The Maid of the Sweet Brown Knowe is a variation on the hundreds of courting songs to be found in Irish folk music.
It’s not one of the better known Irish songs, although it has been recorded by The Clancys and by Luke Kelly of the Dubliners. The word Knowe in the title simply means hill or small mountain.
The song begins in a conventional way with the young man asking the maid to marry him, but it quickly takes a twist and ends with petulance and recrimination.
The maid is flustered at first by the marriage proposal but then recovers herself and tells him that she’s not ready.
He’s clearly taken aback by this and asks why. He points out his wealth in his farm and the men he has working for him. She surprises him further by saying she’s heard that he spends too much time and money in the local inn.
The young man doesn’t deny the claims but defends himself by saying so what, it’s his money and he can spend it as he wishes. Then it gets a little unpleasant, with the young man say there’s no danger of him spending any of her fortune as she doesn’t have any!
With that, he says he’ll leave her where he found her, at the foot of the sweet brown knowe. The listener is left to ponder whether the maid is too fussy or the young man is too much of a waster.
The song was published by Colm O’Lochlainn in a collection of Irish Street Ballads.
In O’Lochlainn’s version, the opening line describes it as a “mournful tale”.
However, in most modern versions, including those by the Clancys and Luke Kelly, it is as described as a story to make us smile.
“Oh, come, all you lads and lassies,
And listen to me a while
And I’ll sing for you a verse or two
That will cause you all to smile”
The change emphasises that the song can be interpreted in different ways.
We give the O’Lochlainn version below.
DCome all ye lads andGlasses,AndA7hear myDmournfulGtale,DYe tender hearts thatBmweep forGloveTo sigh you will notA7fail,D’Tis all about aBmyoungman,And myA7song will tell you howHe latelyDcamea-Gcourtin’Of theA7Maid of theDSweet BrownGKnowe.
Said he, “My pretty young fair maid,Could you and I agreeTo join our hands in wedlock bands,And married we will beWe’ll join our hands in wedlock bands,And you’ll have my plighted vowThat I’ll do my whole endeavoursFor the Maid of the Sweet Brown Knowe.
Now this young and pretty fickle thing,She knew not what to sayHer eyes did shine like silver bright,And merrily did playSays she, “Young man, your love subdue,I am not ready nowAnd I’ll spend another seasonAt the foot of the Sweet Brown Knowe.”
“Oh,” says he, “My pretty young fair maid,Now why do you say so?Look down in yonder valleyWhere my verdant crops do growLook down in yonder valleyAt my horses and my plough,All at their daily labourFor the Maid of the Sweet Brown Knowe.”
“If they’re at their daily labour,Kind sir, it is not for meI’ve heard of your behaviour,I have, kind sir, ” said she,“There is an inn where you drop in,I’ve heard the people sayWhere you rap and you call and you pay for all,And go home by the break of day.”~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“If I rap and I call and I pay for all,My money is all my own.I’ve never spent aught of your fortune,For I hear that you’ve got none.You thought you had my poor heart brokeIn talkin’ to you now,But I’ll leave you where I found you,At the foot of the Sweet Brown Knowe.”~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The Maid of the Sweet Brown Knowe has many versions and is known by different names across the world.
O’Lochlainn referred to a similar song called The Manchester Angel.
There is an version in America called The Maid on the Mountain Brow, which is similar but has a happy ending, with these two final verses.
Come, all young men and maidens, come listen to my song,
I’ll sing to you a verse or two, I won’t detain you long,
It’s all about a young man I’m going to tell you now,
Who had lately fell a-member to the maid of the Mountain Brow.
He says, “My pretty fair maid, you can go along with me,
We’ll join our hands in wedlock bands, and married we will be.”
“Oh no, kind sir,” the maid replied, “you must excuse me now,
I must tarry another season at the foot of the Mountain Brow.”
“Well,” he says, “my pretty fair maid, I’m sure you can’t say no:
Look down in yonder valley where my crops so gen-tie-ly grow,
Look down in yonder valley at my horses and my plow:
They are laboring late and earli for the maid of the Mountain Brow.”
“Your horses and your plow, they’re not laboring for me:
After hearing of your character, ’tis none of the best, I see;
There is a place in this town, I’ve heard the people say,
Where you rap and call and pay for all, and go home at the break o’day.”
“If I rap and call and pay for all, my money, it is my own;
I’ll not spend any of your fortune, love, for they tell me you’ve got none;
You thought you had my poor heart won by happening on to me now,
But I’ll leave you where I found you, at the foot of the Mountain Brow.”
Oh, it’s “Johnny, dearest Johnny, how can you be so unkind?
The girl that loves you dearly you’re going to leave behind,
The girl that loves you dearly, you’re going to leave her now?
Don’t leave her broken-hearted at the foot of the Mountain Brow!”
He hung his head in silence, not knowing what to say
While gazing upon the pretty fair maid, she looked so neat and gay.
He took her by the lily-white hand, saying, “You’ve consented now,
We will tarry here no longer at the foot of the Mountain Brow.”