During the 1930s and 40s, and perhaps a bit longer, there was a magnificent tenor who appeared in several productions of The Metropolitan Opera as well as in concerts.  He also appeared on radio and later on television programs like The Bell Telephone Hour and The Firestone Hour.  I was glad to tell people that I was associated with the Bell System, which sponsored such productions as the Telephone Hour on radio, and later on television.

Melton not only had a starring role at The Metropolitan, but from time to time he sang songs in concert which reflected his Irish background.  On one occasion after lunch during the season of Easter in 1947, I set out to locate a recording of James Melton at the Aeolian Company, the foremost provider of recorded music in St. Louis.  When Gordon Gintz, my lunchtime companion and I reached the clerk at the Aeolian Company, I told him that I wanted a copy of James Melton singing “The Holy City.”  Obviously the Holy City refers to Jerusalem.  Gordon Gintz was not conversant with the music.  On that occasion Gordon said to me, “Why are you always buying Irish music?”  Gordon was a good fellow and, if he confused Dublin with Jerusalem, far be it from me to set him straight.

Well, in any case, the thought crossed my mind a day or two ago about trying to find a recording of James Melton singing a lovely Irish folk classic called “Kathleen Mavourneen.”  Miss Chicka, my wife whose mother was a McJunkin traces her family routes to County Armaugh in Ireland, was enlisted in my search.  Miss Chicka is a computer wizard and she set out to find whether James Melton had ever recorded “Kathleen Mavourneen.”  As it turns out, apparently that is not the case but there were several other recordings by Irish tenors of that Irish classic.  So I was satisfied with the results of her search.  I have long known of the existence of the song, “Kathleen Mavourneen.”  I have not given it much thought, but I assumed that Mavourneen was a surname.

The name sounded Irish but that turned out to be not the case.  When Miss Chicka had ventured into the name of Mavourneen, she found out that it was not a surname at all.  It was from an ancient Gaelic term that meant “my darling.”  So the tenors who sang “Kathleen Mavourneen” are really singing about Kathleen, my darling.  Again according to the adventures of Miss Chicka and her computer, we find out that this song was composed by a gentleman named Frederick Crouch with lyrics by Marion Crawford.  The lyrics seem to present a bit of confusion in that there seem to be two lyricists who claim credit to the words to “Kathleen Mavourneen.”

A further look into the history of “Kathleen Mavourneen” discloses that it was a favorite during the Civil War in this country and was sung particularly by Confederate troops.  I read no social significance into the fact that it was sung by those who were defending slavery.  I assume that it was just a haunting melody back in the 1860s, just as it has haunted me for many of my years as well.

You will recall that when the United States declared its independence from England, the English were forced to find another place for their long-term prisoners.  At that time it developed that Australia was the place where England could imprison its prisoners who were serving long terms.  As it turns out, many of those prisoners simply decided to stay in Australia and, being of Irish stock, they knew of the song “Kathleen Mavourneen.”

And so at this juncture, I believe it is important that you should become acquainted with the words of the first verse and its chorus.


Kathleen mavourneen! the gray dawn is breaking,
The horn of the hunter is heard on the hill,
The lark from her light wing the bright dew is shaking,
Kathleen mavourneen, what slumbering still?
Oh! hast thou forgotten how soon we must sever?
Oh! hast thou forgotten this day we must part,
It may be for years, and it may be forever,
Oh! why art thou silent thou voice of my heart?
It may be for years, and it may be forever,
Then why art thou silent Kathleen mavourneen?

You will notice that in the chorus of “Kathleen Mavourneen,” there is a line that holds, “It may be for years and it may be forever” and that line tends to bring us to the end of our adventure with Kathleen Mavourneen.

In Australia the song was popular particularly among the prisoners who had been sent there by the English.  Apparently, at that time, the judges could render an indeterminate sentence with the final sentence coming later on.  The prisoners were anxious to avoid a final Kathleen Mavourneen sentence, because it “May be for years and may be forever.”

At this late date, I can fully appreciate that prisoners were hopeful of avoiding the Kathleen Mavourneen final sentence.  I agree that the song is lovely, but I can also agree with the prisoners who wanted to avoid a final sentence of “for years or forever.”

If I were forced to find another place to live outside of this country, it might well be that Australia would be my landing place.  If that should turn out to be the case, I would certainly want to avoid appearing before a judge who might slaughter me with a Kathleen Mavourneen sentence.

So you see, we started this essay with a song in my head and wound up talking about prison sentences.  I hope that you have enjoyed this adventure with “Kathleen Mavourneen” and it is much to my dismay that I cannot reproduce the artistry of James Melton in singing it.  But if you can go to your record store or if you have the ability to wrest the song from your computer, I hope that you will become acquainted with “Kathleen Mavourneen” meaning Kathleen my darling.

Gordon Gintz has been deceased for several years now and there should be no interference from Gordon.  So just enjoy this ancient Irish tune that has found great favor among the English-speaking countries of this world.  And always remember that “It may be for years or it may be forever,” but Ezra’s Essays will always be with you.


February 13, 2011

Essay 548


Kevin’s commentary:

Someone literally made a youtube video of this song playing from vinyl. You can listen to it here. It’s one of those songs where, at least to me, if you don’t pay close attention you can quickly forget that you’re listening to English lyrics and just hear the voice as another instrument, as it fits very well into the music.

Unrelatedly: Brits enjoy delicious Indian food because they colonized India.

What the hell did they get for colonizing Australia? Is there some sort of tasty cuisine from that country which they now get access to? Vegemite aside, obviously. I’m curious.



  1. Jen Madison says:

    Hi Pop,

    I often do work listening to instrumental soundtracks; because there are no lyrics, it helps with my focus while still keeping me entertained. Gettysburg is one of my all-time favorite movies, so I decided to listen to that soundtrack tonight.

    As I was listening, I wondered about the name of the song (or maybe I was just looking for a distraction). Turns out it was Kathleen Mavoureen! I remembered you had an essay on this song, so I came back to re-read. It really is beautiful, as is the rest of the soundtrack.

    Here’s a link to the song on YouTube:

    Hope you are doing well!

    – Jen

  2. Kathleen Mavourneen Monaghan says:

    I have been looking for that song for years. My Father named me after it. His Mother was born in Waterford. He never saw Ireland but he loved his heritage and taught me to love a Country he never saw. I went there a few years ago and felt that I belonged there. What a beautiful Country

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