"Spancil Hill" is a song written in a traditional Irish folk style by Michael Considine. It bemoans the plight of the Irish immigrants who so longed for home from their new lives in America, many of whom went to California with the Gold Rush. This song is sung by a man who longs for his home in Spancilhill, his friends and the love he left there. All the characters and places in this song are real.
Spancilhill is also the name of the "District Electoral Division" as well of a small settlement in East County Clare, about 5 km east of Ennis, on the regional road (R352) to Tulla. However, the actual name of the central settlement is "Cross of Spancilhill", as mentioned in the song. The area was originally called Cnoc Fuar Choile (the cold hill of the wood), a name that was somehow anglicised to Spancilhill. The word "spancil" relates to the practice of "spancelling," which was to use a short rope to tie an animal's left fore-leg to its right hind leg, thereby hobbling the animal and stopping it from wandering too far.
The nearby Fair Green is used for the famous Spancilhill Horse Fair each year, on 23 June or on the following day if 23 June falls on a Sunday. At one time, Spancil Hill was said to be Ireland's largest fair with buyers from Britain, Russia, Prussia, and France competing to purchase the best stock for their Imperial armies.
- NOTE: Other websites quote different dates, and this section contains few or no references which can be confirmed. Help sought.
Michael Considine was born around 1850 and emigrated to the USA from Spancilhill at around 1870. Some of his siblings came with him, but some stayed behind. One of his brothers, Patrick, died, leaving his widow to look after a five-month-old son called John. John was to become the guardian of the song when he grew up.
Working in Boston for about two years, Michael Considine went to the USA with the intention of bringing his sweetheart over and for them to be married when he had made enough money for the passage. His sweetheart was "Mac, the ranger's daughter" and not "Nell, the farmer's daughter" as in the popularised version. Her name was Mary MacNamara who, according to the 1901 census, had been born in 1865 which made her only 5 years old when Michael allegedly left Ireland. The ranger's house was within eyesight from Michael Considine's home as was the tailor Quigley's.
He stayed in Boston for two years or so before moving to California. At the age of 23, he suffered from ill health for a long time and, knowing he hadn't long to live, he wrote the poem "Spancilhill" to be sent home in remembrance of his love and it was kept safe by his six-year old nephew, John Considine.
It is said that Michael Considine died sometime in 1873 and may have been buried in the Spancilhill graveyard. These dates are disputed, not least because Mary MacNamara (who is said to have remained faithful to his memory and never married) would only have been 8 years old when Michael died.
Sourcing the Original Version
In the late 1930s or early '40s, Robbie McMahon, a local folk singer and composer, during an Irish traditional music session in Spancilhill, was going to sing "Spancilhill", when the woman of the house, Moira Keane, a relative of Michael Considine, handed Robbie McMahon the original text of the song. According to Raymond Daly and Derek Warfield, she said:"If ye are going to sing that song ye might as well sing it right."
This text was confirmed some time later, around 1953, at another session in the parish, when Robbie McMahon was asked to sing "Spancilhill", and a local, old man first resisted him, saying: "Don't sing that song." When asked why not, the old man replied "because ye don't know it". According to Daly and Warfield, McMahon sang the song anyway using the version given to him by Moira Keane. As McMahon got into the song, he noticed the old man paying more attention, fiddling with his cap and looking a little flustered.
When the song was finished the old man asked: "Where did ya get that song?" McMahon told him and the old man seemed both perturbed and pleased at the same time. The old man was John Considine, the nephew of the songs's composer Michael Considine. John was 76 at that time and had kept his uncle's song safe for 70 years. He gave his approval to McMahon's performance after hearing that he had sung the original version.
"Spancil Hill" has been recorded by (in alphabetical order):
- Patrick Clifford
- The Corrs
- Darby O'Gill
- Dropkick Murphys (as "Fairmount Hill," with lyrical changes setting the song in Massachusetts)
- The Dubliners
- Jim McCann
- Johnny McEvoy
- Christy Moore
- The Prodigals
- Paddy Reilly
- The Wolfe Tones
- Spancil Hill Fair. "Official Site". Spancilhill Fair Official Website. Spancilhill Fair Organising Committee. Retrieved 14 June 2011.
- "Census of Ireland 1901".
- Celtic and Ireland in Song and Story, pub Studio Print, 2008 pp257
- Frank McGrath from the Nenagh Singer Circle on a discussion forum on mudcat.org (Mudcat Café)
- Robbie McMahon's story behind "Spancil Hill" as told by Frank McGrath
- The Original Lyrics as handed down by Robbie McMahon
- Séamus Mac Mathúna is confirming "Robbie's" Version
- Story and Lyrics
- About the Place and the Fair
- Traditional Version
- Another popular version
- The tune (notes) and further details
- Lyrics and a MIDI version
- Google Earth Spancelhill
- TV report on the research to find out about the composer
- Song of the day 18 Nov 2008 on thishereboogie.com