular in the "Irish diaspora", singing the praises of the country they (or even their ancestors) left, and lamenting the seemingly insurmountable distance to there (and the loved ones, friends family, usually a fair maid as well). It is still, and will always be, hugely popular with Irish-Americans who go through whole boxes of tissues weeping along. Though you might fly to Ireland these days for the price of a decent night out in New York.

By the way, "Carrickfergus" is one of the songs in the "Pity the Poor Emigrant" genre that, while namechecking an Irish town, gives no indication of where the singer actually pines away. So it can be sung with full conviction in Melbourne, Montreal, Manhattan, or Manchester. One song to bind them all, so to say.

"Carrickfergus" - the Lyrics

I wish I was in Carrickfergus,
Only for nights in Ballygrant
I would swim over the deepest ocean,
For my love to find
But the sea is wide and I cannot cross over
And neither have I the wings to fly
I wish I could meet a handsome boatsman
To ferry me over, to my love and die.

My childhood days bring back sad reflections
Of happy times I spent so long ago,
My boyhood friends and my own relations
Have all passed on now like melting snow.
But I'll spend my days in endless roaming,
Soft is the grass, my bed is free.
Ah, to be back now in Carrickfergus,
On that long road down to the sea.

But in Kilkenny, it is reported,
On marble stones there as black as ink
With gold and silver I would support her,
But I'll sing no more 'till I get a drink.
For I'm drunk today, and I'm seldom sober,
A handsome rover from town to town,
Ah, but I'm sick now, my days are numbered,
Come all you young men and lay me down.

"Carrickfergus" ... What's the Story?

Obviously, "Carrickfergus" is an Irish folk song named after the town of Carrickfergus - though Kilkenny is also namechecked, and ultimately the actual location in Ireland seems to be of absolutely no consequence. The story is simple - man sits somewhere (presumably weeping into his drink), lamenting the fact that he is away from home, wishes to return once more. But he is old, and chances are he will die in exile. Unhappy, of course. End of story.

Add a few flourishes and you have the typical emigrant song ... popular with the crowds.

Who Wrote "Carrickfergus"?

Absolutely no idea ... it i said that "Carrickfergus" might be traced to an old Irish language song "Do bhí bean uasal" (literally "There Was a Noblewoman"), maybe written by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna (died 1745). This song was printed in the mid-19th century in Cork, but the lyrics dealt not with a longing for home, but with a cuckolded husband, in a bawdy way.

Compare that to the lyrics above ... nope, doesn't make sense.

I has also been suggested that "Carrickfergus" is an amalgam of at least two separate songs, explaining the lack of a consistent narrative, and the sudden (nonsensical) mention of Kilkenny, a non sequitur if there ever was one. George Petrie's book "Ancient Music of Ireland" (1855) for instance listed a song "The Young Lady", the lyrics of which can be found partially in "Carrickfergus".

The modern version might owe its existence to actor Peter O'Toole, the story goes that he sang it to Dominic Behan, who wrote down the words, improvising a bit, and made a recording in the 1960s. Knowing what tenuous hold on reality in general O'Toole had at times, it might well have been a few songs distilled into one heady brew that he sang.

Whatever the story ...

"Carrickfergus" has been recorded by a cornucopia of performers including Joan Baez, Bryan Ferry, Dominic Behan, Charlotte Church, The Clancy Brothers, De Dannan, The Dubliners, Katherine Jenkins (yes, the classical singer once featured on Doctor Who), Ronan Keating, Brian Kennedy, Loreena McKennitt, Van Morrison, and Bryn Terfel. It was also used to good effect in the episode "Blind Beggar" of the seminal BBC crime drama "Waking the Dead". Even German band Scooter included a helium-voiced version in their song "Where the Beats". And, of course, Loudon Wainwright III sang it over the closing credits of "Boardwalk Empire".