Love and marriage are very important subjects, and also rather delicate issues – as most of us know. It doesn't surprise us that such questions have inspired many Celtic folk songs.1
Here is a strong melody with a powerful background story. It might be taken from a modern novel or film.
Illustration 1: Lough Lene in the early morning
But there is more to the story
So far, this has been innocent enough.
In this 19th century version, a young man finds a nice young woman and courts her. But she is careful and has other ideas – and that's the end of the story. The proposed love is dejected. He has to pack up his ego (which may well be worth a good song), and she goes off to milk her cows.
But the story has a much more tragic second part that did not find its way into the 19th century ballad – at least as recounted by Walsh and Joyce. A longer and much more poignant version of the same story had been published in the previous century. It is found in a collection stored in the Bodleian Library (Harding B25 p. 480)7 and it goes like this. I'll use modern spelling.
DAWNING OF THE DAY
As I walked forth one morning fair, it was in summer time,
Each bush and tree was dressed in green, and valleys in their prime;
Returning homeward from a wake, through fields I took my way,
And there I met a comely maid by the dawning of the day.
No shoes or stockings, cap or cloak this comely maid did wear.
Her hair like shining silver twist lay on her shoulders bare,
With milking pail all in her hand so nobly and so gay,
She did appear like Venus bright at the dawning of the day.
I said, sweet lovely female where are you going so soon,
I'm going milking, sir, said she, all in the month of June,
The pasture where that I must go, it is far away,
I must be there each morning clear by the dawning of the day.
You've time enough, my dear, said I, suppose it was a mile,
So on this primrose bank so sweet let's sit and talk awhile;
O sir, said she, my hurry will admit of no delay.
Look, all around the morning breaks, it's dawning of the day.
Pray do not be so distant, my own heart's delight,
For I alas am wounded all by your beauty bright;
O sir, forbear, don't banter me this lovely maid did say,
I can't suppose you'll me seduce, by the dawning of the day.
And thus she spoke, my arms I twined around her waist,
And sat her on the primrose bank, and there did her embrace;
Leave off your freedom, sir, said she, and let me go away,
The time is come, I can't delay, it's dawning of the day.
But when this lovely maiden came to herself again,
With heavy sighs, downcast eyes, she sorely did complain;
Young man, said she, I am afraid that you did me betray,
My virgin bloom you got full soon by dawning of the day.
I kissed my love at parting, then crossed over the plain,
In the course of seven months after I met her there again;
She seemed rather dropsical as she walked over the hay,
And carelessly I passed her by at the noon time of the day.
The tears ran down her rosy cheeks and bitterly she cried.
Young man, said she, I think it's time that I was made your bride,
I pray make good the damage done as you before did say,
And don't forget the time we met at the dawning of the day.
I said, fair lovely damsel, I hope you'll me excuse,
To join with you in wedlock's bands indeed I must refuse;
For I've been lately married to a girl near Bantry Bay8,
With her I got 100 £ by the dawning of the day.
This sudden blunt refusal with her did not agree,
She said, you'll gain no credit, sir, by thus deluding me;
Now I may be a warning to other Maidens gay,
Never to leave their father's house by the dawning of the day.
There you have it.
He raped her and he didn't see her for 7 months. She got pregnant. And with another woman, he “...got 100 £ by the dawning of the day.” 100 £ was good money in the 18th century. It represented about 1/3 of a year's pay for a young soldier in the British army and it would have paid for two horses or more.
He was off, living his life. On the other hand, she was left with the loss of her virginity, shame, unwanted pregnancy, callousness, greed, and an outlook of a hard life spent in poverty. These were the harsh realities for the young woman in that age, difficult or impossible to ever straighten out.
The unexpurgated ballad was written around the time of the French and American revolutions, and it raised a provocative question to the aristocracy that had felt free to engage in such practices. That the aristocracy was targeted becomes clear from the poem's header illustration.
The 19th century response had apparently been to sweep the story under the rug and to leave whatever question there might be without an answer.
In the meanwhile, the question has not gone away.
Since we now have the courage to admit that attraction and seduction can indeed occur, and that undesired trespasses do at times take place – and sometimes leave consequential results – can we be “man (and woman) enough” to admit to such facts and come to an honourable solution?
It is clear what the answer must be today.
Here is my modern adaptation of this tune. It is called “The Dawning of Honour”. It has these parts:
Part 1: Morning walk and encounter
Part 2: Flirting and question
Part 3: Insistence
Part 4: Refusal and rape
Part 5: Confrontation
Part 6: Honourable solution
In my version I kept the basic structure of the original tune, but I plied the melody to the different sections. The basic melody is by now well anchored in Irish folklore, but I put in various modifications to bring out the different parts of this modern vision of the story.
1 See also the previous melody in this series.
2 Edward Walsh, Irish Popular Songs, 1847
3 I've gone with Joyce's 1873 spelling for Irish and with his literal English translation. You can find a modern version and translation of this text in Wikipedia under “The Dawning of the Day”.
4 Near Killarney, south-west Ireland
5 pretty fair-haired maiden (Joyce)
6 Venus, the morning star, appears within the palm-like fan of the morning sun. So this probably means, “She looked very pretty in the morning rays.” The modern translation gives “Her beauty excelled even Helen of Troy”.
8 Southwest Ireland