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The Old Oak Tree
(Laws P37; Roud 569)

Mikey Kelleher
Quilty and Depford, London
Recorded in London, 1977

Carroll Mackenzie Collection

Mikey Kelleher

Oh dark the night, cold blow the wind, and quickly poured the rain,
When Betty left her own dear home and ne’er came back again,
She left her widow mother’s side, not fearing wind or cold,
The girl was young, and fair to see, but love had made her bold.

The day had passed and the night came on, and Betty was not home,
Which caused her loving friends to think, where Betty does she roam?
At last her mother rose and said, in a weeping voice she cried,
‘I’ll travel the world o’er and o’er, my darling child to find.’

Six long weary weeks she spent, wandering up and down,
And the journey proved of no avail, for Betty she was not found.
And then to reach the lonely end, the eager mother tried,
Worn out from pain and grief, she broken-hearted died.

And at the end of all the scenes, the owner of the ground,
Young James McCaul went for a hunt, one day with all his hounds.
Up hill, down dale they boldly ran, in gallant company,
Until at last, they lost the fox, beneath the old oak tree.

It was then the dogs began to bark, to root and tear the clay.
And all the men and horse could do, would not put the dogs away.
And then the men they gathered round, searching for the pick and spade.
They dug the ground, and there they found, the missing murdered maid.

With a knife revealed, stuck in her side, it was a shocking sight,
And the worms creeping through her eyes, oh once were blue and bright.
‘I done the deed,’ McCaul he cried, ‘My soul is food for hell,
Hide her cold corpse from my sight, and the truth to you I’ll tell.

It was true I loved young Betty long and for her cunning heart.
I gained her to my vicious views I broke her mother’s heart.
I wrote this marriage promise, onto which she signed her name,
And from that dreadful hour to this, I’ve ruined young Betty’s fame.’

Now to prove this harrowed death, and for his grief and shame,
He drew a pistol from his belt, and fired it through his brain.
He was buried where he fell, no Christian grave got he,
No priest was found, to bless the ground, beneath the old oak tree.


Conversation after the song:
Jim Carroll: Where did you hear that from?
Mikey Kelleher: Oh, I heard that about 70 years ago, nearly. I was young, very young. I got it from Micko McGannon’s wife.
Jim: Micko?
Mickey: Micko McGannon, d’you know - he’s living up by the railway gates there, in a big, high house. His wife brought it around first, and that’s years upon years ago.

“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.”

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 Michael Flanagan

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