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by Pat McDermott

The musicans are warming up for a post-Christmas sesh in Westport, County Mayo.
A visiting harpist tells the tale of how "Eileen Aroon," one of Ireland's oldest
and most beloved songs, came to be
. Sing along!


Christmas trimmings still adorned The Black Oak Tavern. Gabbi sat with Suzanne, Joan, Gemma, and Maura at the Connigans’ favorite table.

Sheela O’Brien and her exquisite harp commanded a fair share of the musicians’ space. She stood beside the harp, chatting with Brendan and Andy. Whatever they’d arranged to play tonight, Gabbi knew it would be good.

A pair of fiddlers set their chairs facing each other, as did banjo players Nora and Ronan. Gary sat on an end chair, entangling himself in the straps of his “Octopus” pipes. In the center of them all, Ben set out his whistles and flutes.

At nine o’clock, he called for attention. “Time to play a few tunes, folks. We’ll kick things off with a reel called ‘The Mason’s Apron’.” He counted to three.

Music burst through the pub. The musicians played as a group until Ben’s periodic shouts allowed each player a solo.

Wagging his head, Ronan strummed and picked until Ben called his name. The sudden increase in his picking speed blurred his right hand; his left hand flew up and down the neck of his gleaming cherrywood banjo. He played for his allotted time and acknowledged the crowd’s applause with a nod.

One by one, the others took turns in the spotlight. Ben’s flute solo brought the three-tune set to an end. Applause thundered through the pub, along with Joan’s two-fingered whistle.

Ben announced that the time had come for a quiet tune. “The harpist visiting us tonight is Sheela O’Brien from Dublin. She teaches as well as plays, and she’s going to play for us now. Sheela?” He placed the mic stand in front of her.

“Thank you, Ben. I’m going to do one of Ireland’s oldest harp tunes for you. It’s also one of our oldest songs. We know several versions of how it came to be. I’ll tell you my favorite.

“In the thirteenth century, a young chieftain named Carroll O’Daly lived in Connaught. Carroll was also a poet and a musician. He loved Eileen, the daughter of a Leinster chieftain. Eileen loved Carroll too. However, her family disapproved of the match. When Carroll went off on business, Eileen’s parents told her he’d left her for another woman. Brokenhearted, she agreed to an arranged marriage.

“When Carroll learned of the lie, he saddled his horse and raced to win her back. Yet he wasn’t sure she still loved him, and he feared an attack by her family. Unsure what to do, he camped in a lonely spot by the sea and composed a song for her.

“The night before the wedding, he attended the feast at her father’s house disguised as a wandering harper. The family welcomed him along with the other guests. Eileen herself called on him to entertain them. Carroll played his harp and sang the song he’d written for her. With each verse, he gave her little clues as to his true identity, and he sang of his undying love. She recognized him at last, though she kept it to herself. That night, Eileen and Carroll escaped on horseback and were married at a wayside chapel.

“The song is called ‘Eileen Aroon,’ which means Eileen my love, or my heart. I’m going to play the original version as Carroll might have played it, and then Brendan and Andy will sing it for us. Do sing along.”

Sheela passed the mic to Andy and sat behind her harp. Her masterful playing enchanted the crowd. Andy sang a verse in Irish, his baritone voice lilting and trilling. For the second verse, he switched to English.

I know a valley fair, Eileen Aroon.
I know a cottage there, Eileen Aroon.
Far in that valley’s shade
I know a tender maid
Flower of the hazel glade, Eileen Aroon.

Brendan’s deeper voice harmonized on each “Eileen Aroon.” Everyone in the pub sang too. Gabbi had never heard the song before, yet she was soon singing along with everyone else.

As the song drew to a close, a delicate drone resonated from Gary’s pipes. Ben’s flute embellished the lovely tune. Andy and Brendan sang together, louder and more dramatically:

Youth will in time decay, Eileen Aroon.
Beauty must fade away, Eileen Aroon.
Castles are sacked in war
Chieftains are scattered far
Truth is a fixéd star, Eileen Aroon.

Deafening applause brought Sheela to her feet, smiling and nodding. Gabbi clapped too, still humming the tune.

She’d added her own line: Ronan Aroon.



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