Mo Ghile Mear - a Jacobite Love Song

Why the Irish Song "Mo Ghile Mear" is Not About Love, But Politics.

Mo Ghile Mear - detail from "Bonnie Prince Charlie" by John Pettie (1839-1893)
••• Mo Ghile Mear - detail from "Bonnie Prince Charlie" by John Pettie (1839-1893).

Mo Ghile Mear is a haunting, but still rousing melody, accompanied by an Irish text most people cannot understand. Yet a proper rendition of Mo Ghile Mear reduces stout men to tears, especially if they know the message of the song, and are of a romantic Jacobite persuasion. And then Mo Ghile Mear is a song that musically connects Ireland and Scotland, English musician Sting, the seminal Irish folk group Chieftains, and an unfortunate border collie.

And while Mo Ghile Mear at a first passing glance seems to be all about a lost love, and nothing more - it is a coded political message. Which once was akin to high treason.

Popular since the 18th century, the song has come to international attention during the late 20th century again, mainly due to a number of excellent recordings.

Mo Ghile Mear - the Lyrics

Seal da rabhas im' mhaighdean shéimh,
'S anois im' bhaintreach chaite thréith,
Mo chéile ag treabhadh na dtonn go tréan
De bharr na gcnoc is i n-imigcéin.

Chorus
'Sé mo laoch, mo Ghile Mear,
'Sé mo Chaesar, Ghile Mear,
Suan ná séan ní bhfuaireas féin
Ó chuaigh i gcéin mo Ghile Mear.

Bímse buan ar buaidhirt gach ló,
Ag caoi go cruaidh 's ag tuar na ndeór
Mar scaoileadh uaim an buachaill beó
'S ná ríomhtar tuairisc uaidh, mo bhrón.

Chorus

Ní labhrann cuach go suairc ar nóin
Is níl guth gadhair i gcoillte cnó,
Ná maidin shamhraidh i gcleanntaibh ceoigh
Ó d'imthigh uaim an buachaill beó.

Chorus

Marcach uasal uaibhreach óg,
Gas gan gruaim is suairce snódh,
Glac is luaimneach, luath i ngleo
Ag teascadh an tslua 's ag tuargain treon.

Chorus

Seinntear stair ar chlairsigh cheoil
's líontair táinte cárt ar bord
Le hinntinn ard gan chaim, gan cheó
Chun saoghal is sláinte d' fhagháil dom leómhan.

Chorus

Ghile mear 'sa seal faoi chumha,
's Eire go léir faoi chlócaibh dubha;
Suan ná séan ní bhfuaireas féin
Ó luaidh i gcéin mo Ghile Mear.

Chorus

Mo Ghile Mear - a Translation in Outline

So, what's it all about? For somebody not speaking Irish, Mo Ghile Mear might as well mean "My Ghillie and Mare", or be a recipe for a Guinness cake. But far from it ... as a rough translation of the first two verses, with the chorus wedged between them, shows. The song would then be titled "My Dashing Darling" or something similar:

For some short time I was a gentle maiden,
Now I am a spent, worn-out widow,
My darling has crossed the wild waves,
Gone far away.

Chorus
He's my hero, my dashing darling,
He's my Caesar, dashing darling.
I know no rest, but only sorrows,
Since he went far away, my darling.

Every day I am constantly sad,
I weep bitterly and shed many tears,
Because our lively young man has left us,
And, alas, we hear no news from him.

And so on, and so forth - he's gone, she weeps, just another Country & Irish chart-topper in the making? Far from it ...

Mo Ghile Mear - a Love Song?

No, even so it sounds like it ... because those in the know would immediately associate the singer with the goddess Éiru, the personification of Ireland itself, and with all of Ireland by extension (thus a male singer would not arouse any speculations regarding his sexuality (which might have been disastrous in Ireland up to a few years ago).

But who was the darling the goddess was lamenting for?

None other than Charles Edward Stuart, better known as "Bonnie Prince Charlie", who led the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 and then went over the sea to Skye, continuing to France, to live out his days as a pretender to the English and Scottish throne, finally finding his last resting place in the crypt of Rome's Saint Peter's Basilica - a fitting tribute to the champion of Roman-Catholic hopes.

Mo Ghile Mear - the History of the Song

Mo Ghile Mear was written, in Irish, by the poet Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill (1691 to 1754). Thus it is not a folk song proper, having an identified author. A huge number of Mac Domhnaill's poems reflect a longing for the coming of a just, and Catholic, ruler - effectively conjuring a "better Ireland" that would reverse the historic reality of Glorious Revolution and the Battle of the Boyne.

The Stuart pretenders were the real-life (though often not very realistic) focus of this longing.

Mo Ghile Mear became Mac Domhnaill's most famous poem. The lament was written after the Battle of Culloden (1746), the final defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the effective end Jacobite cause as a viable alternative to the Hanoverian kings. The mind boggles when contemplating that (careful, we are entering Outlander territory now, with a possibility of swooning ladies) Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser might have deprived Ireland of one of its most beautiful songs, had they succeeded in stopping the '45 ... but I digress.

Mac Domhnaill composed his Mo Ghile Mear almost according to the convention of so-called Aisling poetry - in which Ireland haunts the dreams of the poet, in the form of a woman, mainly to lament the state of the island, but also predicting better times. Mo Ghile Mear diverts from this Aisling form in one point: the lament is not related by the poet, but Ériu is assumed to be the poet herself.

Mo Ghile Mear - Recommended Recordings

There are two recordings I'd recommend - one is the effort by Irish and Scottish artists that concluded the sixth episode of the BBC "Highland Sessions" (still available on DVD), singers include Mary Black, Iarla O'Lionard, Mary Ann Kennedy, Karen Matheson, Karan Casey, and Allan MacDonald. Then there is the version recorded by Sting together with the Chieftains on "The Long Black Veil".

But for sheer (shear?) fun you cannot beat the ad Specsavers had on TV for some time, with Mo Ghile Mear sung by Una Palliser ... see it on YouTube.