There was once a time – long ago now – that I would sit at home accompanying myself on mandolin or mandola. Occasionally, this would even happen in public. One song which got this treatment was ‘Galtee Farmer’, learned from the Steeleye Span LP Commoners Crown. As far as I can recall that one never got a public airing, and at some point I stopped singing it altogether. However in 1986 I bought a cassette issued by the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Early in the Month of Spring, which contained a traditional variant of ‘Galtee Farmer’. The singer was Bill Cassidy, a traveller originally from Co. Wexford but, at the time he was recorded by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie in 1973, camping illegally under the Westway flyover in North Kensington.
I immediately decided to learn Bill’s version, but felt I needed to change soem of the words, to make it more singable. It’s not that the story is incomplete the way Bill sang it, but the sense in some of the lines seemed to have been mangled a bit e.g.
I’ll engage this mare to all kind work
And her trial won’t be a quest
She looks so style and handsome
And so action in my eye
On a visit to Cecil Sharp House, Malcolm Taylor found me a couple of excellent sound recordings as a possible source of alternative lyrics. One was by Lal Smith, another travelling singer, recorded by Peter Kennedy in the 1950s. And the other was by an unidentified singer, recorded at Killorglin Puck Fair, Co. Kerry. Checking the Roud Index, it must have been this BBC recording, made in 1947 (the catalogue record says “Co. Derry” but that must be a typo – the Puck Fair is definitely held in Kerry).
This Killorglin recording was quite remarkable. Made, I imagine, in a pub, with a very noisy, boisterous clientele, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a recording where it was so obvious that the singer, and everyone with him, was quite so monumentally plastered.
I can no longer remember which lines of my version of the song came from Lal Smith or the singer at the fair (or perhaps from my memory of the Steeleye recording). It may even be that some I just made up.
For more on Bill, and the other Irish travellers recorded by Jim and Pat, see the notes to the Musical Traditions set, From Puck to Appleby; and then purchase the CD, or download a copy – it will cost you all of £4.