American Wake, The and A Stór mo Chroí

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  • Teideal (Title): American Wake, The and A Stór mo Chroí.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 855203.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): none.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): none.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): none.
  • Cnuasach (Collection): Joe Heaney Collection, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Teanga na Croímhíre (Core-Item Language): English.
  • Catagóir (Category): lore, song.
  • Ainm an té a thug (Name of Informant): Joe Heaney.
  • Ainm an té a thóg (Name of Collector): Warren Fahey.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 1976.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): Sydney Opera House, Australia.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): concert.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): unavailable.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

What I’m trying to do tonight, in the space I have, is to give you a bit of everything. And the next thing I’m going to do — maybe some of you heard about it, I don’t know — is called The American Wake. Now it’s nothing to do, directly, it’s nothing to do with America. But long ago, when people were going to America and emigrating, their parents knew they’d never see that particular person in this life again.

And the night before they left, the woman or the man who was leaving — It wasn’t so easy then to come home as it is now. They settled down more or less when they went to America, and they got married, and their parents died, meantime they could never see them. But anyway, the man or the woman who was going away visited all the old people in the village, invited them to have a dance that night in the house. And those that weren’t able to go, they gave them a bottle of something as a remembrance.

And they invited the people — Now I’m talking about a time when there was no musical instruments. And of course, long ago, musical instruments were barred, because some of the clergy reckoned that if you played music you were a druid or something — something pagan about you. So maybe it was a good thing, too. But anyway — there was somebody, always, who lilted a tune, and somebody danced to that tune.

Now, in the old country houses they had what was known as a half-door1. And sometimes when somebody was dancing on a concrete kitchen floor they lifted off the half-door, and danced on top of the half-door. Now two of the tunes they used to play was a reel, My Love She’s in America, and a hornpipe, Off to California. This was during the night; and in the morning, of course, the song — the lament — was sung by always — nearly always — the woman. But this is somebody lilting a tune for somebody dancing. My Love She’s in America went something like this:


That’s My Love She’s in America. Now Off to California:


Now, the dancing was over [applause], and in the morning, usually the mother, put her hands around whoever was going away, pointing out to that person that ‘Even though you’re going away, remember, you’ll get no money thrown on the pavements. Where you’re going you’ll see somebody rich; but remember, behind that person there may be twenty people who’s very poor. And when you’re walking the streets at night, remember, stop and listen, because as sure as anything the voice you’ll hear will be mine, calling you back; because you know I’ll always love you’. And the song they used to sing was A Stór Mo Chroí.

A stór mo chroí, when you’re far away from the home you’ll soon be leaving
And it’s many a time by night and day your heart will be sorely grieving.
Though the stranger’s land might be rich and fair, and riches and treasure golden
You’ll pine, I know, for the long long ago and the love that’s never olden.

A stór mo chroí, in the stranger’s land there is plenty of wealth and wearing
Whilst gems adorn the rich and the grand there are faces with hunger tearing2.
Though the road is dreary and hard to tread, the lights of their city may blind you
You’ll turn, a stór, to Erin’s shore and the ones you left behind you.

A stór mo chroí, when the evening sun over the mountain and meadow is falling
Won’t you turn away from the throng and listen and maybe you’ll hear me calling.
The voice that you’ll hear will be surely mine of somebody’s speedy returning
A rún, a rún, will you come back soon to the one who will always love you.

That’s the American Wake.


1. For a fuller description of half-doors and how they were used as dance-platforms, listen to Joe’s introduction to The Half-Door.

2. In most versions of this song, the first line of the second stanza ends with the word ‘wailing’, which rhymes with ‘paling’ in line two.

This presentation, which Joe honed over many years specifically for his American audiences, became a standard item on his concert programmes. The presentation as a whole, and the musical elements included in it, reflect Joe’s concern with helping his listeners appreciate the emotional reality of an appalling situation, in which parents and child were bidding farewell to each other in the full knowledge that they were unlikely ever to meet again.

In 1980, while he was living in New York, Joe gave a valuable account of what really happened at these American Wakes to Lucy Simpson (UW85–39.13). He himself attended three such wakes during the 1920’s, when he was a young boy. He said that one of the reasons why such partings were permanent was the age of the parents, who would probably be in their late fifties or sixties when their child emigrated. People at that time tended to marry late in life. A man might be over forty, because he would be reluctant to bring a woman into his parents’ home for fear of domestic upheaval. So by the time the children were of an age to think of emigrating, the parents were getting older; and by the time the emigrant would have settled down and have saved enough to return to Ireland for a visit, there would be no one left alive to return to.

The day before the departure, the emigrating person would visit all the old people in the village and share a drop of whiskey or a cup of tea, and invite everyone in the village to come to the house that night for what they called a time — a send-off that included dance and singing that lasted throughout the night. In the morning, young and old would gather quietly at the door of the house, while the person who was going away had a quiet hour with the mother and father; then the jaunting-car would come to take the emigrant to the railway station. That was time, said Joe, when ‘the mother would really let go’. It really was like a funeral.

As Joe explained to Lucy Simpson, he worked A Stór mo Chroí into his presentation about the American Wake because it fits so well into the narrative he was setting forth. The advice contained in the song would have been delivered when the parents spoke quietly with their son or daughter. In reality, however, the emigrant’s mother would not have sung her final farewell — she would have been engulfed in grief. Even if she did have the strength and will to sing, she would surely have done so in Irish. For a short discussion in Irish of the American Wake and of the experience of emigrating from home, see Hartmann, Hans, Tomás de Bhaldraithe and Ruairí Ó hUiginn (eds.), Airneán: Ein Sammlung von Texten aus Carna, Co. na Gaillimhe, Max Niemeyer Verlag Tübingen (1996), vol 1, lines 9308–9335.

We are grateful to Warren Fahey, who promoted and recorded the concert from which this recording was taken, for allowing us to use it here. the concert can be heard in its entirety on his website.