The song Carrickfergus is an Irish folk song named after the town of Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland’s County Antrim. The song’s roots are unknown, however, it has been linked to an Irish language ballad called “Do bh bean uasal” (“There Was a Noblewoman”), attributed to the poet Cathal Bu Mac Giolla Ghunna, who died in County Clare in 1745.
The tune first appears in macaronic form on a ballad sheet in Cork City in the mid-nineteenth century.
The Irish lyrics were a bawdy and humorous ballad about a man being cuckolded. The English lyrics, on the other hand, are nostalgic.
A linen trade developed between Co. Antrim (where Carrickfergus is located) and Co. Cork during the Industrial Revolution. It’s probable that the English lyrics were gleaned from snippets of conversations with Ulstermen.
Carrickfergus, according to Robert Gogan, may have grown from at least two independent songs, which would explain why it lacks a continuous narrative.
For example, in 1855, George Petrie published the Ancient Music of Ireland, which included a song called The Young Lady that included many, but not all, of the words used in Carrickfergus.
Gogan also refers to a recording of Sweet Maggie Gordon, which is housed in the US Library of Congress’s Music for the Nation department. Mrs Pauline Lieder released it in New York in 1880. It has verses that sound similar to Carrickfergus, while the chorus sounds more like Peggy Gordon, an Irish/Scottish folk ballad.
“Carrickfergus” became well-known in modern times after actor Peter O’Toole introduced it to Dominic Behan, who published it and recorded it in the mid-1960s. Behan is said to have composed the middle verse.
Carrickfergus – Lyrics
I wish I was in Carrickfergus, only for nights in Ballygrand
I would swim over the deepest ocean, the deepest ocean for my love to find
But the sea is wide and I cannot swim over and neither have I wings to fly
If I could find me a handsome boatman to ferry me over to my love and die
My childhood days bring back sad reflections of happy times I spent so long ago
My boyhood friends and my own relations have all passed on now like melting snow
But I’ll spend my days in endless roaming, soft is the grass, my bed is free
Ah to be back in Carrickfergus on that long road down to the sea
And in Kilkenny it is reported there are marble stones as black as ink
With gold and silver I would support her, but I’ll sing no more now till I get a drink
I’m drunk today and I’m seldom sober, a handsome rover from town to town
Ah, but I’m sick now, my days are numbered so come all ye young men and lay me down
-Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory.