I used to sing Spancil Hill to my son every night when he was a toddler; he loved the song and insisted on a genuine, serious version every time, in the way that only a toddler can—"No mom, do it right!" I'd take a deep breath, throw back my head, close my eyes, and belt it out seriously, allowing my mind and heart to wander across the Atlantic ocean, and home, with the song. The song is a true story written by an Irish immigrant—Michael Considine—living in California, and longing for his home, friends, and love in Spancil Hill. As if it wasn't sad enough that he longed for home, Considine wrote the song knowing he was dying, and sent it home in remembrance of his love. He is now buried in Spancil Hill, and it is said his love never married.
Spancil Hill is also a song about the famous traditional horse fair that has taken place on the road between Tulla and Ennis in my home county of Clare, for over 300 years now. I've always loved the song, but it was only when I left Ireland, that I really felt its meaning. My good friend Síle grew up on that road between Tulla and Ennis, and I often find myself thinking of—and missing—Síle, when I sing this song, and then thinking of—and sorely missing—all my friends at home.
I'll be singing it out across the Atlantic tonight in honor of the fair at Spancil Hill, and raising an imaginary pint to Síle, Gráinne, Mary K., and Martina ... and to Michael Considine and his love, too.
This version by Christy Moore and Shane MacGowan is one of my favorites:
Here are the lyrics, if you'd like to sing along:
Last night as I lay dreaming of pleasant days gone by,
Me mind bein´ bent on rambling to Ireland I did fly,
I stepped on board a vision and followed with the will,
When next I came to anchor at the cross near Spancil Hill.
Delighted by the novelty, enchanted by the scene
Where in my early boyhood so often I had been
I thought I heard a murmur and I think I hear it still,
It's that little stream of water that flows down Spancil Hill.
Being on the twenty-third of June, the day before the fair,
When Ireland's sons and daughters in crowds assembled there
The young, the old, the brave and the bold, their duty to fulfill,
At the parish church of Clooney, a mile from Spancil Hill.
I went to see my neighbours, to hear what they might say,
The old ones were all dead and gone, and the young ones turning grey
I met the tailor Quigley, he's as bold as ever still,
Sure he used to make my britches when I lived in Spancil Hill.
I paid a flying visit to my first and only love,
She's as fair as any lily and gentle as a dove
She threw her arms around me, saying "Johnny, I love you still"
Ah she's Nell, the farmer's daughter, the pride of Spancil Hill
I dreamt I held and kissed her as in the days of yore
She said "Johnny you're only joking, as many's the time before"
The cock he crew in the morning, he crew both loud and shrill,
I awoke in California, many miles from Spancil Hill.