The origins of the song are unclear, but it has been traced to an Irish language song, "Do bhí bean uasal" ("There Was a Noblewoman"), which is attested to the poet Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna, who died in 1745 in County Clare.
The song appears on a ballad sheet in Cork City in the mid nineteenth century in macaronic form. The Irish lyrics were about a man being cuckolded, a bawdy and humorous ditty. By contrast, the English lyrics are nostalgic.
With the Industrial Revolution, a linen-trade developed between Co. Antrim (where Carrickfergus is situated), and Co. Cork. It is possible the English lyrics came from snatches picked up in interactions between the Cork men and the Ulstermen.
Robert Gogan suggests Carrickfergus may have evolved from at least two separate songs which would explain why it does not have a consistent narrative. For example, the Ancient Music of Ireland, published by George Petrie in 1855, contained a song called "The Young Lady" which featured many but not all of the lyrics used in Carrickfergus. Gogan also refers to a recording of a song called "Sweet Maggie Gordon" which is kept in the Music for the Nation section of the US Library of Congress. It was published by Mrs Pauline Lieder in New York in 1880. It contains verses which are similar to Carrickfergus, but the chorus is closer to another Irish/Scottish folk song called "Peggy Gordon".
In modern times, "Carrickfergus" became known after actor Peter O'Toole related it to Dominic Behan, who put it in print and made a recording in the mid-1960s. The middle verse was allegedly written by Behan.
The song has been recorded by many well known performers including Paddy Reilly, Declan Affley, Joan Baez, Dominic Behan, Charlotte Church, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Brian Dunphy, De Dannan, Subway to Sally, Joe Dassin (as Mon village du bout du monde), The Dubliners, Bryan Ferry, Garnet Rogers, Brian Kennedy, Declan Galbraith, Irish Stew of Sindidun, Lisa Kelly, Loreena McKennitt (as Carrighfergus), Órla Fallon, Van Morrison, Bryn Terfel, Van Morrison and the Chieftains, Ronan Keating, Katherine Jenkins and Allison Moorer. It was also adapted in Scooter's song "Where the Beats...". The song is a popular request at folk festivals and concerts, and was played at the 1999 funeral of John F. Kennedy, Jr. The song was more recently performed by Loudon Wainwright III over the closing credits of HBO's series Boardwalk Empire.
- I wish I was in Carrickfergus, only for nights in Ballygrand.
- I would swim over the deepest ocean, the deepest ocean for my love to find,
- But the sea is wide and I cannot swim over and neither have I wings to fly.
- If I could find me a handsome boatman to ferry me over to my love and die.
- My childhood days bring back sad reflections of happy times I spent so long ago.
- My boyhood friends and my own relations have all passed on now like melting snow,
- But I'll spend my days in endless roaming; soft is the grass, my bed is free.
- Ah, to be back in Carrickfergus on that long road down to the salty sea!
- And in Kilkenny it is reported there are marble stones as black as ink.
- With gold and silver I would support her, but I'll sing no more now till I get a drink.
- I'm drunk today and I'm seldom sober, a handsome rover from town to town.
- Ah, but I'm sick now, my days are numbered, so come all ye young men and lay me down.
-Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory
Do bhí bean uasal
- Do bhí bean uasal seal dá lua liom,
- 's chuir sí suas díom fóraíl ghéar;
- Do ghabhas lastuas di sna bailte móra
- Mar go dtug sí svae ['sway'] léi os comhair an tsaoil.
- Ach dá bhfaighinnse a ceann siúd faoi áirsí an teampaill,
- Do bheinn gan amhras ar m'ábhar féin;
- Ach anois táim tinn lag 's gan fáil ar leigheas agam.
- Is go mbeidh mo mhuintir ag gol im' dhéidh.
- Do shiúlaíos Éire is an Mhumhain le chéile
- Is cois Beann Éadair ag lorg mná,
- Is ní fhaca éinne ar fhaid an méid sin
- Do dhein mé phléasáil ach mo Mhalaí Bán.
- Mná na hÉireann do chur le chéile
- Is nach mór an t-aeraíocht dom san a rá;
- 'Sé dúirt gach éinne a chonaic mo spéirbhean.
- Go dtug sí svae léi ó Chontae an Chláir.
- Tá an ghrian ag imeacht is tá an teas ag tréigean
- Is an tart ní féidir liom féin do chlaoi,
- Mar go bhfuil an geall orm ó Shamhain go Féabhraí
- Is ní bheidh sí reidh liom go dtí Lá Mhichíl;
- Ach geallaim féin daoibh nach mar gheall ar an méid sin
- A d'iontaíos féinig i gcoinne na dí,
- Ach mar gheall ar mo chéad searc a dhein mé thréigean –
- Chuaigh sí ag bailiú déirce dá clann iníon.
- Agus táim tinn breoite is mo chos dheas leonta
- Ó ghabh an ógbhean úd tharam isteach;
- D'iarras póigín uair nó dhó uirthi,
- For I'd long to roam with my own sweetheart.
- For I'm tired of drinking and I'm seldom sober!
- I'm a constant rover from town to town!
- But now I'm dying and my days are over –
- Come, Malaí, a stóirín, and lay me down!)