The Mantle So Green, which has been recorded by Sinead O’Connor, is from a long tradition of early 19th century songs about women remaining constant to lovers who had gone abroad to fight in British wars.
This song is slightly different though because it can be interpreted in different ways and may have echoes of the supernatural.
It is certainly more intriguing than more straightforward songs about separated lovers such as A Lady Fair and Fair Maid Walking.
In most of these songs, the man returns to find his lover fails to recognise him because he has been away for so long. Acting as a stranger, he puts her to the test by asking her to marry him. She refuses saying that she is waiting for her true love to return.
Reassured by her fidelity, the man reveals himself as her long lost lover and they are able to resume their relationship and get married.
The Mantle So Green is deeper, however, because it’s unclear whether the man returning is the young woman’s long lost suitor or merely one of his friends.
The song begins in a familiar way with the young man seeing this beautiful woman, whose name is Nancy, and asking her to marry him. As in other similar songs, she says she cannot because she is waiting for her true love who is in the army and had fought at Waterloo.
The young man also fought at Waterloo and is shocked to find that the woman’s suitor was a friend of his. Unfortunately, the suitor had been fatally wounded in battle. However, before he died he mentioned Nancy. He also gave his friend the gold ring, which had been a token of his love for Nancy.
When Nancy sees the gold ring she grows pale and says she will go to the green woods to mourn the man she loved.
At this point, the lyrics get a little ambiguous. We’re suddenly presented with the line,
“Rise up lovely Nancy, your grief I’ll remove”.
The next lines could only be spoken by Nancy’s original lover:
Nancy, lovely Nancy. I have won your heart
In your father’s garden the day we did part
Is this the lover … or his ghost?
The question is: who is saying this? Is it the ghost of her lover who wants to make her happy by freeing her to marry his friend? Or is that the ‘friend’ is actually her lover, come back unannounced and putting her through a rather gruelling test as was common in other such songs?
The final verse goes back to telling the story in the third person saying: “This couple got married…
It means we can’t be sure whether the friend really was a friend or was in fact Nancy’s original lover. The way the song moves from a first person to a third person narrator adds to the confusion, but that shifting of narrator was common in songs of that time.
In a way, the ambiguity adds to the song’s appeal as people can interpret it in different ways.
FAsCI wasFwalkCing oneFmorning inAmJune.ToFview the gay fiCelds and meaFdows inCbloom,I eFspied a youngCfemale, sheFappeared like aCqueen,WithAmcostly fineGrobes, and aFmantle soGgreeAmn.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~I stood in amazement and was struck with surprise,I thought her an angel that fell from the skies,Her eyes were like diamonds, her cheeks like the rose,She is one of the fairest that nature composed.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~I said, “My pretty fair maid, if you will come with me,We both join in wedlock, and married we will be;I’ll dress you in rich vesture, and you’ll appear like a queen,With costly fine robes and your mantle so green.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~She answered me, “Young man, you must me excuse,For I’ll wed with no man, you must be refused;To the woods I will wander, to shun all men’s view,For the lad that I love was at famed Waterloo.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~“Oh then, if you won’t marry, tell me your love’s name,For I being in battle, Imight know the same.”“Draw near to my garment and there will be seenHis name is embroidered on my mantle ofgreen.”~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~In the raising of her mantle, there I did behold,His name and his surname were in letters of gold;Young William O’Reilly appeared to my view,He was my chief comrade in famed Waterloo.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~“We fought so victorious where bullets did flyIn the far field of honour your true love does lie,We fought for three days, until the fourth afternoon,He received his death summons on the 16th of June.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~But when he was dying I heard his last cry,‘If you were you here, lovely Nancy, contented I’d die;’Now Peace is proclaimed, and the truth I declare,Here is your love token, the gold ring I wear.”~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~The longer she viewed it the paler she grow,She flew into his arms, with a heart full of woe ;To the green woods I’ll wander, for the boy that I love,Rise up, lovely Nancy, your grief I’ll remove.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Oh Nancy, dear Nancy,, ’tis I won your heartIn your father’s garden the day we did part.Now the wars are all over, no trouble is seenAnd I’ll wed with my true love in her mantle so green.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~This couple got married, I heard people say,They had nobles attending on their wedding day ;Peace is proclaimed, and the war is all o’er,You are welcome to my arms Nancy, for evermore.