Whistling Thief, The

Play recording: Whistling Thief, The

view / hide recording details [+/-]

  • Teideal (Title): Whistling Thief, The.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 840106.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): 2738.
  • 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): unavailable.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 11/10/1983.
  • 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.

There’s a song there1, ‘The Whistling Thief,’ and I’ll tell you… this often happened to meself, you know… You have no idea how difficult it was to do your courting at that particular time. You had to think of every trick in the book. No matter what trick you thought of, the old lady inside had all them tricks because they went through the same thing before. Now, it’s a hard song to sing… The last part of this is always said. In fact, in the old time, the last two lines of every song was said in words, never sung. Sing with me now on this:

When Pat came over the hill his colleen fair to see
His whistle, loud and shrill, the signal was to be
‘Oh, Mary dear,’ the mother cried, ‘there’s someone whistling, sure’
‘Oh, Mother, don’t you know it’s the wind whistling through the door.’

‘I lived a long time, Mary, in this wide world, my dear,
But the wind to whistle like that I never yet did hear.’
‘But, Mother, don’t you know the fiddle hangs just behind the chink
And the wind upon the strings is playing that tune, I think.’

‘The dog is barking now, Mary, the fiddle can’t play that tune’
‘But, Mother, don’t you know that dogs can see the moon?’
‘How can it see the moon when he’s both old and blind?
Blind dogs don’t see the moon – nor fiddles play [unintelligible] wind!

And there’s the pig, uneasy in its mind’
‘But Mother, sure [you] know that pigs can see the wind’
‘That may very well [be] in the day, but then I may remark
That pigs no more than we can see anything in the dark!

I’m not such a fool as you think – I know very well it is Pat!
Be off, you whistling fool, and get along home out of that!
And you, be off to your bed – don’t bother me with your tears,
For although I’ve lost my sight, I haven’t lost my ears!’

Now boys, too near the house, don’t courting go, do you mind,
Unless you’re certain sure the old woman is deaf and blind!
The days when they were young, forget they never can,
They’re sure to tell the difference ‘twixt a fiddle, a dog and a man!


1. Joe is referring to the packet of printed song-texts that he was in the habit of providing to students in his larger classes, like this one. On this occasion he himself appears to be reading from the song-sheet.

‘The Whistling Thief’ was composed by Irish songwriter, painter and novelist Samuel Lover (1797-1868). The song is strongly associated with another Carna singer, Johnny Joe Phaitsín ‘ac Dhonncha, who recorded it a number of times.

Here Joe is trying to teach a song that he clearly doesn’t know very well himself – an unusual thing for him to do, as he generally only chose songs for his classes that he knew inside out. It’s an interesting example, however, as it demonstrates how tricky it can be to fit words to an air. The difficulty here is, partly, that the text itself is both somewhat faulty and metrically unpredictable – sometimes there are seven stressed syllables per line, and sometimes only six – and the singer needs to accommodate this irregularity without upsetting the rhythm of the air. As Joe himself observes, it’s not an easy song to sing.