Killyburn brae, Jack O’Lantern in a dress

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The theme of the Devil who tries to take a sinner to hell is a classic of the Celtic tales. In the ballad “Devil and the Farmer’s wife” dating back to 1600, the woman deserves the hell for her spiteful and disrespectful behavior; but the devil himself cannot tame her, indeed he risks losing his tranquility. 

LITTLE DEVILS

The ballad has spread widely in England, Ireland, Scotland and America with fairly similar text versions, albeit with melodies declined in a different way.
THE DEVIL AND THE PLOWMAN (english version)
Lilli burlero
THE FARMER’S CURSED WIFE (american version)
KILLYBURN BRAE (Irish version)
KELLYBURN BRAES (Scottish version)

The song is also known as “The Women Are Worse Than The Men” already recorded by Tommy Mackem in “From The Archives”, but these hills do not exist in Ireland as the name is a distortion of the Scottish one. The hills of Kellyburn are mounds in Scotland that separate the northern part of Ayrshire from Renfrew.

The Dubliners in A Parcel of Rouges 1976

Tommy Makem

The Irish Rovers in “The Boys Come Rollin’ Home”.


There was an old man
in the Killieburn Brae
riful riful tidifol-dey
there was an old man
in the Killieburn Brae
had a curse of the wife
for the most of his days(1)
with me foldadle-dah diddyfol-dah
foldadle-dal-da-daldadle-day
One day as this man
he walked out in the glen
well he met the devil
says how are you
The devil he says
” I have come for your wife
for I hear she’s the curse
and the bane of your life”
So the devil he hoisted her
up on his back(2)
and away off to hell
with her he did whack
And when at last
they came to hell’s gate
well she lifted her stick
and she battered his pate
There were two little devils(3)
there tied up in chains
she lifted her stick
and she scattered their brains
There were two other devils
there roaring like bulls
well she lifted her stick
and she battered their skulls
There were two other devils
there playing at ball
well she lifted her stick
and she battered them all
So the devil he hoisted her
up on his back
they were seven years(5) coming
and days going back
And when they came back
to Killieburn Brae
well the devil he cried
and shouted hooray
Says he “my good man
here’s your wife safe and well
for the likes of herself
we would not have been hell”
Which proves that the women
are worse than the men
when they go to the hell
they’re thrown out again
NOTE
1) the sentence wants to underline the less than submissive character of the woman!
2) the image is supported by a vast iconography dating back to the Middle Ages of women straddling the devil
3) the image of the devils literally massacred by the woman is very funny, unfortunately the domestic reality was very different and in general it was women who suffered mistreatment and violences.
4) the game with the ball is a common place of classical ballads that even hell does not escape
5) presumably the old man during the umpteenth quarrel with his wife called the devil to take her to hell; the two must have entered into a seven-year agreement.

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