Mayo’s seventeenth century rebel song

I recently stumbled upon a 17th century song, as you do, which was dedicated to the county of Mayo. The song, titled "The County of Mayo", initially caught my eye as it was printed in the old Irish type, a rare sight nowadays. The author was a man named Thomas Lavelle who was active during the middle of the 1600s.

The original Irish version references the place name Iar-Umhaill, which, in a mid-19th century English copy, was translated as Irrus. This translation presumably relates to Erris, from that region’s earlier name Irrus Domnann. There is, however, an ancient district of Iar-Umhaill that was found in the barony of Murrisk, though most accounts believe the poem to be based on Erris.

Lavelle penned his song at a time of major political and religious restrictions in Ireland. The English Crown had been slowly extending its influence into the barbarous and dangerous lands in Mayo for many decades. Acts, military and political, such as the Battle of Shrule in 1570, the Composition of Connacht in 1585 and the creation of the Protestant borough of Castlebar in 1613, pushed English law and intimidation further into the county. A failed Irish Catholic uprising against English Protestant rule in 1641 was followed by the Irish Confederate Wars and the arrival of parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell’s conquering New Model Army in 1649. Cromwell set about bloodily putting down any remaining dissent given by the alliance of Irish Catholics and English Royalists in order to curtail their progression. The four stanza song ‘The County of Mayo’ reflects the sadness of that time. The song opens

"On the deck of Patrick Lynch’s boat I sit in woeful plight,        

Through my sighing all the weary night, and weeping all the day,  

Were it not that full of sorrow from my people forth I go,

By the blessed sun, ‘tis royally I’d sing thy praise, Mayo!"

Lavelle’s song is influenced by a strong Spanish connection that was ongoing during his writing of the piece. Catholic Spain was an ally of Catholic Confederate Ireland and Lavelle writes of the happier times he is forced to leave behind;

"When I dwelt at home in plenty, and my gold did much abound,

In the company of fair young maids the Spanish ale went round-                                                                                  

‘Tis a bitter change from those gay days that now I’m forced to go,

And must leave my bones in Santa Cruz, far from my own Mayo!"

It was noted in State papers dated 1589 that there were Spaniards in the barony of Erris. Three of the six Spanish Armada ships wrecked off the Mayo coast broke up in sight of the Erris shoreline one year earlier, in 1588. The reference to dying in Santa Cruz is possibly a nod to the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife that took place between England and Spain in 1657 as part of the Anglo-Spanish War (1654-60 ). Following Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland, 34,000 Confederate troops fled to Spain to take up service. In his final verse, Lavelle pines for the old native ruling class;

‘Tis my grief that Patrick Loughlin is not Earl in Irrus still,

And that Brian Duff no longer rules as Lord upon the hill,

And that Colonel Hugh Mac Grady should be lying dead and low,

And I sailing, sailing swiftly from the county of Mayo!"

Lavelle’s song remained popular among the peasantry in Mayo and Galway long after his death. It can be heard sung in its entirety by John Lyons on the website of Clare County Library.

The County of Mayo

I.

On the deck of Patrick Lynch’s boat I sit in woeful plight,        

Through my sighing all the weary night, and weeping all the day,  

Were it not that full of sorrow from my people forth I go,

By the blessed sun, ‘tis royally I’d sing thy praise, Mayo!

II.

When I dwelt at home in plenty, and my gold did much abound,

In the company of fair young maids the Spanish ale went round-                                                                                  

‘Tis a bitter change from those gay days that now I’m forced to go,

And must leave my bones in Santa Cruz, far from my own Mayo!

III.

They are altered girls in Irrus now, ‘tis proud they’re grown and high,  

With their top-knots and their hair-bags, for I pass their buckle by-

But it’s little now I heed their airs, for God will have it so,                                                                      

That I must depart for foreign lands, and leave my sweet Mayo!

IV.

‘Tis my grief that Patrick Loughlin is not Earl in Irrus still,

And that Brian Duff no longer rules as Lord upon the hill,

And that Colonel Hugh Mac Grady should be lying dead and low,

And I sailing, sailing swiftly from the county of Mayo!

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