From Clare to Here is a song about the heartache and hardship faced by Irishmen working abroad in the 1960s and 70s.
It sums up the plight of Irish immigrants so well that many people assume it’s an Irish song but in fact it was written by the great English singer songwriter Ralph McTell.
McTell says he heard the phrase while working as a labourer with some Irish friends in the early 60s.
There was a conversation about how the lives of Irish people changed when they swapped their family homes in Ireland for cheap lodgings in England. Reflecting on the changes, one of the men said: “Yes, it’s a long way from Clare to here.”
The phrase stuck in the back of McTell’s mind for several years until he wanted to repay a favour to the Irish band, The Fureys and Davy Arthur.
McTell was about to go on tour when his sound system failed. He was a friend of the Fureys and asked if he could borrow their equipment until his was repaired.
Singer Eddie Furey said they were happy to oblige but they declined his offer of payment. Instead, they half jokingly said “just write us a song”. At that point, the phrase that had been lingering in the back of McTell’s mind came to the fore and From Clare to Here was written.
The Fureys recorded it immediately and it became one of the most popular songs in their set.
It’s clear that McTell was friendly with a lot of Irish immigrants in London because the lyrics of the song capture their experiences so well. The opening verse describes four of them sharing a room; inevitable given London prices. They enjoy the craic as young men do but then there’s the beautifully observed line: “Getting up late on Sunday I never go to Mass.”
Back in the 60s, Ireland was a deeply religious country in which virtually everyone went to church. When young men went to England, however, the pressure to conform was weakened and although many continued to go to Mass, many others did not. McTell captures this cultural shift perfectly in that one line.
The observations continue in the following verses. There’s the inevitable fighting and drinking to be found among young men cooped up together. But there are also more subtle comments about how the young immigrant fails to write home to his mother, and reflects on how he promised his girl that he would return to her pockets full of money – a promise he cannot keep.
The song ends with the immigrant dreaming of Ireland, hearing the sound of a fiddle and imagining the foam that looks like white horses on the waves breaking off the coast of Clare.
From Clare to Here captures the experiences of Irish immigrants so well that it has now become a standard in Irish folk circles.