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The Old Oak Tree
(Laws P37; Roud 569)
Michael Flanagan
Luogh, Doolin
Recorded in singers’ home, August 1974

Carroll Mackenzie Collection

 

The night was dark, cold blew the wind, and thickly fell the rain,
As Betsy left her own dear home, she came not back again.
She left her weeping mother’s side, she feel no cold nor rain.
The girl was young and youthful, and love had made her bold.

Which made her weeping mother think, where Betsy then did roam.
At length her mother started up, and cried in accent wild:
‘I’ll search the country high and low, to find my darling child.’
For three long weary weeks in search of her, she wandered up and down,
Until at length returned home, and of a broken heart to die.

Now at the end of all of this, the owner of the game,
Young James McCaul he came one day, to hunt with all his hounds.
Up hill, down dale they boldly rode, in gallant company,
Until at length, they lost the fox, beneath the old oak tree.

It’s there the dogs began to sniff, to yelp and tear the clay.
But all those men and whip could do, wouldn’t drive those dogs away.
The gentlemen all on the scene, they called for pick and spade.
They dug the ground, and it’s there they found, that murdered missing maid.

A knife revealed, stuck in her side, and to his grief and shame,
The gentlemen all on the scene, read James [Mc] Caul’s name.
‘Since I've done the deed,’ McCaul, he cried, ‘My soul is food for hell.
Hide her cold corpse from my eyes, and the truth to you I’ll tell.
Once I loved young Betsy dear and by my cunning arts,
I won her to her vicious view, I broke her mother’s heart.

And as she teased, and I grew tired, and as it seemed to be,
The devil whispered: ‘Take her life, and then you will be free.’
He drew a pistol from his side, and fired it through his heart.
He was buried where he fell, oh, no Christian grave got he.
No priest was found, to bless the ground, beneath the old oak tree.


“Folk song researcher George Brown writes of this Vermont version of this song in ‘The New Green Mountain Songster’:

'‘The Old Oak Tree’ is of Irish origin. The earliest example of it in print is an Irish broadside in the Boston Public Library which contains a trace of the popular belief that the corpse of a murdered person would bleed afresh in the presence of the slayer:

Her bosom, once so sparkling fair, was black with wounds and blows;
And from the cuts, fresh blood gushed forth and trickled through her clothes.'

In a note to Tom Lenihan’s version in ‘Mount Callan Garland’, Tom Munnelly writes:
‘A detail which is missing from Tom's version relates how the corpse began to bleed afresh when approached by her killer:

Her milk-white bosom all cut and scarred
With heavy wounds and blows,
And every wound brought forth fresh blood,
Came trickling through her clothes.

This belief that a victim could identify their murderer in this manner goes back at least to medieval literature and evidence of this nature was formally acceptable in judicial investigations. As recently as 1882, counsel for the defence of a Galway man accused of murder argued that the attendance of the accused at the wake of the murdered person was strong evidence that he was innocent because of the strength of this superstition. Counsel stated: 'I believe there is not a peasant in the land who is not familiar with it—that if you approach the corpse which your hand violated, possibly blood may start from the re-opened wound. That poor peasant, uneducated as he is, if he were guilty, he would have fled from the law.’

The only other version recorded from an older singer was got by the BBC in 1955, from Robert Cinnamond of Ballinderry, on the Derry, Tyrone border.”

Reference:
New Green Mountain Songster, Flanders, Ballard, Brown, Barry (eds.), Yale Univ. Press 1937.
Mount Callan Garland: Songs of Tom Lenihan, Tom Munnelly, Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann 1994.
Jim Carroll


See also
The Old Oak Tree sung by Michael 'Straighty' Flanagan
The Old Oak Tree sung by Mikey Kelleher


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