By Brian McGowan
Listen to enough Irish ballads and soon enough you will run across a seemingly favorite date for songsters to reference, and that date is “The 23rd of June.”
At least a few songs immediately come to mind: “The Jug of Punch,” a ballad made famous – or at least very familiar – by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem on their early 1960s album “Hearty and Hellish.” There is also the equally renowned County Clare tune “Spancil Hill.”
Let’s consider “Spancil Hill” first. It’s an emigrant song, relates Pauline Murphy, a contributor to IrishCentral.com. Written in the 1870s by a County Clare native, Michael Considine, the song is born of his experiences in Boston and California, where he hoped to make his fortune and return to Ireland to claim the woman he left behind.
One version begins:
“It bein’ on the 23rd of June, the day before the fair,
Sure Erin’s sons and daughters, they all assembled there…”
But the original words from Considine are, in my opinion, much better:
“Last night as I lay dreaming, of pleasant days gone by,
my mind being bent on rambling, to Erin’s Isle I did fly.
I stepped on board a vision and sailed out with a will,
till I gladly came to anchor at the cross of Spancil Hill.”
Considine would never see his homeland again, nor the love of his life, and died in California at the tender age of 23. Yet he lives on today in the words of his song, as sad a tune as any emigrant ever penned.
It’s been sung by many, including the Dubliners, Robbie McMahon, Christy Moore and the Corrs, and is a staple in the vocal repertoire. “Spancil Hill” remains today the site of one of Ireland’s largest horse fairs, continuing Ireland’s equine love affair, a tradition hallowed in the mists of time.
“The Jug of Punch,” a lighter tune, is equally well-grounded, but far more comedic than Considine’s. There are several versions, sung by many balladeers in the tradition, and by no less a sean-nos master than the famous Joe Heaney. Its opening lines match one version of “Spancil Hill”:
“It being on the 23rd of June,
As I sat weavin’ all on my loom,
I heard a thrush in an ivy bush,
And the song he sang was The Jug of Punch,
The song goes a number of verses, with a great demonstration of lilting, a time-honored vocal tool in Irish folk music.
But what, if any, is the significance of the date? There are other notable June dates in the Irish experience. But none seem to have captured the popular imagination like the day before the feast day of St. John the Baptist, the 24th of June, also known as Mid-Summer’s Day.
Scratch the surface, and we find that sunset on the 23rd of June marks the beginning of a pre-Christian Celtic feast honoring the goddess Áine (pronounced Awn-ya), the patron of summer, wealth and sovereignty. Her image is a red mare. That night great bonfires are lit on hilltops throughout Ireland, seeking her favor and blessing for bountiful crops in the season to come.
In Irish myth and legend, she is said to have been violated by Ailill, King of Munster. Her revenge came when she bit off the King’s ear, from which point onward he was known as Aulom, which means “one-eared.”
Brehon Law, the law governing Celtic Ireland, held that a king must be unblemished. Áine’s act made Ailill unfit to continue his reign, and bestowed on Áine the power to both grant and remove a man’s authority to rule. She is recalled in a number of place names throughout Ireland, including the Hill of Knockainey in Limerick, Toberanna in Tyrone, Dunany in Louth and other sites in Derry and Donegal, in all of which you can find her name. At some of these sites she was openly celebrated as late as the 1870s, doubtless much to the chagrin of the local clergy.
And the day following the 23rd is hers as well, with a horse fair to boot!
Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian and author of two books: “Love, Son John,” about World War II, and “Thunder at Noon,” on the Battle of Waterloo. Both are available at Amazon.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To see more on “things Irish,” follow his blog, “Rethinking Irish,” at www.rethinkingirish.com.