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The Old Oak Tree
(Laws P37; Roud 569)
Michael ‘Straighty’ Flanagan
Recorded July 1976

Carroll Mackenzie Collection  

Michael 'Straighty' Flanagan

The night was dark cold blew the wind, and thickly fell the rain,
As Bess she left her own dear home and came not back again,
She left her mother’s widowed side, feared not the rain or cold,
The girl was young, and fair to see, but love had made her bold.

The night being gone, the day did dawn and Bess she had not come,
Which caused her weeping friends to think, where Bessie does so roam?
And then her mother started up and she cried accent wild,
I’ll search this country o’er and o’er, till I find my darling child.

For three long dreary weeks she spent in wandering all around.
But the journey proved of no avail, for Bess she was not found.
At length though reached her lonely home, the longing mother tried,
But worn out with grief and woe, the broken-hearted died.

And at the end of all those scenes the owner of the ground.
Young James McCauliff came one day, to hunt with all his hounds.
Up hill, down dale they boldly rode, in gallant company,
Until at last, they lost the fox, beneath the old oak tree.

‘Twas there the hounds, began to yelp, to sniff and tear the clay.
But all the horn or whip could do, wouldn’t drive the dogs away.
The gentlemen all gathered round, they called for pick and spade.
They dug the ground, and there they found, the missing murdered maid.

Her bosom once that sparkled bright, was black with wounds and gore.
And from her cuts, fresh blood did flow, and trickle through her nose.
And this to prove a horrid deed, it was an awful sight.
The worms, creeping through her eyes, that once were blue and bright.

A knife revealed, stuck in her breast, and through the shock and shame.
The gentlemen, upon the haft, read James McCauliff’s name.
Saying, “Done the deed,” McCauliff cried, “My soul is food for hell,
Oh hide her cold corpse from me now and I the truth will tell.

It’s true I loved young Betsy long and by my cunning art
I gained her to my vicious views and broke her mother’s heart.
I wrote a marriage promise, into which I signed my name,
And from the very hour to this, I ruined young Bessie’s fame.

When we’d meet she used to say, ‘Now make me quick your bride.’
But I laughed at all her sorrows being hardened in my prime.
Then she teased until I tired, and so it seemed to me,
The devil whispered ‘Take her life, and then you will be free.’

The knife that did my dinner cut, I plunged it through her breast.
And with the shock, I knocked her down, sure I need not tell the rest.
And from that very hour to this, she stands before my eyes,
I always hear her pleading groans and hear her dying cry.”

He gave one look upon the corpse, a look of woe and pain.
He drew a pistol from his breast, and drove it through his brain
He was buried where he fell, no Christian grave got he;
No priest was found, to bless the ground, beneath that 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.”

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 Mikey Kelleher
The Old Oak Tree sung by Michael Flanagan

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