....Just Another Tune

Songs & Their History


Some Notes On The History Of
“Eileen Aroon”


“Eileen Aroon” is an old Irish song that I have heard first from Bob Dylan who performed it a

I am at the moment busy reviving this text. I don't know when it will be ready but in the meantime please see this documentation I have just finished:

couple of times in 1988 and 1989:

    There is a valley fair
    Eileen Aroon
    There is a cottage there
    Eileen Aroon
    Far in the valley shade I know a tender maid
    Flow'r of the hazel glade, Eileen Aroon.

    Were she no longer true
    Eileen Aroon
    What would her lover do
    Eileen Aroon
    Fly with a broken chain
    Far cross the sounding main
    Never to love again, Eileen Aroon.

    Who in the time so fleet
    Eileen Aroon
    Who in the song so sweet
    Eileen Aroon
    Dearer her charms to me
    Dearer her laughter free
    Dearer her constancy
    Eileen Aroon.

    Youth will in time decay
    Eileen Aroon
    Beauty must fade away
    Eileen Aroon
    Castles are sacked in war
    Dhieftains are scattered far
    Truth is a fixed star
    Eileen Aroon.
    [text from Bob Dylan’s performance in St. Louis, 17.6.1988, transcribed by
    Eyolf strem]

He surely has learned “Eileen Aroon” from the Clancy Brothers, who had recorded it in 1961 for Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem (Tradition TLP 1042). A score of the melody used by the Clancys, Dylan and other performers today is available at the Digital Tradition Database:

"Eileen Aroon" - melody c/o Digital Tradition Database

"Eileen Aroon" - "aroon" means something like "my secret love" or "the secret treasure of my heart" -  is not so much a single song but a family of songs including variants with quite different lyrics and music. It has been claimed that this song family can be traced back to the  the 14th or 15th century but it is simply not clear how old it is and the exact origins are not known. According to one legend it was written by Irish minstrel harper Carol O'Daly but this story  is surely a later invention:  

    "Carol O'Daly, commonly called Mac Caomh insi Cneamha, brother to Donogh More O'Daly, a man of much consequence in Connaught, was one of the most accomplished gentlemen of his time, and particularly excelled in poetry and music. He paid his addresses to Ellen, the daughter of a chieftain named Kavanagh, a lovely and amiable young lady, who returned his affection, but her friends disapproved of the connexion. O'Daly was obliged to leave the country for some time, and they availed themselves of the opportunity which his absence afforded, of impressing on the mind of Ellen, a belief of his falsehood, and of his having gone to be married to another; after some time they prevailed on her to consent to marry a rival of O'Daly.

    The day was fixed for the nuptials, but O'Daly returned the evening before. Under the first impression, of his feelings, he sought a wild and sequestered spot on the sea shore, and inspired by love, composed the song of Eileen a Roon, which remains to this time, an exquisite memorial of his skill and sensibility. Disguised as a harper, he gained access among the crowd that thronged to the wedding. It happened that he was called upon by Ellen herself to play. It was then, touching his harp with all the pathetic sensibility which the interesting occasion inspired, he infused his own feelings into the song he bad composed, and breathed into his 'softened strain,' the very soul of pensive melody" (Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 7, August 11, 1832).

In England this song may have been known since the 17th century. According to an History of Irish Literature by William H. Grattan Flood (1905) Shakespeare alluded to "Eileen Aroon" in some of his plays, but that is not entirely convincing for me. At least - according to a note in Samuel Pepys' diaries - Irish songs were performed on London stages already in that century:

    24th. Company at home: amongst others, Captain Rolt. And anon at about seven or eight o’clock comes Mr Harris of the Duke’s playhouse, and brings Mrs Pierce with him, and also one dressed like a country- maid with a straw-hat on, and at first I could not tell who it was, though I expected Knipp: but it was she coming off the stage just as she acted this day in The Goblins; a merry jade. Now my house is full, and four fiddlers that play well. Harris I first took to my closet: and I find him a very curious and understanding person in all pictures and other things, and a man of fine conversation; and so is Rolt. Among other things, Harris sung his Irish song, the strangest in itself and the prettiest sung by him that ever I heard. (Samuel Pepys, Diaries, 24.1.1667)

In the 18th century "Eileen Aroon" was actually sung during performances of Shakespeare's plays, "in 1731 at the old Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, by Mrs. Sterling, in an opera epilogue to 'Richard III.', and again by Mrs. Storer, as an interlude, in Shakespeare's tragedy of 'Julius Caesar' at the same theatre, on December 15, 1743" (Flood, dto).

The first printed evidence of a "tune with title 'Ellen a Roon'" can be found "in Charles Coffey's ballad opera ‘The Beggars Wedding’ 1729. Coffey's song there is unrelated to 'Eileen Aroon'. This was acted in both Dublin and London, and at least four editions of the play were printed in that year, with additions to each subsequent edition" (Bruce Olson).  Ballad operas since John Gay (1728) were instrumental in reviving older folk and popular melodies. Coffey was of Irish descent and for his six operas he adapted some more of this older songs.

In 1742 a sheet music with a Gaelic text was published: "Ducatu non vanna. Aileen aroon. A Irish Ballad sung by Mrs Clive at ye theater Royal" [004]. Kitty Clive was a very popular actress of that era and a member of David Garrick's famous theater company:

    Du ca tu non Vanna tu Aileen aroon
    San Duca tu non Vanna tu aileen aroon
    Duca tu non Vanna tu
    Duca tu non Vanna tu
    Duca tu, Duca tu, Duca tu non Vanna tu
    O Duca tu non Vanna tu aileen aroon.

    Kead mille Faltie rote aileen aroon
    Kead mille Faltie rote aileen aroon
    Kead mille Faltie rote
    Kead mille Faltie rote
    Oct mille, nee mille, deh mille Faltie rote
    O Faltie gus fine rote aileen aroon.

    Tuca me sni anna me sgra ma chree stu
    O Tuca me sni anna me sgra ma chree stu
    Tuca me sni anna me
    Tuca me sni anna me
    Tuca me sni anna me sni anna me sgra me chree stu.
    [quoted from: Bruce Olson, Scarce Songs]:

A translation of a very similar version printed in 1776:

    Will you go or will you stay, Aileen Aroon,
    And will you go or will you stay, Aileen Aroon,
    Will you go or will you stay,
    Will you go or will you stay,
    Will you, will you, will you,
    Will you go or stay,
    O will you go or will you stay, Aileen Aroon.

    One hundred thousand welcomes to you Aileen Aroon,
    One hundred thousand welcomes to you Aileen Aroon,
    One hundred thousand welcomes to you,
    Seven thousand welcomes to you,
    Eight thousand, nine thousand,
    Ten thousand welcomes to you,
    O welcomes and fine [?] root [?], Aileen Aroon.

    I shall go and shall not stay love of my heart,
    O I shall go and shall not stay love of my heart,
    I shall go and shall not stay,
    I shall go and shall not stay,
    I shall go, I shall go,
    I shall go and shall not stay,
    O, I shall go and shall not stay, love of my heart.
    [quoted from: Bruce Olson, Scarce Songs]:

According to Bruce Olson it was also published  in Twelve Scotch and Twelve Irish Airs (p. 26/7) by Burke Thumoth and then in  Caledonian Pocket Companion, Book V, (ca 1753) and A Collection of Scots Tunes with Variations (c 1756), both by James Oswald. Not at least Robert Bremner included the song in his Instructions for the Guitar; with a Collection of Airs, Songs and Duets fitted for that Instrument(1758, see ScotMus.com [now unavailable])

There is a Scottish song called “Robin Adair” that uses the tune of “Eileen Aroon”. According to a legend it was written by Lady Carolina Keppel in 1758 because her family didn’t allow her to marry one Robert Adair. This is in fact a legend and the writer of this variant is not known.”Robin Adair” was popularized by singer John Braham who performed it first in 1811 and it beame one of the most popular British songs of the 19th century.

    What's the dull town to me
    Robin Adair
    What was't I wish'd to see
    What wish'd to hear
    Where all the joy and mirth
    Made this town heaven on earth
    Oh, they're all fled with thee
    Robin Adair

    What made th' assembly shine
    Robin Adair
    What made the ball so fine
    Robin Adair
    What when the play was o'er
    What made my heart so sore
    Oh, it was parting with
    Robin Adair

    But now thou'rt cold to me
    Robin Adair
    But now thou'rt cold to me
    Robin Adair
    Yet he I lov'd so well
    Still in my heart shall dwell
    Oh, I can ne'er forget
    Robin Adair
    [quoted from a broadside, printed London ca. 1819-1844 (allegro catalogue, Bodleian Library, Oxford)]

It seems that both "Eileen Aroon"   and "Robin Adair"  were very popular in Britain from the late 18th century all through the 19th to the early 20th century although the latter was published more often. For example “Robin Adair”  was  mentioned in Jane Austen's "Emma" (1816, chapter 28, p. 216 in this ed. from 1896). Obviously these two songs were  standards for stage singers, for example here for the young Elizabeth Linley:

    "Thomas Sheridan [Irish actor and educator] moved to Bath at the close of 1770 for the purpose of establishing an Academy of Oratory, and began by giving a series of Attic Entertainments, when his lecturing and declamation was diversified by the singing of Elizabeth Linley, then a beautiful girl of sixteen. In spite of her youth, she had a voice of "angelic" purity; at the first of these entertainments on November 24th she sang such ballads as "Black-Ey'd Susan" and "Eileen Aroon," while he followed with his celebrated recitation of the "Ode Upon St. Cecilia's Day." From that time onward, Elizabeth Linley was known as 'St. Cecilia'."  (Rhodes 1933, p. 20)

"Eileen Aroon" was sung not only in the Gaelic version - today a different Irish language text is used (quoted for example here), but I haven't been able to find out anything about its origins and age -  but with different sets of English lyrics. Bruce Olson quotes three more written between 1770 and 1795. Robert Burns borrowed the melody for his own "Phillis The Fair" (1793, p. 94/95  in Poems and Songs Complete, Vol. 3):Robert Burns, Phillis The Fair, 1793, from  The Complete Works of Robert Burns, ca. 1909, p. 202

    While larks, with little wing,
    Fann'd the pure air,
    Tasting the breathing Spring,
    Forth I did fare:
    Gay the sun's golden eye
    Peep'd o'er the mountains high;
    Such thy morn! did I cry,
    Phillis the fair.

    In each bird's careless song,
    Glad I did share;
    While yon wild-flowers among,
    Chance led me there!
    Sweet to the op'ning day,
    Rosebuds bent the dewy spray;
    Such thy bloom! did I say,
    Phillis the fair.

    Down in a shady walk,
    Doves cooing were;
    I mark'd the cruel hawk
    Caught in a snare:
    So kind may fortune be,
    Such make his destiny,
    He who would injure thee,
    Phillis the fair.

But he was not completely satisfied with what he had achieved: "I likewise tried my hand on 'Robin Adair, and you will probably think with little success, but it is such a damned, cramp, out-of-the-way measure, that I despair of doing any thing better to it [...] That crinkum-crankum tune 'Robin Adair, has run so in my head, and I succeeded so ill in my last attempt, that I have ventured, in this morning's walk, one essay more". This second attempt was called "Had I A Cave":

    Had I a cave on some wild distant shore,
    Where the winds howl to the wave's dashing roar:
    There would I weep my woes,
    There seek my lost repose,
    Till grief my eyes should close,
    Ne'er to wake more!

    Falsest of womankind, can'st thou declare
    All thy fond, plighted vows fleeting as air!
    To thy new lover hie,
    Laugh o'er thy perjury;
    Then in thy bosom try
    What peace is there!

Thomas Moore, Erin! The Tear And The Smile In Thine Eye, 1803Thomas Moore in Vol. 1 of his "Irish Melodies" (p. 5, edition from 1859)  used a variant of the melody for his "Erin! The Tear and the Smile in Thine Eyes". Writer and politician Thomas Osborne Davis  (1814 - 1845) as well as poet Thomas Furlong (1794 - 1824) created adaptions, too. Furlongs variant is in verses three and four very close to the Gaelic text printed in 1742.

    I'll love thee evermore, Eileen Aroon!
    I'll bless thee o'er and o'er, Eileen Aroon !
    Oh, for thy sake I'll tread
    Where the plains of Mayo spread,
    By hope still fondly led,
    Eileen Aroon !

    Oh, how may I gain thee, Eileen Aroon ?
    Shall feasting entertain thee, Eileen Aroon ?
    I would range the world wide,
    With love alone to guide,
    To win thee for my bride,
    Eileen Aroon!

    Then wilt thou come away, Eileen Aroon ?
    Oh, wilt thou come to stay, Eileen Aroon ?
    Oh, oh, yes, with thee,
    I will wander far and free,
    And thy only love shall be,
    Eileen Aroon!

    A hundred thousand welcomes,
    Eileen Aroon !
    A hundred thousand welcomes,
    Eileen Aroon ?
    Oh, welcome evermore,
    With welcomes yet in store,
    Till love and life are o'er, Eileen Aroon !
    [quoted from Charles Welch (ed), The Golden Treasury Of  Irish Lyrics And Sings, Vol. 1, New York 1907, p. 339/40]

The lyrics that are most often used with that song today were written by Irish poet Gerald Griffin (1803 - 1840), most likely in the 1830s. His poem even found its way into  the Oxford Book Of English Verse (1906 edition, p. 770-7). Griffin, born in Limerick, Ireland, "went to London with some plays, which failed then, but one of which, 'Gisippus' was produced most successfully after his death. He became a brilliant and distinguished writer for papers and magazines; but he won no wide reputation until the appearance of his fine novel 'The Colleen Bawn, or the Collegians'" (Helen K. Johnson 1889, p. 241). He spent the last years of his life in a monastery and died from typhus:

    When, like the early rose,
    Eileen Aroon!
    Beauty in childhood blows,
    Eileen Aroon!
    When, like a diadem,
    Buds blush around the stem,
    Which is the fairest gem?
    Eileen Aroon!

    Is it the laughing eye,
    Eileen Aroon!
    Is it the timid sigh,
    Eileen Aroon!
    Is it the tender tone,
    Soft as the stringed harp's moan?
    Oh! Iit is truth alone,
    Eileen Aroon!

    When, like the rising day,
    Eileen Aroon!
    Love sends his early ray,
    Eileen Aroon!
    What makes his dawning glow,
    Changeless through joy or woe?
    Only the constant know--
    Eileen Aroon!

    I know a valley fair,
    Eileen Aroon!
    I knew a cottage there,
    Eileen Aroon!
    Far in that valley's shade
    I knew a gentle maid,
    Flower of a hazel glade,
    Eileen Aroon!

    Who in the song so sweet?
    Eileen Aroon!
    Who in the dance so fleet?
    Eileen Aroon!
    Dear were her charms to me,
    Dearer her laughter free,
    Dearest her constancy,
    Eileen Aroon!

    Were she no longer true,
    Eileen Aroon!
    What should her lover do?
    Eileen Aroon!
    Fly with his broken chain
    Far o'er the sounding main,
    Never to love again,
    Eileen Aroon!

    Youth must with time decay,
    Eileen Aroon!
    Beauty must fade away,
    Eileen Aroon!
    Castles are sacked in war,
    Chieftains are scattered far,
    Truth is a fixd star,
    Eileen Aroon!

British library catalogs list many versions of "Eileen Aroon" in different arrangements for instrumentalists and choirs and with different writer's credits:

  • Aileen aroon. : A favourite Irish song.. [ca. 1780]
  • Aileen Aroon made a Duett. As introduc'd by Miss Catley and Miss Wewitzer in the Beggars Opera. [c. 1780].
  • Aileen aroon with Variations for the Piano Forte or Harpsichord. [c. 1790]
  • Ducatu non vanna tu. Aileen Aroon. A favourite Irish ballad as sung by Mrs Woodman at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden. [1798?]
  • Ducatu non vanatu Aileen aroon. Aileen aroon. A much admir'd Irish song. [c. 1800]
  • Duet <No 2>, for two performers on one piano forte. Arranged from the favorite airs Robin Adair or Aileen Aroon and the Copenhagen Waltz ... by N. B. Challoner. / [by Challoner, Neville Butler]. [1816]
  • How sweet and how pleasing. Aileen Aroon, a favorite Irish air, adapted to English words ... for the piano forte, flute or violin. [1817]
  • Aileen Aroon : popular Irish ballad / composed by Julian Mount. [1880]
  • Sweet Eileen aroon / words by Ed. Teschemacher ; music by Oscar Verne. c1903.
  • Eileen Aroon. Song, the words by T. Davis, etc. / [by Macmurrough, Dermot]. 1909.
  • Soon, soon, Eileen aroon. Song, words and music by L. Magrath. / [by Magrath, Lucia]. 1910.
  • [Eileen aroon. Traditional Irish tune. Arranged for chorus of men's voices, T.T.B.B. by Hugh S. Roberton]. / [by Roberton, Hugh Stevenson, Sir]. [1941]
    [found via Copac]

Both "Eileen Aroon" and "Robin Adair" of course traveled  to the USA with the Irish immigrants and they were performed there:

    Late in the eighteenth century, itinerant entertainers had first traveled along the Cumberland Road to Lexington, in Kentucky, to offer music, dancing, magic shows, acrobatic displays, and other diversions to second-generation pioneers, most of whom had never seen such sights before. An amateur actor in blackface played Mungo and sang Charles Dibdin hit music from The Padlock in a program that included Douglas, a British tragedy, and the comic opera Love-a-la-Mode, with "Aileen Aroon," a song that had long been a favorite in both England and the colonies (Sanjek, p.154 )

Young Stephen Foster used some elements of the melody for his song "Sadly To My Heart Appealing". But again "Robin Adair" seemed to be more popular, it was printed more often. The sheet music collections of the Library Of Congress include 15 different version and arrangements for singers or instrumentalists, for example one from 1873 “as sung by Mr. Kabelmann” in La Dame Blanche.  It was even recorded  in the early years of the recording industry by cornetist Jules Levy and by George Schweinfest as a "Piccolo solo with piano accompaniment" (between 1890 and 1902). Eileen Aroon 1894, sheet music cover

Different versions of "Eileen Aroon" were printed since the 1860s, for example one songsheet "Aileen A Roon", (ca. 1860s) or a sheet music "Aileen Aroon", (1881), composed by Charlie C. Converse (1834 - 1918, he also wrote the music to “What A Friend We Have In Jesus”), both with different lyrics. Even a  strange hybrid called "Eileen Adair" by Jules Lafort (1875) was produced. In 1889 Helen K. Johnson included the song in her Our Familiar Songs (p. 241/2) and in 1894 it was published as sheet music. Both versions are using Griffin's lyrics.

Two variants can be found in Francis O'Neill's massive collection O'Neill's Music of Ireland (1903, No. 392 & 393 ).  In 1909 and 1912 Irish  tenor John MacCormack recorded Thomas Davis' version with a new melody by composer Dermot MacMurrough (available at YouTube):

    When I am far away
    Be gayest of the gay
    Too dear your happiness
    For me to wish it less
    Love has no selfishness,
    Eileen Aroon..

    And it must be our pride,
    Our trusting hearts to hide,
    They wish our love to blight,
    We’ll wait for Fortune’s light
    The flowers close up at night
    Eileen Aroon

    And when we meet alone
    Upon my bosom from
    The dawn with light be day
    I'll be come to the rest [?]

    Fortune thus sought will come,
    We’ll win a happy home,
    And as it slowly rose ’twill tranquilly repose
    A rock ’mid melting snows
    Eileen Aroon.

Surprisingly I have found no references to this songs in 20th century British and American Folk song collections. The reason may be that most of the printed versions were aimed at  more educated middle-class, exactly those kind of people that were rarely plagued by ballad-hunting folklorist expeditions.  And to my knowledge there were no further recordings of "Eileen Aroon"  by major artists until the Clancy Brothers revived it in 1961 with the exception of a Gaelic version, "Eibhlin A Rn", by Mary O'Hara in 1958 on Songs Of Erin (now available on 40 Traditional Songs, Rajon CDR1005, 2007). In 1973 a fine version was recorded by Scottish singer Jean Redpath on Frae My Ain Countrie and recently Elisa Welch included it on her CD The Wheel


[first published 10.7.2007 on www.morerootsofbob.com, slighly revised October 2010]

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