The Gartan Mother's Lullaby is a wonderful song composed in Ireland at the very end of the Romantic Era. It was penned by Joseph Campbell (1879-1944), an Irish poet and lyricist who wrote under the Gaelic form of his name, Seosamh MacCathmhaoil. He came from a fairly affluent family of road builders in Belfast, but he found his passion in writing poetry.
He travelled to Dublin in 1902 where he was involved in nationalist movements, and collaborated with composer and folk-song arranger Herbert Hughes (1882-1937). Both were from Belfast, Hughes being a Protestant (Methodist) and Campbell a Catholic.
Hughes had collected the traditional melody in Donegal in 1903 when a local had sung him a tune she remembered from her childhood. The words to the original song had long since been forgotten. Campbell added the lyrics from one of his many poems. The song was first published in 1904 in "The Songs of Uladh."
Many mythological characters and historical figures are used in the lyrics. These include kings, fairies, and other folk creatures such as the Green Man. The first two stanzas include many of these from Irish history. The third stanza adds Christian imagery to what is otherwise a lullaby based in Pagan religious mythology and historical references.
The Gartan Mother's Lullaby
Sleep, O babe, for the red bee hums
The silent twilight's fall
Aoibheall from the Grey Rock comes
To wrap the world in thrall.
A leanbhan O, my child, my joy,
My love and heart's desire,
The crickets sing you lullaby
Beside the dying fire.
Dusk is drawn, and the Green Man's Thorn
Is wreathed in rings of fog:
Siabhra sails his boat till morn
Upon the Starry Bog.
A leanbhan O, the paly moon
Hath brimmed her cusp in dew,
And weeps to hear the sad sleep tune
I sing, O love, to you.
Faintly sweet doth the chapel bell
Ring o'er the valley dim:
Tearmann's peasant voices swell
In fragrant evening hymn.
A leanbhan O, the low bell rings
My little lamb to rest
And angel dreams, till morning sings
Its music in your head.
Aoibheall (or Eeval) is a fairy woman who guards the grey rock named Graglea. She is said to carry a beautiful golden harp, who's music spells impending death on anyone who hears it. The Battle of Clontarf was fought in 1014 AD between Irish King Brian Boru and other Irish kingdoms allied with Vikings. The outcome is not definitive, and is generally seen as a pyrrhic victory for Brian. King Brian knew he would not survive the battle, since he had heard Aoibheall playing her harp the previous night.
Leanbhan is the Irish word for 'little child'. Gartan means 'little garden'. It can also mean 'sanctuary' or 'church' land. Gartan is also a parish in County Donegal, Ireland. Tearmann is the village of Termon near Donegal, in northwest Ireland. The village is a few miles north of Gartan Lough.
Siabhra is a generic name for any type of Irish fairy. He is rumored to scurry over bogs on a ragweed raft.
The Green Man is a mythical creature referenced all over Europe. It refers to a man who appears to be a part of the forest. He is covered in leaves and bark, and has existed for thousands of years. Songs of Uladh depicts the Green Man in this way: "They say if you see him in the morning, 'no ill follows'; but if at night, death or some other terrible misfortune will surely overtake you."
Joseph Campbell emigrated to New York in 1925, earning a living teaching Irish literature and culture at Fordham University. Near the end of his life he returned to Ireland. It is rumored that in 1944 his neighbors noticed no smoke coming from his home's chimney. Upon investigating they found him dead from a fall across his fireplace hearth stone. It may be that the last sounds Joseph Campbell heard were those from his fire, a testament to the lyrics from The Gartan Mother's Lullaby: "The crickets sing you lullaby, beside the dying fire."
My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest.
Originally published June 11, 2022
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman
Joseph Campbell: Poet & Nationalist 1879-1944 by Norah Saunders
A Literary History of Ireland, from Earliest Times to the Present Day by Douglas Hyde
Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf by Sean Duffy
Songs of Uladh by Padraig Mac Aodh O'Neill - PDF
The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin
Irish Country Songs by Herbert Hughes - PDF
Sheet Music (PDF)