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Banks of the Nile
(Laws N9; Roud 950)
Pat MacNamara
Kilshanny, near Ennistymon
Recorded in Kilshanny, July 1975

Carroll Mackenzie Collection



Pat McNamara

And I hear the cannons rattle, sure, my boys we must be ‘way,
I hear the trumpets sound and sure; we can no longer stay;
We’re ordered out to Portsmouth for many the long mile,
To cut down those blacks and Negroes on the banks of the Nile.

“Now then, Johnny, lovely Johnny, now from me you will not go;
The parting of you Johnny's the cause of all my woe.
The parting of you Johnny's the parting of my life,
So stay at home dear Johnny now and I shall be your wife.”

“Now then, Nancy, lovely Nancy, now, such things would never do;
Our colonel, he gave orders, no women there must go,
We must forsake our own sweethearts, likewise our native isle,
And go once more to battle to the banks of the Nile.”

“And I’ll cut off my yellow locks and a soldier’s suit put on,
Just like a gallant soldier brave, those roads I’ll march along,
I’ll fight and fold your banner while fortunes cease to smile,
And we’ll go once more to battle to the banks of the Nile.”

“Now your fingers, they’re too slender and your waist it is too small,
I fear you would not answer soon when on you they may call,
Your delicate constitution would not bear that unwholesome clime,
And the hot and sandy deserts round the banks of the Nile.”

“Then my curse may attend the war, and the hour it first began,
For many the young Irish lad from Ireland now is gone,
They are taken from their own sweethearts, likewise their native isle,
And their bodies has fed those wild birds on the banks of the Nile.”

Sure, now the war is over and home they can return,
Back to their friends and to those they left to mourn,
They shall roll them in their arms and still, through length of time,
And go no more to battle to the banks of the Nile.

"'Banks of the Nile' is probably the best known song of women accompanying their lovers into battle or on board ship. Though this version refers to the practice among the Irish military forces, the song is just as popular in England and probably originated there. The theme of this song – a woman asking her soldier or sailor lover to be allowed to accompany him to battle or to sea – is not as unbelievable as it might first appear. Armies once trudged their way around the world accompanied by ‘camp-followers’, mobile settlements of women, children and tradesmen all running risks not too different from those taken by active soldiers. Following the defeat of the rebels at Vinegar Hill in 1798, British troops rounded up and massacred the camp-followers who assisted the rebels during the fighting. Camp following lasted into the nineteenth century and continued to be a common part of army life into the 19th century.

The same went for seamen; in 1822 an anonymous pamphlet suggested that members of the Royal Navy were taking as many as two women apiece aboard the ships. These women also proved useful in that they fought alongside their lovers at the Nile and Trafalgar during the Napoleonic wars. The well-known saying 'show a leg' is said to have originated from the practice of officers in the Royal Navy clearing the crew from their hammocks and bunks by demanding that the occupant sticks their leg out to show whether they were male or female.
Jim Carroll

The above recording is taken from ‘Around the Hills of Clare: Songs and Recitations from the Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie Collection’ (2004) Musical Traditions Records MTCD331-2/Góilín Records 005-6.


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