Old Oak Tree, The

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  • Teideal (Title): Old Oak Tree, The.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 781514.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): 569.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): P37.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): none.
  • Cnuasach (Collection): Joe Heaney Collection, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Teanga na Croímhíre (Core-Item Language): English.
  • Catagóir (Category): song.
  • Ainm an té a thug (Name of Informant): Joe Heaney.
  • Ainm an té a thóg (Name of Collector): Cynthia Thiessen.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 03/03/1978.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): University of Washington, United States of America.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): day class.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): Fredric Lieberman.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

There used to be a song called The Old Oak Tree. Now, Ewan Mac Coll told me there was a version of this in mostly every country. I don’t know do ye have a version. It’s about the keeper of the hounds who got into trouble — or she got into trouble — with this particular country girl, and he wrote her a letter promising her he’d marry her. And she travelled to meet him. And what he did, he killed her and buried her under the oak tree. But he made one mistake: his knife, with his name on it, he left in her body. And the day of the hounds — The day of the hunting of the hounds, the hounds stopped at this old tree. Then, the people around him thought there was a fox there. But the hounds started digging up with their paws, digging up the clay. And the gentlemen of the hounds asked to get spades. They dug it up — and there they found the girl, murdered. The name of the man was James Mc Cullough, and some people give it [the song] that name, and some give it The Old Oak Tree. But this is the way it goes.

The night was dark, cold blew the wind, and thickly fell the rain
As Bessie left her own dear home, and came not back again
She left her widowed mother, she feared not wind and cold
For the girl was young and fair to see, and love had made her bold.

The night was gone, the day came on, and Bessie came not home
Which caused her loyal friends to grieve where Bessie thus did roam
Until her widowed mother cried, she cried in a wailing voice
‘I’ll search this world o’er and o’er till I find my darling child.’

For three long weary months she spent in wandering up and down
But her journey proved of no avail, for Bessie was not found
Upon returning home again, this poor old woman cried
Until worn out with grief and woe, with a broken heart she died.

‘Twas at the end of all this scene, the keeper of the hounds
Young James McCullough came one day to hunt with all his hounds
Up hill, down dale they bravely rode, a gallant company
Until they lost a great big fox beneath the old oak tree.

And when he came and looked upon the corpse of bleeding shame
He drew a pistol from his breast and drove it through his brain

It’s there the dogs began to bark, to sniff and tear the clay
And all the pikes and spades they had would not drive the dogs away
The gentlemen all gathered round, called for their pikes and spades1
They dug the ground and there they found the missing murdered maid.

Her body once most beautiful was covered o’er with gore
The blood it flew from every wound and scattered down her clothes2
The hand that did the horrid deed3, oh it was a fearful sight
For the worms were creeping from her eyes that once were pure and bright.

A knife revealed in her breast, oh what a horrid shame
The name upon the handle was James McCullough’s name
‘Oh, hide the corpse,’ McCullough cried, ‘my soul is bound for Hell
Oh, hide the corpse from my very eyes, and I the truth will tell.’

‘It’s true I loved my Bessie dear, and on her I did fall
I wrote her a letter, that sealed that girl’s call4
I wrote her a marriage promise, and on it I signed my name
From that very day ’til this very hour, sealed poor Bessie’s fate.’

He was buried where he fell, no Christian grave got he
No priest was found to bless the ground beneath the old oak tree.


1. It seems unlikely that anyone would take pikes and spades out hunting. Here is how Tom Lenihan remembered the second and third lines of this stanza:
And all that horse and whip could do could not drive those dogs away
The gentlemen all gathered round, sent for a pick and spade…

2. This vivid line, with its depiction of blood ‘flying from every wound’, suggests the folk-belief that a corpse would begin to bleed afresh in the presence of the murderer — a belief which, as Munnelly points out, can be traced back to medieval times, and which has been attested in Conamara as recently as the 1880s (T. Munnelly, The Mount Callan Garland, Dublin 1994, p. 36 and note).

3. This line is unclear; perhaps something like ‘The grave revealed the horrid deed’?

4. A number of factors – Joe’s slight hesitation following the word ‘dear’ in the first line, the obscure phrase at the end of that line, and the use of the word ‘sealed’ in two lines of the stanza – suggest that he may be improvising to cover a memory-lapse here. The problem could be solved with the application of the word ‘downfall’, perhaps – but this example demonstrates the challenge Joe set himself every time he performed one of these long songs in the English of a bygone era. It is worth remembering that English was not Joe’s native language.

Tom Munnelly, who collected a very similar version of The Old Oak Tree from Tom Lenihan in Miltown Malbay, County Clare, writes:

The very graphic details of the murdered maiden and the nemesis which overtakes the villain have guaranteed [the song’s] popularity with singers throughout Ireland and much further abroad.

One verse that Joe leaves out contains a particularly arresting image, as the murderer confesses his foul deed:
The knife that did my dinner cut, I plunged it in her breast
And with my staff I knocked her down — I need not tell the rest.

The air is the same one that Joe uses for The Glen of Aherlow.

This song was recorded while Joe was Artist in Residence at University of Washington.