Lore About the Great Famine and Come Lay Me Down


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  • Teideal (Title): Lore About the Great Famine and Come Lay Me Down.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 853908.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): 3355.
  • 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): Lucy Simpson.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 02/01/1980.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, New York, United States of America.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): private.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): unavailable.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

Lore about The Great Famine

Joe Heaney: I’m singing this song now, Lay me down, and treat me decent, now. As far as I remember, as far as I heard, it’s a Famine song. And maybe the words wouldn’t make sense to a lot of people, but during the Famine, 1845–49–50 — ’49, almost ended — the people, a lot of people went about with a little can tied around their neck. And nine times out of ten they were found beside the roadside or something, with an open grave dug, because they, they thought it advisable to dig the grave while they were still strong enough to dig it, so they’d be — they’d lie into it, or die, die, fall into it when they were dead. And they had a little can tied around their neck, and anybody passing — whether they were blind, and most of them were blind by the starvation — they’d cry “lay me down and treat me decent” — that means, ‘lay me down and fill my can’. That means, ‘whatever you do, don’t desert me in my hour of need, just put something in my can’. Or, in other words, it could, it could mean that ‘fill my can’ means ‘fill my, my dream of, of being buried decent, and put in a decent grave, don’t leave me to the, to be taken by the vultures’, or something like that.

LS: What do they actually want in the can?

JH: They — Anything at all that could, that could resemble food. Maybe a drop of water.

LS: So this is while they’re still alive.

JH: Drop of milk. While they’re still alive. ‘Fill my can’. And another thing could mean ‘fill my can’ mean, is often used as an expression that means, ‘make my dream come true, fulfil me with what I want’, you know, ‘give me fulfilment’. And, eh, I’ll try and — I’ll sing it the way I heard it. But I’m not altering one iota, so, I mean, it’s not me, it’s not up to me at all to do anything. But it’s the way I heard it. It think I’ll start off as, there’s a man going out for a walk, and he sees all this thing and they speak to him and he answers them back, and —

LS: That expression, ‘fill my can’, meaning, ‘make my dreams come true’?

JH: It could mean, we have that expression. Now ‘fill my can for me’ —

LS: Does it come from that period, or was it before that?

JH: No, no, no, from that, it comes from that period, ‘fill my can’, ‘make my wish come true’. It’s a great expression in Gaelic, líon mo mhála, líon mo chupán.

LS: People still use it?

JH: Oh yeah.

LS: What do they usually mean by it, nowadays?

JH: Well it means… more or less, ‘don’t disappoint me’ now. If somebody comes at Christmas Eve to the door, and they said, “Oh my God, my time is full now”. That means that ‘this is something I wanted to see, I wasn’t disappointed, the person came’.

As I walked out through Galway City
As I walked out on a pleasant walk
As I was walking I could hear them talking
Oh, surely he is an honest man.

Come lay me down, love, and treat me decent,
Come lay me down, love, and fill my can
Oh, lay me down, love, and treat me decent
For once I was an honest man.

Oh, I will lay you down, love, and I’ll treat you decent
I will lay you down, love, and I’ll fill your can
I will lay you down, love, and treat you decent,
For surely you were an honest man.

My body is tired now, my bones are weary,
My soul forever must leave this land
But but pray be kind, sir, and bury me decent
For once I was a happy man.

When I return, I will treat you decent
When I return, I will fill your can
But if you die I will bury you decent
For surely you were an honest man.

Oh lay me down, love, and treat me decent
Oh lay me down, love, and fill my can
Come lay me down, love, and treat me decent
For once I was a happy man.


Lillis Ó Laoire and Sean Williams have written convincingly about this song, and about Joe’s assertion that it derived from the experience of the Great Famine in Conamara (cf. Singing the Famine: Joe Heaney, Johnny Seoighe and the Poetics of Performance in A. Clune, Dear Far-Voiced Veteran: Essays in Honour of Tom Munnelly. Miltown Malbay 2007, 229-247). Suffice it to say here that Joe is the only person ever to have argued for such a connection, and notwithstanding what Joe told Lucy on this occasion, the song appears to have originated as a late 19th-century American music-hall song, Muldoon, the Solid Man, from which the love song developed that Lucy mentioned in the conversation following Joe’s performance on this occasion; see Mick Moloney, Far from the Shamrock Shore: The Story of Irish-American Immigration Through Song (2002), 24-5.

Songs actually datable to the Famine period are few and far between in Ireland, whether in English or in Irish. Possibly, some things are just too awful to sing about. The few that come to mind include The Praties They are Small, Na Prátaí Dubha and the Conamara song Johnny Seoighe. Apparently Joe always denied knowing the latter song but in this he is clearly being disingenuous, as a transcription of the song appears in the Irish Folklore Collection, taken down by Joe’s brother Seán from the singing of their father, Pádraig Ó h-Éighnigh, in 1932 (CBÉ 74:246-8). The possible reasons for Joe’s reluctance to sing this song — or even to admit knowing it — are discussed by Ó Laoire and Williams in the article cited above.