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The Cruel Mother
(Child 20; Roud 9)
Pat MacNamara
Kilshanny, near Ennistymon
Recorded in Kilshanny, summer 1975

Carroll Mackenzie Collection

 

Pat McNamara

Oh, there was a lady lived in York;
All along and aloney o.
She fell in love with her father’s clerk;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

On the course of a year sure, she had a babe;
All along and aloney o.
Which brought her now to disgrace;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

Oh, she tied it up both hands and feet;
All along and aloney o.
And buried it down without coffin or sheet,
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

She took the garters from her knee;
All along and aloney o.
And tied it up both hands and feet;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

Oh she dug the grave both long and deep;
All along and aloney o.
And buried it down without coffin or sheet;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

As she was walking her father’s lawn;
All along and aloney o.
She met three babies playing at a ball;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

And one was Peter, the other Paul;
All along and aloney o.
And the other one had no name at all;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

Now then, baby dear, if you were mine;
All along and aloney o.
I would dress you up in silk so fine;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

Oh then, baby dear, when I was yours;
All along and aloney o.
You didn’t dress me up nor pink, nor blue:
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

You took the garters from your knee;
All along and aloney o.
And buried me down without coffin or sheet;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

You dug my grave both long and deep;
All along and aloney o.
And buried me there without coffin or sheet;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

Oh then, baby dear, now you can tell;
All along and aloney o.
Whether I’ll get in heaven or hell;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

Now then, mamma dear, when I was your;
All along and aloney o.
You didn’t dress me up nor in pink nor blue;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

You took the garters from your knee;
All along and aloney o.
And tied me up both hand and feet;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

You dug my grave both long and deep;
All along and aloney o.
And buried me there without coffin or sheet;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

Oh then baby dear, sure, you can tell;
All along and aloney o.
Whether I’ll get in heaven or hell;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

Oh mamma dear, sure, I don’t care;
All along and aloney o.
Whether you will get in heaven or hell;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

You’ll be seven years a bush in a gap;
All along and aloney o.
And seven years a rat in a mill;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

You’ll be seven years a roaring bull;
All along and aloney o.
And seven more a frog in a well;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.

When all those years has passed and gone;
All along and aloney o.
Come to the gate and I’ll get you in;
Down by the greenwood sidey o.


"George Korson rightfully described this as 'undoubtedly one of the most haunting (ballads) in the English language'. As with the Classic poisoning ballad ‘Lord Randall’ and its juvenile counterpart 'Henry My Son', 'The Cruel Mother' is as likely to have been found in the schoolyard as from the mouths of adults. In the adult texts a woman is made pregnant, sometimes by a cleric (a priest or other religious official), is abandoned and gives birth to two children. She kills them, usually by stabbing, and buries them. She is later visited by the ghosts of the dead children who foretell her fate. It was often heard from children popularly entitled 'The Old Woman in the Wood' or 'Weela, Weela, Walya', we recorded it several times from Traveller children; this is an unusually detailed version from 12 year old Peggy McCarthy, daughter of singer and storyteller Mikeen:

There was an old woman who lived in the wood
A weela weela walla.
There was an old woman who lived in the woods
Down by the river Sila.

She had a baby three months old
She had a baby three months old,

She had a penknife long and sharp,
She had a penknife long and sharp,

She stuck the penknife through the baby's heart
She stuck the penknife through the baby's heart,

Three dead knockers came knocking at the door,
Three dead knockers came knocking at the door,

Are you the woman who killed the child,
Are you the woman who killed the child,

I am the woman who killed the child,
I'm the woman who killed the child,

They got a bag over her head
They got a bag over her head,

They got a rope ten inches long,
They got a rope ten inches long,

They hanged the woman up in a tree,
They hanged the woman up in a tree.

It was still to be found in the mouths of children right up to the end of the 20th century and its transition to the children’s versions has retained much of its earlier story, to which has been added further embellishments, as in young Peggy’s example with its description of the mother’s execution. The version I heard from a friend from Salford, Manchester, in the nineteen-sixties had as a detail of her arrest:

They took her in a Black Maria,
Airy, airy ido,
And tied her up with old barbed wire,
Down by the river side-o.

It continued:

The moral of this story is,
Don’t stick knives in babies’ heads.

Adult texts of the ballad are very rare in Ireland; neither Child nor Bronson included any from here. In the 1950s the BBC found two, one from Thomas Moran of Mohill, County Leitrim, and a beautiful, dramatic version from Cecilia Costello, a Birmingham woman of Co. Galway parents. We have recorded it twice, both from West Clare singers - from Mikey Kelleher, originally from Quilty, and this version from Pat MacNamara of Kilshanny."

Reference:
Pennsylvania Songs and Legends, George Korson (ed).
Dictionary of Historical Slang, Eric Partridge.
Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, R Vaughan Williams and A L Lloyd (eds.).
Jim Carroll

See also
Weela Weela Walya sung by Vincie Boyle


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