Irish folk music abounds with songs about young maidens “giving” themselves to rakish men who then abandon them the next morning.
Many of them are called As I Roved Out as it is a common opening line – the musical equivalent of the storyteller’s “Once upon a time”.
This can make it difficult to differentiate between different songs, which are distinct but have the same title.
The version of As I Roved Out featured here is the one made popular by Christy Moore and later covered by Loreena McKennit on her album The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
There is another song called As I Roved Out by Andy Irvine of Planxty, which we also feature on Irish Music Daily.
This Christy Moore version had been largely forgotten until Moore stumbled across it at a musical gathering in Roscommon in the early 1970s.
One of the singers was a man called John Riley. Moore described him as a “travelling singer from the old tradition that has now died out – the kind of man who travelled around passing on stories and songs”.
Moore loved the song and has performed it throughout his career, both with Planxty and as solo artist.
The theme of As I Roved Out is to be found in numerous Irish and British folk songs. The Moore version is similar to an English song called The Trooper and the Maid, and there are many other versions.
The songs usually involve a young man – possibly a soldier, a sailor or even a nobleman – who sees a young girl while travelling through the countryside and manages to charm his way into her bed.
She thinks he must love her and want expects him to marry her, but she is always disappointed. As soon as he has had his way, the rakish young man abandons her. Sometimes it’s because he is already married, sometimes it’s because he loves another but often it’s simply because he likes being single.
Sometimes it’s the man who makes the running in the relationship but sometimes it’s the girl who takes the lead.
In Moore’s version it is very much the girl who makes things happen when she meets a young soldier. She invites him to her mother’s house in the middle of the night saying “devil ‘o one would hear us” – meaning, of course, that no one would hear them.
She then makes him comfortable offering him food and drink.
The song contains several lines that can be taken in two ways. The girl says there’s plenty of oats for a horse to eat “if he’s able” and there’s plenty of wine for a soldier boy to drink “if he’s able”.
These can be taken literally but they can also be taken as code for a sexual invitation. In highly religious, Catholic Ireland, it would have been unthinkable for a song to contain more explicit lyrics.
Whether the words have double meanings or not, the couple end up in bed. The soldier makes the bed with her and sleeps with her after asking “lassie are you able?”
Incidentally, Moore often has a little fun with this line in live performances, changing it so it refers to whether the singer is up to the task of making love to the girl. In one version Moore sings: “I got up and pulled off me cap saying I hope to God I’m able.”
In other versions, Moore changes it so it’s the girl who is anxious about whether the singer will be up to the task as she says, “I hope to God you’re able”.
The song ends with the soldier abandoning the girl the next morning. She asks him when will he return and marry her but he replies: “When broken shells make Christmas bells.”
In other words, never!
It’s a common ending to these kind of songs, with the girl left disappointed and with her reputation tarnished. Other songs with related themes, such as The Butcher Boy, end in tragedy with the broken hearted girl taking her own life.