Cover Story: (59) The Curragh of Kildare. A hanged highwayman and a hung jury
February 06, 2021
As we approach the 60th edition of Cover Story, here's something of a novelty for the series, a song that was among the first I found seductive as I became interested in folk music but for which I recently struggled to locate one recording I could call a favourite.
There have been plenty of good or at least competent versions, including a few that, for me, have not aged particularly well. Emmet Spiceland, the Johnstons and even the great Bert Jansch come to mind. And there have been some bad ones; I have yet to see the point of either of the self-indulgent live efforts I have heard by Dexys (formerly Dexys Midnight Runners) though I know both have impressed others.
The search may not yet be over, so many artists have covered a song that may be about a soldier's lover who dresses as a man to go and join him, a hanged 18th century highwayman or neither.
But for now, I am settling for a toss-up between two pleasing if imperfect interpretations. Given the protracted and inconclusive debate over the origins, it is fitting that one of those versions should come from Ireland, the other Scotland.
Eddi Reader: courtesy of Roger Liptrot's folkimages.com
At one online equivalent of sheet music, the composers of The Curragh of Kildare are given as "Moore" and "Burns".
Born 188 years apart, Christy Moore and Robert Burns were not able to sit down over steaming bowls of Irish stew or Scotch broth to write it together.
The song as attributed to the Bard of Ayrshire takes as its title the first line, The Winter It Is Past, and makes no mention of the sprawling plain, old army barracks or horse breeding grounds of the Curragh.
The most convincing explanation I can find is that like so many songs collected in different forms around the British Isles, The Curragh of Kildare acquired geography and meaning over the course of time.
Christy Moore says he came across the song in the works of Patrick Weston Joyce, an Irish historian, writer and music collector (1827-1914). By then, a reference to the Curragh had appeared and, re-arranging the song with Donal Lunny, Moore turned this reference into the chorus we know today.
"The original was written by Scotland's poet laureate Robbie Burns," Moore has written. "It tells the story of a young Scottish woman whose lover is away soldiering for the Queen in the Curragh of Kildare. She decides to present herself for recruitment disguised as a young fellow. We never get to hear the outcome. Certainly a good case for a sequel."
Well, Moore hails from Newbridge, on the edge of the Curragh, so his words carry weight. But any sequel might not be as he intended. Some authorities rule out Burns as the author. The suggestion of the subject being about an executed highwayman names the miscreant as Johnson and I have seen a claim that Burns removed lines mentioning him.
If you have the stamina for more, there is a long thread at the Mudcat message board, though even this probably won't settle the argument for you.
Instead, readers could tell me which version/s especially appeal to them if, indeed, they share my affection for the song in the first place.
The clips I have selected would not be everyone's choice.
Eddi Reader is a superb interpreter of the work of Burns and has recorded The Winter It Is Past, Curragh-less, on her album The Songs of Robert Burns (Deluxe Edition).
I offer instead a video showing her seated with a second guitarist in an empty pub (sadly an example of tautology these days).
This is not Reader at her towering best - see this wonderful review by Pete Sixsmith of her live in Durham a few years ago - and I have minor quarrels with the accompaniment [finding her strumming a little too fast], but I love the lusty singing and hope the pub will one day soon be serving customers again.
And I turn finally, and perhaps inevitably, to Christy Moore, not his studio version, but live in Carlow, 30 miles south of his birthplace, with Declan Sinnott.
And there you have them, two versions of a lovely song that strike me as good but not outstanding.
There are a lot of bad to indifferent versions of this song out there. I'm not saying Eddi Reader's ranks among the worst but it does absolutely nothing for me. Christy Moore's is way better. For my money, though, the Johnstons' interpretation, a little more spirited and upbeat, is the best I've heard.
Posted by: Bill Taylor | February 06, 2021 at 07:38 PM
I have no quarrels with the second guitarists except to ask, who is he?
Posted by: Jens Koch | February 08, 2021 at 12:22 PM
I just found Eddi's strumming a little too fast for the song, Jens, and have amended the piece to make that clear. I did make cursory checks but couldn't identify the second guitarist, with whom I also have no quarrels
Posted by: Colin Randall | February 08, 2021 at 12:29 PM
I've always loved this by the Johnstons. I've surprised myself by liking Dexys' version so much. I like Christy Moore's interpretation, not keen on Eddi Reader's. Thanks for all the information about the song, I've always hummed and whistled the tune to myself without properly knowing the words or story of it.
Posted by: Jed McGahern | February 08, 2021 at 04:03 PM
I felt something close to guilt when suggesting that the Johnstons' version hadn't aged well. I loved that band and booked them twice for folk clubs I ran in Bishop Auckland and Darlington, Co Durham. From memory, Jim Lloyd (the Folk on 2 one) was the agent and we paid £40 plus a bit of beer and petrol money. I haven't worked out its value today
Posted by: Colin Randall | February 08, 2021 at 04:04 PM
I think the pub Eddi Reader is singing in is Sandy Bell's in Edinburgh.
Posted by: Tom Chilton | February 08, 2021 at 06:14 PM
Great post. The guitarist with Eddi Reader is John Spillane, singer and songwriter from Cork and the venue, I believe, is Dolan's, Dock Road, Limerick. The version of County Kildare's anthem that I personally prefer is that of The Johnsons.
Posted by: Michael Holligan | December 28, 2021 at 11:56 PM
My dad does a version with The freemen. One of my favourite songs m. It’s a beautiful ballad
Posted by: Emma | July 17, 2022 at 06:46 PM