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Weela Weela Walya
(Child 20; Roud 9)
Vincie Boyle
Mount Scott, Mullagh
Recorded December 2003

Carroll Mackenzie Collection

 

Vincie Boyle

There was an auld woman and she lived in a wood,
Weela weela walya;
There was an auld woman and she lived in a wood,
Down by the river Sallia.

She had a baby three months old,
Weela weela walya;
She had a baby three months old,
Down by the river Sallia.

She stuck a penknife in the baby's heart,
Weela weela walya;
She stuck a penknife in the baby's heart,
Down by the river Sallia.

Two policeman and a man came knocking on her door,
Weela weela walya;
Two policeman and a man came knocking on her door,
Down by the river Sallia.

‘Are you the woman that stuck the baby in the heart?’
Weela weela walya;
‘Are you the woman that stuck the baby in the heart?
Down by the river Sallia?’

They caught the woman and they put her into jail.
Weela weela walya;
They caught the woman and they put her into jail.
Down by the river Sallia.


"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' ('Weela Weela Walya') 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 clerk (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.

* Black Maria; police vehicle for transporting prisoners.

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 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
The Cruel Mother sung by Pat MacNamara


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