The original text of “She Moved trough the Fair” dates back to an ancient Irish ballad from Donegal, while the melody could be from the Middle Ages (for the musical scale used that recalls the Arab one). The standard version comes from the pen of Padraic Colum (1881-1972) which rewrote it in 1909. There are many versions of the text (additional verses, rewriting of the verses), also in Gaelic, reflecting the great popularity of the song, the song was published in the Herbert Hughes collection “Irish Country Songs” (1909), and in the collection of Sam Henry “Songs of the People” (1979).
In its essence, the story tells of a girl promised in marriage who appears in a dream to her lover. But the verses are cryptic, perhaps because they lack those that would have clarified its meaning; this is what happens to the oral tradition (who sings does not remember the verses or changes them at will) and the ballad lends itself to at least two possible interpretations.
In the first few strophes, the woman, full of hope, reassures her lover that her family, although he is not rich, will approve his marriage proposal, and they will soon be married; they met on the market day, and he looks at her as she walks away and, in a twilight image, compares her to a swan that moves on the placid waters of a lake.
The third stanza is often omitted, and it is not easy to interpret: the unexpressed pain could be the girl’s illness (which will cause her death) – probably the consumption- for this reason people were convinced that their marriage would not be celebrated.
And we arrive at the last stanza, the rarefied and dreamy one in which the ghost of her appears at night: an evanescent figure that moves slowly to call him soon to death .
The other interpretation of the text (shared by most) supposes she escaped with another one (or more likely her family has combined a more advantageous marriage, not being the suitor loved by her quite rich). But the love he feels for her is so great and even if he continues his life by marrying another, he will continue to miss her.
The verses related to an unexpressed pain are therefore interpreted as the lack of confidence in the new wife because he will be still, and forever, in love with his first girlfriend.
The final stanza becomes the epilogue of his life, when he is old and dying, he sees his first love appear beside to console him.
As we can see both the reconstructions are adaptable to the verses, admirable and fascinating of the song, precisely because of their meager essentiality (an ante-litteram hermeticism): no self-pity, no sorrow shown, but the simplicity of a great love, that few memories passed together can be enough to fill a life.
A single, strong, elegiac image of a candid swan in the twilight, anticipation of her fleeting passage on earth. The song is a lament and there are many musicians who have interpreted it, recreating the rarefied atmosphere of the words, often with the delicate sound of the harp.
Loreena McKennitt from Elemental ( I, II, III, IV)
Nights from the Alhambra 2007
Moya Brennan & Cormac De Barra from Against the wind
Cara Dillon live
Sinead O’Connor (Sinead has recorded many versions of this song )
My (young) love said to me,
“My mother(1) won’t mind
And my father won’t slight you
for your lack of kind(2)”
she stepped away from me (3)
and this she did say:
“It will not be long, love,
till our wedding day”
She stepped away from me (4)
and she moved through the fair (5)
And fondly I watched her
move here and move there
And then she turned homeward (6)
with one star awake(7)
like the swan (8) in the evening(9)
moves over the lake
The people were saying
“No two e’er were wed”
for one has the sorrow
that never was said(10)
And she smiled as she passed me
with her goods and her gear
And that was the last
that I saw of my dear.
Last night she came to me,
my dead(12) love came
so softly she came
that her feet made no din
and she laid her hand on me (13)
and this she did say
“It will not be long, love,
‘til our wedding day”
1) Padraic Colum wrote
“My brothers won’t mind,
And my parents.. ”
2) kind – kine: “wealth” or “property”. Others interpret the word as “relatives” so the protagonist is an orphan or by obscure origins
3) or she laid a hand on me (cwhich is a more intimate and direct gesture to greet with one last contact)
4) or She went away from me
5) the days of the fair were the time of love when the young men had the opportunity to meet with the girls of marriageable age
6) Loreena McKennitt sings
“And she went her way homeward”
7) the evening star that appears before all the others is the planet Venus
8) The swan is one of the most represented animals in the Celtic culture, portrayed on different objects and protagonist of numerous mythological tales. see more
9) in the evening it refers to the moment when they separate
10) the sorrow that never was said: obscure meaning
11) Loreena McKennitt sings
I dreamed it last night
That my true love came in
So softly she entered
Her feet made no din
She came close beside me
12) some interpreters omit the word “death” by proposing for the dream version, or they say “my dear love” or “my own love” but also “my young love”
13) or “She put her arms round me“
Alan Stivell from “Chemíns De Terre” 1973
A version entitled “The Wedding Song” has been handed down, which develops the theme of abandonment, and which is to be considered a variant even if with a different title