Article MT234

Glimpses into the 19th Century Broadside Ballad Trade

No. 35: Charming Mary Neill1

The abduction or elopement ballad Charming Mary Neill has a limited number of printers' names involved in its distribution: only Hodges (it is thought) and Such in London, Pratt in Birmingham, Harkness in Preston and Ross in Newcastle; and a merest glimpse amongst printers in Ireland.  This distribution, hovering in historical time just before and around the mid-nineteenth-century mark, has no Fortey, for instance, in London, no Wrights in Birmingham, no Stewart in Carlisle nor Fordyce in Newcastle, no 'country' printers at all; and, whilst it may well be that other printers did take up the text, copy seems not to have survived.  There is, though, a catalogue reference to Disley.2

There is a historical background to the ballad that helps to mark dating of issue and this has been examined by John Moulden whose principal findings are summarised here.  A ship called Charlotte Douglas, sailing from Derry to Quebec in May 1836, was wrecked 'on Whale Head reef, at the entrance of Gasper bay, at the mouth of the St Lawrence, during a dense fog'.  At a time (1835) close to this date, a Charles Gavin had been charged with attempting to abduct a Mary O'Neill and was sentenced to transportation for a period of fourteen years - later reduced to seven.  In fact, the offence could have involved punishment by hanging.  A petition got up on behalf of Gavin included Mary O'Neill's signature, evidence that the abduction was, like that of Willie Reilly, a matter of collusion between the lovers against parental opposition; and this petition could even have had an effect of mitigating the sentence.3

All this may be thought to be coincidental but the story of Charming Mary Neill in broadside form includes many of these details in recognisable form.

There are the usual difficulties attached to dating of broadside text in order to gain evidence of a first issue.  For a start, titles vary - Charming Mary Neal, An admired love Song called Mary Neil, A New Song called Mary Neal.  All the same, in this respect, some of the difficulties can be resolved.  'A New Song … ', for instance, implies the existence of an older version (we think of The Irish Girl and The New Irish Girl; and then again of The Transports and The New Transports and even A New Song Called Erin's Lovely Home, obviously pertinent to elopement ballads, from the printer Birmingham in Dublin).  We also know something of the operative dates of some printers.  We can even begin to group texts since it would appear that all those issued in Ireland - very few, it has to be said - shared the same title, viz: An admired love Song … .  Finally, the known dates of events (1836) indicate a time before which the ballad could not have existed and this historical time, therefore, might preclude the involvement of early printers, perhaps even Pitts and Catnach.

We can at least establish the parameters of text.  The first printing under examination (thought to have been issued by Hodges4) begins as follows:

The spelling of 'Neal' is worth a look.  In some text it is 'Neil' and, as will be shown, this, in sung terms, would seem to be capable of pronunciation as 'Nail' (roughly), that would accord with rhyme in the particular text ('jail', 'fail').  Was this an attempt to mirror 'Irish' pronunciation in a narrative with Irish flavour?  If so, copy from Harkness, to complicate proceedings, as will be seen, actually presents 'Neal' along with 'steal' in its first stanza - which, of course, raises immediate questions about the sensitivity of ears amongst printers as opposed to opportunism.

Second, third and fourth stanzas make it quite clear that the lovers enjoyed each others' confidence … in stanza two, 'Don't fear my father's anger for I will set you free'; in stanza three:

The word 'royal' can be seen to as a replacement for 'loyal' so evidence of intent by the printer may not be absolutely clear in this case although the epithet is, in both cases, complimentary.5  In stanza four - after the trial - 'my well known voice soon reached her ears' and she declared that 'you're welcome here, my Johnny dear' (we should note in the ballad that Mary Neal's father allowed McCann out on bail but stipulated that he must stand trial).

The lovers then sat on 'a sunny bank' and he persuaded her to sail with him from Derry aboard the 'Shamrock' to Quebec.  'She gave consent', went off to gather clothes, and also stole 'Five hundred pounds of ready gold' from her father.6 The couple ('we') then proceeded to Derry by coach, after having bribed the coachman not to tell, in order to take ship:

The reference to 'Captain Nelson' is, perhaps not surprisingly, historically inaccurate, as will be seen.  The passage, be it noted, took some six weeks before 'we came to Whitehead beach' …  However, in some printed text (below) and in one sung version this 'six weeks' becomes considerably extended.  'On crossford bay' (sic), on 'the ninth of June' a heavy fog came on and 'Our vessel on a sandy bank was driven by a gale'.  Forty people were washed overboard 'along with Mary eal (sic)'.  Five hundred passengers were saved.  As for Mary Neal: After that: This final stanza with its suspiciously fictional possibilities appears also in Such and Ross copy but not in Harkness nor in one copy without imprint nor in any Irish printing (see more below).  Otherwise, this is the essential story, compounded of detail designed, it would appear, to give both verisimilitude and, in the last stanza, some intrigue - this if such fine feelings entered the heads of the printers.

If this text is from Hodges, it would have been printed between 1844 and 1861.  These dates, though, are of no real help in establishing order of printing when compared with those of other printers - as will be discussed below.  Certainly, the gap between event and issue allows for the possibility that printings were circulating before our first sighting and that oral versions of the story, likewise, may have emerged.  So far, though, in England there is no example of the one nor the other.

Alongside our first sighting, only Such in London seems to have taken up the ballad and his storyline remains the same as is found in the copy discussed above.7  However, as might be expected, there are several minor changes.  In stanza one, for example, Such has 'I am a native of Donegal … ' rather than 'I'm' - seemingly trivial enough in itself; in stanza two he has 'While in strong irons I was bound' whereas the other copy had 'cold irons'; in stanza three Such has 'loyal lover' not 'royal lover'; in stanza five, McCann urging that Mary Neal 'comply with me' where the other copy has 'if you will comply …; and so on.  It is worth noting the hyperbolic five thousand pounds that the girl stole in Such copy, not five hundred as in our first sighting.  Punctuation also varies.

But the most significant change is in the reference, in Such, to the ship 'Charlotte Douglas', not the 'Shamrock' as in our first copy - which name we could now guess to have been token or symbolic only, perhaps meant to be in keeping with the 'Irish' flavour of the story.  Such's nomination accords with the historical basis of the story and it may have been a 'late' conjunction in comparison to the naming in our first copy, all the more outstanding because other details of naming - Captain Nelson, Whitehead Beach and Crossford Bay - remain the same as were found in our first copy.  The total of numbers saved is different: '200' in Such as opposed to five hundred in the first copy discussed.

Such, then, who may have been printing in partnership in the middle 1840s but with a verifiable commencement of his business in 1849 (he died in 1882) and incorporating at least one accurate historical detail, may well have printed after that first copy discussed above.  This suggests that, whilst our first copy seems to have been most concerned with the imaginative impact of the story qua story, Such has added a touch more verisimilitude; and we cannot determine why this should have happened.  One wonders: were there oral versions that exerted influence?  One wonders, too, if this accumulation of detail actually heightened any imaginative appeal amongst readers and singers.  And, just to extend that line of argument, the kinds of anomalies under discussion, present in so many broadsides that involve historical events, are sometimes almost irrelevant (punctuation, say) and can be dangerous if one were to take as read an attempt to provide clear historical authenticity.

At the same time, a printer's apprehension of both event and printing opportunity is sometimes exposed and an individuality expressed.  In this case, with Such and our first copy, there is not a lot to go on; but it will be seen that one printer in England stands out (below) in ways, including apparent anomalies as set out above and a possible process of accumulation of detail, that suggest a late appearance.

The alternative of regression as far as detail in this case is concerned is less likely.  Evidence from Irish printings that are conventionally held to have been issued after copy in England offers accumulation as a more probable process; and sung versions, though meagre in number, confirm this.

This accumulation is brought into focus, if but marginally, in considering text from Pratt in Birmingham, though Pratt, according to the British Book Trade Index, operated between 1840 and 1860 and, therefore, within the parameters that obtain with regard to our first copy and to Such.  Pratt has the storyline as found so far and has the usual small changes.8  Thus, 'Her father', in stanza one, 'said he'd hang me' rather than - in our first copy - 'Her Father swears he'll hang me'; in stanza three, of the girl's father, 'on my trial day my prosecutor was to be' whereas the first copy had 'And my trial day, was my prosecutor to be'; 'if you'll comply with me … ' in stanza five; 'five thousand pounds' as the sum stolen in stanza six.  Then a sort of crux in the matter appears where, like Such, Pratt refers to the 'correct' name of the ship, the Charlotte Douglas.  As if to confuse the issue, though, and unlike Such, he refers to 'Gosford Bay' although 'White head Beach ' remains - a trifle odd in that one might expect that if he got one name more or less right then he may well have had access to information or copy that would have given him the right name elsewhere.  Finally, 'forty-two' people were washed overboard, not 'forty' as in that first copy and in Such … Can we call this increasing verisimilitude?  If we can, then our first copy looks to have been the earliest - probably as far as we can go in pinpointing and not really escaping the catch-all 1840s as the most favourable period of broadside production of this particular ballad.

Ross in Newcastle also has the familiar storyline and the expected small changes.9  Ross, like Pratt, insists that the girl stole '£5000'.  Stanza nine appears in shortened form as follows:

The omission of a line that would complete metrics is clear enough and there seems to be no obvious reason why text should have been adumbrated.  The substitution of '8 months' where other English copy (above) has 'six weeks' is also hard to explain except in fictional terms but the inclusion of 'reaf' is a kind of improvement in veracity.  As in Pratt, Ross has '42' people washed overboard; but, unlike copy from the other English printers considered so far, Ross concludes his piece with '£5 a week I now receive for my charming Mary Neal' - which conjures up visions of a sort of blackmail after the exchange of letters between McCann and Mary Neal's father; and also accords with detail in Irish printings (below) but not in other English copy.

Both the Bodleian library and the British Book Trade Index have John Ross printing at Royal Arcade, Newcastle, between 1847 and 1852 (although there is an implication in BBTI that this period may have been extended further into the century).  Irish copy does not come within this date range and so there is a prospect of Irish copying - the conventional view of process.

It is noteworthy that only Ross, in England, has the title A new Song called Mary Neal.  One wonders if he simply took a chance with the emphasis on 'new'.  There was not, after all, much time to manoeuvre.  Pratt began printing in 1840, Harkness in 1844, Hodges (if it is he) in 1846, Such perhaps in the mid-1840s.  Comparison of what turn out to be very different texts of Mary Neill may rule out a Harkness-Ross descent in time.  Pratt and the printer of our first text are the more likely ones who could offer precedent (as far, of course, as we know).

Harkness text (much as was his text of the Willie Reilly story) is quite a variant - entitled Mary Neal And John M'Cann.10  The storyline is more or less intact but changes in phraseology and naming abound even if some are virtually self-explanatory.  Thus, the youth is 'reared near unto Treban'; but, of a slightly different order, it was the girl - 'She' - who 'made her father let me out on bail'; and, following this:

Here there is a clear rhyme in the last two lines outside the 'Neal-Neill-Nail' axis as well as different detail such as the emphasis on 'assizes', found also in one copy without imprint as discussed below but in no other copy, English or Irish - where we normally find 'my trial day'.  We can also compare the last two lines with those in our first copy as given above and note the impending status of the girl at trial - here to 'appear against me' and in our first copy 'my prosecutor was to be'.  The twist in the storyline, of course, belies this.

Harkness' next stanza is even more different:

It looks as if Harkness was drawing on other ballads, the 'ambush' being a unique element in printings and the blackbird and nightingale clearly redolent of many a lyric.

Further, the couple sat down by a 'flowery bank' and John M'Cann 'Says I my dear you need not fear I'll free you from exile'.  We must assume by this that he means to carry his love off to safety - anonymity - rather than himself face what could be hanging or, at best, banishment for himself alone.

Then the ship is named as Charles Douglas.

Notably, too, 'we' (not 'she') 'went & pack'd up her best clothes' - 'And for me £500 from her father she did steal', a substantially lesser amount than that found in Such, as comparison, but the same as in our first copy.  Allegations of arbitrary fashioning as in much copy pertaining to actual events must be accepted as a feature of dramatisation.

However, the couple:

The name 'M'Neal' has echoes of the 'real' name of the captain, MacNeilage (see more below).  The '2 days' in Derry where all other English printers simply have 'and in the town of Derry' is another example of where change took place on an individual initiative.  After that, Harkness continued to echo - faintly - other unrelated balladry, introducing new material and (perhaps) familiar locations.  Throughout copy and in view of the clear 'steal' and 'Neal' rhyme in his opening stanza, he maintains the possibility of rhyme between 'Neal' and words like 'wail': The 'six men of the mast' is a unique reference and on-board death appears only in copy without imprint as discussed immediately below.

One constant, given in all English copy including that of Harkness, is the date of the accident, '9th June'.  Conversely, Harkness insists on the figure '49' for those 'washed overboard' as opposed to 'Forty' in our first copy and 'forty-two' in Pratt copy ('42' in Ross) and there is no mention of the number of passengers saved.

But there is yet another change.  Harkness, again incorporating lines that echo other ballads and using a conventional epithet (my italics), yet has the final two stanzas as follows:

The final stanza here is, in comparison with other broadside text, inventive.

Finally, Harkness copy has a header block pertaining to the ballad as opposed to a header block on other copy that was seen to be sufficient for the two ballads that appear side by side.  In Harkness' case, it is of a large coach, a coachman with whip and what looks like a postillion and there are steps at the rear of the coach (still unfolded!).  This might connect with the escape of the two lovers.

Were there elements of carelessness here or indifference; or do we have here - on the one hand - deliberate insertion of new material or - on the other - the infiltration of oral material?  The version, as a whole, stands out in comparison with other English text.  Even if copy was issued from more than one printer simultaneously and not as a matter of following precedence in any way, Harkess' individuality is clear enough.

One more copy, without imprint, entitled Mary Neil, has some varied detail.11  Firstly, though, the opening two stanzas can be fairly compared with our first copy and found to be quite like it - although M'Cann (a Harkness spelling, be it said), for instance, 'was bred near sweet Strabane' (not - as in Harkness - 'Treban').  But then stanzas three, four and five here are as found in Harkness and include the naming of the ship as Charles Douglas thus suggesting a connection between the two copies.  In the next stanza, it is the girl alone ('She') who went back for her clothes - not 'we' as in Harkness - and 'Unknown to me £500 from her father she did steal' - which involves the same amount that is found in Harkness.  It was 'A coach', not 'her' coach, as in our first copy, that was got ready and 'we' not 'she' who 'bribed the coach driver' (but 'driver' is a unique word, contrasting with 'coachman' in our first copy and in Such and Pratt).  The couple 'land' in 'Derry town', following which, in another change, 'We to brave Captain M'Nealy, our passage money paid', this latter reference, once again, coming closer to that of the real captain of the Charlotte Douglass, Captain MacNeilage.

As in Harkness, shipboard events are recounted although in quite different detail: 'While on the passage to Quebec, six in the measles died': a novel introduction.  This insertion (and that of Harkness) indicates a definite turn in the progress of the narrative.  Then:

'Cape Wrath' may well have had ripples spread from general knowledge but 'Gaspar' is specific.  We also note the number washed overboard - as in Harkness, given as '49'.

This particular version seems, then, to incorporate material found in various other copy and the increasing veracity (as seen through hindsight, of course) might mark it out as a late production.  We note, in respect of accuracy, the consistent date, '9th June', for the accident (and one is reminded of the seven links on the boy's chain in Erin's Lovely Home and Brennan's nine wounds in his story) but there are still echoes of Harkness in the remaining stanzas here, the ship wrecked one hundred miles from shore, the cries of passengers that 'did grieve my heart full sore', and then 'Many who had left their native home their hard part to bewail' and the protagonist plunging down to save his sweetheart.  Yet the mixture continues with a reference to the '500 lives' saved - as in our first copy but not in Harkness - and with unique lines:

A final stanza is very much like that in Harkness copy.

Altogether, this version, like that from Harkness, looks to reveal the processes of alteration that come with historical descent in time and with oral attention.  But we can only really guess that it was issued after our first copy and Pratt and, probably, after Harkness if Harkness detail that does not appear elsewhere other than in this copy without imprint is taken into account.

The one clear feature of ballad production as a whole in England is that the sum total of printings as so far found is meagre.  But we may have a pedigree - though copy appears to have been issued within a compass centring on the 1840s and after - if the idea of accumulation is pursued.  Overall consistency in narrative applies and this, we will find, obtains in those sung versions that we have.  The story found and maintained an audience alright.

Irish copy is, like that in England, limited, lacking names of printers except in one case, that of Mayne in Belfast.12  Copy in the Madden collection only has references to 'Dublin' and to 'Ireland' as source.  Copy in the National Library of Ireland would appear to be one and the same with that in the Madden collection.  ITMA offers no change in broadside status.  All copy found has the title as it is in a printing from Mayne: An admired Love Song, called Mary Neill; or a title with the smallest of variants as in the name, 'Neil'.

Mayne copy can, then, be used as a touchstone even though it is late in production (he printed at the address on copy in High Street, Belfast between 1852 and 1867).  John McCann was 'a native of sweet Donegall convenient to Strabane' (sic).  The following lines accord with Harkness:

Later in the text the lovers set out to board the 'Sharlot Douglas' - a more or less historically correct reference - after the girl stole 'Five thousand pounds in ready gold' from her father.  The figure of 'five thousand' is a constant in all Irish broadside issue, contrasting vividly with the five hundred pounds of our first English copy and with Harkness and the copy without imprint discussed above but not with Such, Pratt or Ross (all have 'five thousand).  This must surely be an increase meant to dramatise the theft.  Likewise, 'She' it was who bribed the coachman, not 'we' as in all English copy.  Passage was paid to 'Captain Wilson' - still historically inaccurate though carrying echoes of 'Nelson', perhaps a sign that printer was following printer.  The couple sailed to Quebec '6 months on a matchless tide', in contrast to the six weeks of all English copy save that of Ross and copy without imprint (all Irish printings have six months too).  The ship then came to 'Whitehead-reef' and 'Gosford Bay' where, on 'the 9th of June' the ship was lost, and 'forty' people were washed overboard 'along with Mary Neill'.  '500' passengers were saved by the efforts of the ship's crew.  Mary Neill's 'yellow locks' were espied and McCann rescued her.  The correspondence between the protagonist and Mary's father that we found in some English text differs when the protagonist receives the father's letter: This mirrors the suggestion of a sort of blackmail that featured in copy from Ross rather than the triumphalism in all other English copy where the protagonist declares that he is the heir to the father's estate 'by your daughter Mary Neal'.

Ultimately, the narrative line is preserved along with most of the detail found in English copy - though there are expected differences such as a description of the father as being 'full of wrath and anger' whereas in our first copy, for instance, it is 'wrath and indignation'.  The names of the ship and of the captain stand out.

Mayne's header block, almost by the way, is a woodcut of a coach and horses with spectators in the background, too vague to act as any kind of representation of textual content.  But in this it is no worse than the header block on Harkness copy.

Only one other copy from Ireland, without imprint13, has the spelling 'Neill' in it and includes printing errors rather than any deviation in narrative or detail: for example, 'persector', 'comeply', 'Chorlote Dong', 'pisclose'; and one slight alteration (a reversal of apparent error) when the captain predicts the loss of the ship - 'we all are gone' instead of Mayne's 'we all gone'.  Whether these errors are enough for us to be able to point to Brereton as mischief-maker is another matter but this piece actually looks as if it were meant to mirror Mayne copy.  If there is any connection with Brereton then it is late but follows Mayne conveniently enough.  Brereton operated after Mayne, between 1867 and 1875 - evidence, at least, of continuing issue in Ireland.14  The header block, though, is of a smart, two-horse coach with a smart couple in it: the escaping couple, perhaps - in which case, where is the bribed coachman?

A third copy, with the name 'Neil', has the same storyline with all its details intact though there are one or two changes such as 'deal' for 'dale', 'Her father's wrath I value not' for ' … I valued not', '40' instead of 'forty' and 'we are all gone' instead of Mayne's 'we all gone' - nothing untoward.  The header block, quite inappropriately, has a male figure digging in front of a thatched cottage.15  There is no obvious possibility of matching this copy with any other but the different appearance of the copy suggests continued printing.

A further copy also has all the details intact and all the 'errors' in our second Irish copy discussed above made good.  This copy is also found in the Madden collection - its source given, merely, as Dublin - and the University of Sheffield Library; and because the texts are alike and the header block too (a gaudily dressed figure under a tree on the left and a naked figure entwined in a serpent's coils on the right), it is almost certain that there was a single source printer.  This header block seems to be totally unrelated to text and, again, the piece seems to be unmatched by any other but, still, continued printing is implied.16

Copy from ITMA, without imprint17, has Mayne's storyline complete, with a minimum of orthographic changes: 'Neil' in the title, for instance; 'donegal'; 'M'Cann bound in 'strong arms' rather than 'irons'; 'ninth of June'; 'with charming Mary Neil' in the final line where Mayne has 'with my charming Mary Neill'.  The most significant change is where the ship is named as "Charlott Douglas" (sic).  In this case, the header block is of an interior and a lady with a fan - obviously unrelated unless by an extravagant stretch of the imagination one were to view this as a representation of Mary Neil (sic).  As with copy described above, different appearance may indicate continued printing.  Whether or not this copy predated that from Mayne, as with other Irish printings, is another matter and incapable of resolution at this point.

One last copy has the same textual layout - including inverted commas round "Charlott Douglas" - as the copy discussed immediately above.  The header block is different, two separate figures, male and female.  If nothing else, this - yet again - may suggest continued issue from a single printer.18

Single ballad Irish printings, then, hardly vary and contain a fair degree of historical accuracy if some absurd wording on occasion.  The general irrelevance of header blocks is clear enough.  Given the potential dates of issue, too, it is difficult to see any immediate enthusiasm for the historical event.  Copy seems to have been appropriated from existing printings, probably English, if verifiable dates of issue in Ireland are taken into account but the variation in appearance, all the same, this must suggest popularity, even over a short period of time.

Taking printings as a body, in both England and Ireland, the piece would appear to have had a limited shelf-life, from mid-century through the next couple of decades after which no new copy appeared (or has survived), even in compilations.

It remains to review sung versions.

These are scarce: in England, one from Mrs Marina Russell in Dorset and, in Ireland, versions from P W Joyce, from Sam Henry and from Colm O'Lochlainn.  In the first-named, noted in 1907 and reproduced in JEFDSS19, the text is fragmented and incomplete, consisting of an opening almost commensurate with broadside texts:

where the second line, in particular, has a plausible location even if, in comparison to all known examples otherwise, it is singular.  The three lines given above are followed by a brief description of the protagonist 'in cold irons', with his love giving him hope, with a line referring to a waiting ship before she steals away her clothes; and then there is a reference to her yellow locks 'floating all the waves so high'.  There is no rescue.  Clearly, according to what is known through broadside printings, this version is incomplete.

A note from Frank Purslow, who edited the manuscript, hazards that the presence of the 'yellow locks' line might suggest that Mrs Russell knew more of the song than H E D Hammond recorded.  Indeed, Mrs Russell was, elsewhere, referred to as being somewhat unreliable in her memory, although Henry Hammond, the collector, put some of this down to the fact that she had lost her teeth.20  But, further, the reference to 'Edinboro' might suggest another trick of memory rather than simply a variant location (for the record, there is no sung copy, for instance, in Greig; and no broadside copy from Scotland either).

It may be as well to add that the Hammonds were not known for investigation of the songs that they collected nor any background but that they relied on the Folk Song Society for elaboration, especially by the then editor, Lucy Broadwood.  George Gardiner, of course, had the same close relationships with Lucy Broadwood who had initially suggested areas in which to work to all three collectors, Gardiner and both the Hammond brothers; but he, in contrast to Henry Hammond, seems to have perused the findings of others and referred much more comprehensively to versions other than his own.21

The tune is a variant of Dives and Lazarus, in three-four time, unremarkable in itself; but it represents a distinctive effort to use a three-four-time framework: nowhere else is this the case.

Click the graphic above to play the tune.

It should be noted that in bar one and in bar three Hammond has given the alternative notes of dotted quaver and semi-quaver on the C and the E respectively, presumably to indicate variation.  Frank Purslow, editing the manuscripts, followed Hammond.  In the Folk Song Journal version, the first two notes here are changed to a single crochet in order to accommodate the 'I' that begins the text.

Finally, the song is called The Stealing of Mary Neal.  We must assume that this was the singer's title but bear the rendering of the surname, 'Neal', in mind.  In this respect, it may be thought that whilst Hammond, in writing out the name, would probably have taken up the singer's designation, the Folk Song Society could have had access to Joyce who has the title Charming Mary Neill and certainly to broadsides and might have acted accordingly by at least pointing out the discrepancy.  This - it should be stressed - is not a mere side-swipe but a pointer, perhaps, towards the relative infancy of research and documentation of traditional song at the time.

About his version, Joyce wrote - 'Air and song probably from Donegal'.22  This could well have been because the opening lines suggest it as they do in broadside versions rather than being due to 'inside' knowledge.  Often, Joyce is vague - referring, for instance, to childhood as a time when songs were heard or were popular:

Unfortunately, too, Joyce gives us no more than the one stanza so that no further comparison can be made.

Joyce's tune is straightforward enough in, roughly, ABBA form - the B measures varying a little in musical notation.

Click the graphic above to play the tune.

The version in Sam Henry's Songs of the People came from two sources.23  The words, a note informs us, were from one Robert Brownlow, Ballylaggan, Coyfin, Coleraine but no date is given.  The tune was got between Claudy and Strabane from a one-legged 36 year old former blacksmith who had it from his father, a Belfast carter!  Another note, quoting a correspondent, tells us that:

Away back in the Famine years, at a house-warming and dance, a wild, reckless youth, James Just, sang a local song that made a sensation, Mary O'Neill (pronounced O'Nale).
Sam Henry's 'correspondent' goes on to tell of a dispute over a local girl during which she was bundled into a cornsack and carried away … The relevance to the narrative of Mary Neill is not clear except that an abduction of sorts had taken place.  The tale itself is amusing enough at this point in time!

The song is certainly the familiar one and contains all the known episodes.  The ship's name is given as Charlotte Douglass - historically correct, then - but, unhistorically, the Captain's name as 'Wilson' whereas, in actuality, it was 'Captain McNeilage'.  It is perhaps worth emphasising that this last could well have given rise to the 'corruption' found in Harkness broadside copy.  Other details in song are that the ship sailed for 'six months' (which, it is beginning to seem probable, is a late addition) on a 'matchless tide' and then through 'Goffard Bay'; and that it struck on 9th June.  Forty passengers were washed overboard, presumably drowned, and five hundred saved, these numbers echoing those found in broadside copy from Hodges and Such.

The tune is absolutely four-square.  Its use and that of the others mentioned here indicate that singers reached for a suitable version of their own acquaintance.  Here, Sam Henry made his own choice of tune.

Click the graphic above to play the tune.

Colm O'Lochlainn's tune is also a solid, four-square one in ABBA form but dis-similar to those in Joyce and Henry in musical phrasing, thus underlining the individual choice of vehicles for text.24

Click the graphic above to play the tune.

The text is a full one, beginning its journey, so to speak, in Donegal, admitting to 'the stealing of an heiress' and containing all the other episodes as known in broadside production: the trial (the father as prosecutor), the girl's encouragement to her love, the notion of exile - on board The Shamrock (something of a throw-back to our very first broadside printing and suggesting, faintly, that there were other versions in circulation) - the girl stealing back her clothes and, what is more, 'Five hundred pounds in ready gold', the coach ride to Derry and then the voyage - ostensibly to Quebec, sailing to Whitehead beach and Crossford Bay, the shipwreck, the rescue of Mary Neill, with her yellow locks, 'floating down the waves' and the exchange of letters between the protagonist and the father.

The theft as described here, both in other sung versions and in broadsides, has resonance.  Baring-Gould's version of Erin's Lovely Home contained such an episode that did not appear anywhere else in known copy.  One is strongly suspicious that the episode was lifted from another song, or even this one, unless Baring-Gould had in mind the point at which Willie Reilly (in the song pertaining to his misfortune already discussed on this site) was accused of stealing his sweetheart's jewels.25

John Moulden's reconstruction of circumstances in respect of Mary Neill (referred to earlier in this discussion) uses copy taken from H H Sparling that itself took from 'an Athlone printed song-sheet of around 1840'.26  It is made clear that the song was based on the true event of the wrecking of the Charlotte Douglass - which name we found in some broadside copy - in 1836.  Interestingly, notice of the Charlotte Douglass's proposed voyage to Quebec, issued in Derry on 25th April 1836, allows time for Intending passengers to proceed to Derry by the 5th of May in order to 'pay the remainder of their Passage Money'.  We then recall, in contrast, the lines in broadside copy referring to 9th June as the day of shipwreck - after six weeks (in some copy) of a matchless tide and not the six months of the Henry sung version nor of Irish single ballad broadsides.

Further notice in the Londonderry Journal for July 26th 1836 revealed that the Charlotte Douglass had been wrecked 'on Whale head reef' on 9th May.  Journalistic veracity in broadside copy is justified.  Traditional singing has, on the other hand, altered details.

Even more startling in the detail that can be assembled is the information (noted above) as given by John Moulden that a certain Charles Gavin 'was charged with abducting Mary O'Neill, with stealing and with receiving stolen goods from her father' at the Armagh Lent Assizes of 1835. Gavin had been a servant on the father's farm.  The court sentenced him to fourteen years' transportation despite a petition on his behalf from Mary O'Neill.  As far as songs based on historical events are concerned, this information is quite as intriguing as those details assembled around the story of Willie Reilly.

As for popularity, it is striking that the generic song of Erin's Lovely Home found such favour in the British Isles as opposed to this one with more local significance.  This is, of course, as far as we can work this out from existing material.  But the discrepancy is underlined by the fact that there are several more sung versions of Mary Neill to be found in North America.  Finally, the piece, like all other abduction ballads that have emerged, like every dog, had its day.  It is likely that increasing regulation of the phenomenon of abduction and, finally, its disappearance, left but a fleeting memory.

Roly Brown - 12.2.10
Oradour sur Vayres, France


Article MT234

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