About the lyrics to “Cailleach an airgid”–say wh-a-a-a-a-t?

I know. This song is, like, seriously crazy. Right? Well, yes and no.

First of all, the crazy part. Or at least the let’s-not-take-this-too-seriously part. This is a get-up-and-dance, stomp-those-feet kinda tune. (Okay, I’ll try not to use any more hyphens.) The words don’t really matter all that much in the final analysis. If you were around for our Celtic concert several years ago, you might remember that we sang a song about a lonely fish!So by the time we’ve sung “Si do Mhaimeoi” about five hundred times any sense of the words is lost, whether we know the translation or not.

However, there is an actual storyline to be had here. And as I was doing my usual Internet bopping I ran across a translation of the title from the Celtic Women: “The Wealthy Widow.” Oh! Now it begins to make a little more sense. Before we go any further, then, let me give you a translation of the Gaelic, including some parts that I’m sure our soloist, Jean Bolger, will be singing, and then we’ll go from there:

Curfá: Chorus:
‘Sí do mhaimeo í, ‘sí do mhaimeo í She’s your granny, she’s your granny
‘Sí do mhaimeo í cailleach an airgid She’s your granny, the hag with the money
‘Sí do mhaimeo í ó Bhail’ Iorrais Mhóir í She’s your granny from the town of Iorrais Mór
‘S chuir-feadh sí cóistí ‘r bhóithre Chois Fharraige And she would put coaches on the roads of Cois Farraige
‘bhFeicfeása ‘n “steam” ‘ga’l siar Tóin Uí Loing’ If you’d see the steam boat going past Tóin Uí Loing’
‘S na rothaí gh’l timpeall siar óna ceathrúnaí And the wheels turning speedily at her flanks
Caithfeadh sí’n stiúir naoi n-uair’ar a cúl She’d scatter the store nine times to the rear
‘S ní choinneodh sí siúl le cailleach an airgid But she never keeps pace with the hag with the money
(Curfá) (Chorus)
‘Measann tú ‘bpósfa, ‘measann tú ‘bpósfa Do you reckon he’d marry, do you reckon he’d marry
‘Measann tú ‘bpósfa beirt ar an mbaile seo? Do you reckon he’d marry by two in the village?
Tá ‘s a’m nach ‘bpósfa, tá ‘s a’m nach ‘bpósfa I know he’ll not marry, I know he’ll not marry
Mar tá sé ró-óg ‘gus dólfadh sé’n t-airgead Because he’s too young and he’ll drink the money
(Curfá) (Chorus)
‘S gairid go ‘bpósfa, ‘s gairid go ‘bpósfa We’ll soon have a wedding, we’ll soon have a wedding
‘S gairid go ‘bpósfa beirt ar an mbaile seo We’ll soon have a wedding by two in the village
‘S gairid go ‘bpósfa, ‘s gairid go ‘bpósfa We’ll soon have a wedding, we’ll soon have a wedding
Séan Shéamais Mhóir agus Máire Ní Chathasaigh Between Séan Séamais Mór and Máire Ní Chathasaigh
 (from http://www.celticlyricscorner.net/)

When we first started working on this song, I had a vague idea that the young man had been tempted by the hag’s (Sorry! That’s the word the song uses!) money but that in the end he married someone else, “Maire Ni Chathasaigh.” After all, we’d just been told in the preceding verse that he’d not marry the old woman. (I was also confused by the “she’s your granny” wording, but then I realized that it isn’t, of course, saying that the old woman is literally the young man’s grandmother but that she’s old enough to be so. Probably obvious to everyone else, but not to me!) But I was wrong. The wedding in the last verse between the two people in the last line is indeed celebrating the marriage of the young man and the hag.

I could just stop there, but surely you know me well enough to be sure that I can’t leave well enough alone! So let me just say that this theme of the lusty older woman (usually wealthy, as in this case) marrying the younger man is a well-worn trope in literature. As I was researching these lyrics I ran across references to the Wife of Bath, a famous character from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, who proudly boasts of her five husbands, the last one of which was twenty years younger than she. She then goes on to tell her tale, about a knight who must redeem himself by finding out what all woman want (Freud should have just read his Chaucer) and who is rescued by a . . . hag, who tells him that what all women want is mastery over their husbands. But her correct answer carries with it the price of the knight’s marriage to her. If he doesn’t answer the question correctly he will be executed, so he promises his hand. On their wedding night he is persuaded by her argument that she will be more loyal than a young and beautiful woman and so kisses her, at which point she is transformed into a young and beautiful woman. But she does seem to be loyal anyway, as they live happily ever after. And who can forget the old woman in The Magic Flute who is transformed into Papagena?

In our piece, though, the old woman stays old. The whole song has an air of hilarity about it, which matches attitudes even today about a couple in which the man is quite a bit younger than the woman. But it’s never considered particularly hilarious if the man is older than the woman.The strong implication in our piece is that the young man will indeed drink up all the old woman’s money. I’d like to think that they were happy for at least awhile, but I guess we won’t worry about it too much.

I had this post all written before we had a rehearsal with Mick and Jean Bolger of the Irish band Colcannon, and his considered opinion was that the song meant what I originally thought–that the old woman is trying to stop the wedding between the young man and woman named in the last verse. But honestly, folks, while I don’t want to argue with someone who’s arguably more of an expert on the subject of Irish music than I am (bein’ born in the old country an’ all, and having been performing its music since he was ten years old), I simply cannot find any source that agrees with our estimable collaborator. Everyone else says that the young man marries the hag with the money. So I guess I’ll say: Take your pick and believe what you like!

Here’s a performance of the song I like a lot better than the one by the Celtic Women—not as slick, and a lot more sound effects! (I think the drummer is also with the Celtic Women, though.) Notice that the tune is slightly different than our version and sounds more minor than ours even though it’s obviously not meant to be sad at all. If you’re interested in this whole major/minor flapdoodle, you can take a look back at the post I wrote about “Carol of the Bells” a couple of years ago. In the meantime, join in the fun below! (Sorry about the low res.) And then go to the Chorale website and buy your tickets!

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