Yellow Silk Handkerchief, The

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  • Teideal (Title): Yellow Silk Handkerchief, The.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 840121.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): 246.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): none.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): 272.
  • 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): unavailable.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 31/01/1984.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): University of Washington, United States of America.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): evening class.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): unavailable.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

I think I may as well sing one of the eerie songs for you now. Now, there’s a certain… belief that when somebody dies, you’ll see them after death, provided — we’ll say, you had a date with somebody tonight. And meantime, something happens that person — he dies or is killed accidentally — you’ll see that person when that particular time, unless he says, or she says, ‘God willing, or if I’m still alive’.

Now the one I’m going to sing first is called The Yellow Silk Handkerchief. There’s an awful lot in this… story that the song doesn’t tell. Now whether the verses were lost between handing it down to people or not, I do not know. But this is the way the old people used to sing it. And the story goes — I’ll tell you the story first — most of it, I won’t tell it all, because if I did, I’d spoil the song. This girl… lots of men came to court her. For long ago, I don’t know why… these girls always fell for the poor person. And that doesn’t happen any more! So, when her father came to hear of it, he sent her away about forty miles or something — and believe me, forty miles in them days was a long way, because the only way you could travel was on horseback or walking, with the hay-down-treaders, they used to call the old boots one time. So he sent her away to an uncle, and meantime, although the song doesn’t tell you this either, they were supposed to be married nine months after the day she left. They had their wedding day set — that’s why the father sent her away. And unknown to him, they sent her away, and they waylaid him the same night, the brothers, couple of… nights after, and they killed him. And this night, the night of their intended marriage, she was lying in bed, and she heard his voice coming from outside the road. And she immediately knew the voice. She got up and went out, and he pulled her up on the horse — a white horse — and she put her arms around his waist, and she stroked his… cheek, and when she kissed his mouth, she said ‘you’re awful cold.’ Well, if you ever kissed a corpse, you’ll know what that means. [Laughter] Well, people did — and people do! And she pulled out the yellow silk handkerchief she had, and she tied it round his neck and over his head like that to keep him warm. And then he said, ‘we’ll have to go.’ And they came to her father’s gate.

She was so happy — although he didn’t say much, except a few words — she was so happy that the father had eventually come to his senses, and sent him to pick her up so they could get married. And he put her down at her father’s gate, and then he said ‘I’ll have to go. I won’t see you any more.’ She looked around, and the horse and rider was gone. And that’s when she began thinking. And she raced in to her father’s door, and knocked and cried and knocked. And he opened the door, and then she said, ‘Did you send for me?’ mentioning his name. The father [unintelligible], knowing he was dead, he started tearing his hair out. And she said, ‘You did. Because he came to me on your white horse.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘that’s a lie,’ he said. He didn’t tell her he was dead yet. ‘That’s a lie, because my horse never moved out of that stable for a week.’ So to convince her and to solace her, he went with her to the stable, and there was the horse all sweat, and shaking with, after the horse was doing his long journey. And then he started crying more. And then he told her that he was dead. And she wouldn’t believe him. And to convince her they took her to the graveyard. And — I’ll stop there. And this is the song:

It’s of a lord who lived in this town
He was was loved by all the people round
He had a daughter, a beauty bright

And many a young man came to court this maid,
But none of them could her favour gain
Until a young man of low degree
Came courting her, and she fancied he.

When her father heard they were thus engaged
He sent her away to a distant place
Forty miles or more he sent her away
For to deprive her of her wedding day.

One night she lay in her bed alone
She heard his voice in the distant road
‘Rise up my darling, come along with me
I own I love your own company.’

She got up and put on her clothes
She ran out to the distant road
He lifted her up on his milk-white steed
‘Oh, my dearest darling, you remember me!’

She put her arms around his waist
She stroked his head and she stroked his hair3
She kissed his lips, and those words did say
‘Oh my dear, you’re colder than the clay.’

The name they called her was Young Heart’s Delight.
A yellow silk handkerchief she then pulled out
She put it around his neck and brow
He drew her arms around his waist
‘Oh, my dearest darling, I cannot stay.’
And when they came to her father’s gate
He put her down and those words did say:
‘Go home, my darling, go home and sleep
For I must leave you, no more to see.’

And then she ran to her father’s door
She cried and knocked and she cried some more
‘Oh, father, father, did you send for me
By such a messenger?’ naming he1.

Her father, knowing this young man was dead
He tore the grey hairs down from his head
And whilst her father grieved heart full sore,
The young man’s darling cried more and more.

And then they went and they dug his grave
They opened the coffin and laid him bare;
But although her true-love was nine months dead
The yellow silk handkerchief was around his neck.

Well, that was the proof that she had seen him that night.

Now, sometimes when you’re singing a song that you don’t sing often, you’re inclined to step off a bit, maybe, and include a word that doesn’t do it any harm, but is not the actual word. That’s the positive proof you didn’t get that song out of a book! So if you’re ever singing a song and you make a mistake in a word or two, don’t worry; so long as you bring the song together, it’s alright.


1. In two of the four performances contained in the UW archives, this line goes ‘By such a messenger, named Tom A’ Lee.’

This song is widely attested in the English-language tradition of Ireland, and has been recorded by a number of singers over the past half-century. It is sometimes also known by the title The Suffolk Miracle.