The Night Before Larry Was Stretched

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The Night Before Larry Was Stretched is an Irish execution ballad written in the Newgate cant.


The song is in The Festival of Anacreon,[1] with tune direction "To the hundreds of Drury I write." It is also listed in Colm Ó Lochlainn's Irish Street Ballads and Frank Harte's Songs of Dublin.

Donagh MacDonagh gives the following sleeve note 'One of a group of Execution Songs written in Newgate Cant or Slang Style in the 1780s, others being The Kilmainham Minuet, Luke Caffrey's Ghost and Larry's Ghost in which, as promised in the seventh stanza of the present ballad, Larry comes "in a sheet to sweet Molly"!' The Newgate Cant or Slang Style is not unique to Dublin and all the cant and slang is to be found in Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937). Nubbing cheat or Nubbin chit is cant for the gallows, while Darkmans is cant for night. Joyce, working out of Thomas Dekker's The Gul's Hornbook and The Belman of London (1608), wrote:

White thy fambles, red thy gan
And thy quarrons dainty is.
Couch a hogshead with me then.
In the Darkmans clip and kiss.[2]

The ballad is estimated to have been written around 1816. Will (Hurlfoot) Maher, a shoemaker from Waterford, wrote the song; Dr Robert Burrowes, the Dean of Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral in Cork, to whom it has been so often attributed, certainly did not.[3] In Ballads from the Pubs of Ireland, p. 29, James N Healy attributes the song to a William Maher, (Hurlfoot Bill), but doesn't note when Maher lived. However, the song is attributed to a 'Curren' in The Universal Songster, 1828, this possibly being the witty barrister John Philpot Curran or JW Curren.


The Newgate cant in which the song was written was a colloquial slang of 18th-century Dublin, similar to the thieves' cant still used in London (an example of the London use is seen in the 1998 film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). This is only one of a group of execution songs written in Newgate Cant or slang style somewhere around 1780, others being The Kilmainham Minuet, Luke Caffrey's Ghost and Larry's Ghost, which, as promised in the seventh verse, "comes in a sheet to sweet Molly".[4]

A French translation of the song called La mort de Socrate was written by Francis Sylvester Mahony, better known as "Father Prout" for Fraser's Magazine, and is also collected in Musa Pedestris, Three Centuries of Canting Songs and Slang Rhymes [1536―1896], collected and annotated by John S Farmer.[3]


The tune is not an Irish one, but stems from the first line of an English song, The Bowman Prigg's Farewell. The British Union-Catalogue of Early Music (BUCEM) lists four single sheet copies with music, all tentatively dated c 1740, and there is another copy in the Julian Marshal collection at Harvard. However, the tune To the Hundreds of Drury I write is in the ballad opera The Devil of a Duke, 1732, Air No 4 Bowman Prig is mentioned in song No 22 of the ballad opera The Fashionable Lady, 1730, but this may not be a reference to the song. "Bowman Prigg" is a cant term for a pick-purse.

The melody and first verse of To the Hundreds of Drury I Write are in John Barry Talley's Secular Music in Colonial Annapolis, 1988. The Night Before Larry Was Stretched is just possibly a reworking of, or may at least have been inspired by To the Hundreds of Drury.




The night before Larry was stretched,
The boys they all paid him a visit
A bit in their sacks too they fetched
They sweated their duds[6] till they riz it
For Larry was always the lad,
When a friend was condemn'd to the squeezer,[7]
He'd sweat all the togs[8] that he had
Just to help the poor boy to a sneezer[9]
– And moisten his gob 'fore he died.


The boys they came crowding in fast;
They drew their stools close round about him,
Six glims[10] round his trap-case[11] were placed
For he couldn't be well waked without 'em,
When ax'd if he was fit to die,
Without having duly repented,
Says Larry, 'That's all in my eye,
And all by the clargy invented,
– To make a fat bit for themselves.'


'I'm sorry, dear Larry', says I,
'For to see you here in such trouble,
'And your life's cheerful naggin run dry,
'And yourself going off like its bubble!'
'Hauld your tongue in that matter,' says he;
'For the neckcloth I don't care a button,
'And by this time tomorrow you'll see
'Your Larry will be dead as mutton
'– And all 'cos his courage was good’

(Alternative third verse)
‘Oh, I'm sorry, dear Larry’, says I,
‘For to see you in this situation
'And blister me limbs if I lie
'I'd as lief[12] it had been me own station’
‘Ochone, It's all over,’ says he;
‘For the neckcloth I don’t care a button,
'And by this time tomorrow you’ll see
'Your Larry will be dead as mutton
'– And all 'cos his courage was good’


'And then I'll be cut up like a pie,
'And me nob[13] from me body be parted."
'You're in the wrong box, then,' says I,
'For blast me if they're so hard-hearted.
'A chalk on the back of your neck
'Is all that Jack Ketch[14] dares to give you;
'So mind not such trifles a feck,
'Sure why should the likes of them grieve you?
'– And now boys, come tip us the deck.'[15]"


Then the cards being called for, they play’d,
Till Larry found one of them cheated;
A dart[16] at his napper[17] he made
The lad being easily heated,
‘So ye chates me bekase I’m in grief!
'O! is that, by the hokey, the rason?
'Soon I’ll give you to know, you d—d thief!
'That you’re cracking your jokes out of sason,
'– And scuttle your nob with my fist’.

(Alternative fifth verse)
Then the cards being called for, they play’d,
Till Larry found one of them cheated;
A dart[16] at his napper[18] he made
The lad being easily heated,
'Ohoh!, be the hokey, ya thief!
'I'll scuttle yer knob wit me daddle[19]
'You chates me bekase I'm in grief
'But soon I'll demolish yer noddle[20]
'– And lave ya yer claret[21] to drink.’


Then the clergy came in with his book
He spoke him so smooth and so civil;
Larry tipp’d him a Kilmainham[22] look,[23]
And pitch’d his big wig to the divil.
Then raising a little his head,
To get a sweet drop of the bottle,
And pitiful sighing, he said,
‘O! the hemp will be soon round my throttle,[24]
'– And choke my poor windpipe to death!’


So mournful these last words he spoke,
We all vented our tears in a shower;
For my part, I thought my heart broke
To see him cut down like a flower!
On his travels we watch’d him next day,
O, the throttler[25] I thought I could kill him!
But Larry not one word did say,
Nor chang’d till he came to King William;[26]
– Then, musha, his colour turned white.


When he came to the nubbing-cheat,[27]
He was tack’d up so neat and so pretty;
The rambler[28] jugg’d off from his feet,
And he died with his face to the city.
He kick’d too, but that was all pride,
For soon you might see ’twas all over;
And as soon as the noose was untied,
Then, at darkey[29] we waked him in clover,
– And sent him to take a ground-sweat.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Festival of Anacreon, 7th ed., (Part 2) p. 177, 1789 (and a later undated edition of 1790 or 1791)
  2. ^ James Joyce|'Ulysses', p 59
  3. ^ a b The Night Before Larry was Stretched (Canting Songs)
  4. ^ Harte, Frank, 'Songs of Dublin'
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ pawned their clothes
  7. ^ hangman or gallows
  8. ^ pawn all the clothes
  9. ^ a drink
  10. ^ candles
  11. ^ clothes chest
  12. ^ prefer
  13. ^ head; also 'knob', slang for penis
  14. ^ 'Jack Ketch; was the generic name for the hangman, as 'Chips' was for a ship's carpenter and so on; the original Jack Ketch was 'the common executioner 1663(?)-1686. He became notorious on account of his barbarity at the executions of William Lord Russell and others.'
  15. ^ deck of cards
  16. ^ a b blow
  17. ^ head,
  18. ^ head
  19. ^ fist
  20. ^ head>
  21. ^ blood
  22. ^ An area in Dublin's Liberties
  23. ^ A "Kilmainham look" is a dirty look. Kilmainham was the county jail in former times, and later, in 1916 as a disused jail, was the scene of the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Larry might have been confined in Kilmainham or in the Green Street prison, the "new" Newgate which replaced the old Newgate in the 1770s. Kilmainham is remembered in another prison ballad calledThe Kilmainham Minit, i.e. "minuet", the dance of the hanged man.
  24. ^ neck
  25. ^ hangman
  26. ^ This was an equestrian statue of King William of Orange, erected in 1701 at College Green in Dublin. Always controversial, it was repeatedly daubed, defaced and blown up; in 1929 it was blown up for the last time, and later broken up for smelting. One of the city's gibbets stood here. (Maurice Craig's book on Dublin – whence the information in this paragraph – included an old photo of Newgate, showing the hanging-apparatus over the main door, "as in most Irish gaols")
  27. ^ gallows, 'nub' being neck, 'cheat' being any article
  28. ^ cart
  29. ^ nighttime
  30. ^ buried him

External links[edit]