Rocks of Bawn, The

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  • Teideal (Title): Rocks of Bawn, The.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 855203.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): 3024.
  • 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): 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.

The area I grew up in Conamara – that’s where I was born, and Irish is my first language – ’twas riddled with rocks. Now in 1649, a gentleman came over from England, and he thought it was wiser for our ancestors to leave the rich lands of Meath and go to Connacht – in fact, the slogan was ‘to Hell or Connacht.’ The name of the gentleman was Oliver Cromwell. Now, the people did go- What he meant was, if they went to Connacht they’d die of starvation, because there was absolutely no way of making a living among the rocks. And he thought- If they stayed where they were, he’d kill them anyway. So all they were allowed to take with them is what they could carry on their back, and they tread all the way to Connacht, and Conamara, West Mayo, and built their houses near the sea. And when the famine came in 1845, these people had plenty of food because they lived off the fish of the sea1.

Now, we have politicians, but we never had a politician as stupid as the man who said these words. He said if he was elected to Dáil Éireann – that’s what we call [the legislature] over there – he’d take all the rocks out of Conamara, and build a road to America. And needless to say, he wasn’t elected, and the rocks are still there2!

Ah, the story is- This is known as the ‘daddy’ of all Irish sean-nós songs – sean-nós means ‘old-style’ – sung in the English language. And it concerns a man called Sweeney, who was working for a particular landlord. And just because Sweeney had the audacity to sit down and light his pipe, the landlord accused him of wasting time. And things were going so bad for the man at the Rocks of Bawn – which is the name of the song – that he said, ‘I wish the Queen of England / would send for me in time / and place me in a regiment / all in my youth and prime. / I’d fight for Ireland’s glory / from clear daylight ’til dawn / and I never would return / to plow the Rocks of Bawn’.


1. Despite plentiful evidence of poor-houses and fever hospitals in Conamara, folk tradition maintains that fewer people died of starvation there because fish was a staple part of their diet. See the account that Séamas Ennis recorded from Joe’s second cousin Colm Ó Caodháin in the 1940’s (NFC 1009:72-87).

2. Liam Mac Con Iomaire, in his biography Seosamh Ó hÉanaí: Nár fhágha mé bás choíche, reports that this suggestion was actually made by James Dillon, T.D., a Fine Gael member of Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament. Referring to Mongan’s Hotel (now Tigh Mheaic) in Carna, he says (p. 92):
Chaitheadh polaiteoirí ó Chumann na nGaedheal, agus ó Fhine Gael ina dhiaidh sin, laethanta saoire ann, agus is ann a casadh a bhean ar James Dillon, an fear a mhol sa Dáil (tar éis saoire a chaitheamh i gCarna, b’fhéidir!) gur cheart bóthar a dhéanamh go Meiriceá lena bhfuil de chlocha i gConamara. Ba mhinic a dhéanadh Seosamh Ó hÉanaí tagairt dó sin i Meiriceá níos deireanaí, cé nach luadh sé ainm James Dillon leis, ach ‘a certain politician‘.
[Politicians from Cumann na nGaedheal, and from Fine Gael after that, used to spend their holidays there, and that’s where James Dillon – the man who recommended in the Dáil (having spent his holidays in Carna, perhaps!) that it would be a good idea to build a road to America with all the rocks that are in Conamara – met his wife. Joe Heaney often referred to [Dillon’s remark] in the States later on, though he wouldn’t mention James Dillon by name, but rather ‘a certain politician’.]

Joe often included this anecdote as part of his introduction to ‘The Rocks of Bawn.’ It may say something about the behaviour of politicians the world over that this anecdote represents an international tale-type, AT 1830.

The Rocks of Bawn was one of the first songs that Joe learned in English, and remained one of his favourites throughout his life. He first sang it, he said, when he attended a neighbour’s wedding at the age of twelve, along with another of his favourite songs, O’Brien from Tipperary. If Joe had a ‘signature song,’ it was surely The Rocks of Bawn.

Although this introduction to the song was recorded at the Sydney Opera House, the version of the song heard here was recorded by Lucy Simpson in New York.