Old Maid in the Garret takes a lighthearted look at what might have been a very uncomfortable situation for women in centuries gone by – spinsterhood.
The concept of a woman having a career did not exist: instead, they were expected to marry at the earliest opportunity and raise a family. A woman who was “left on the shelf” would be likely to become an object of pity and in some circumstances, public scorn.
As there were few ways for a single woman to earn a living, not getting married could lead to serious hardship. This is alluded to in the reference to garret. A garret is the attic room at the top of the house under the roof. It was typically rented by people who couldn’t afford a more comfortable room in the main section of the house.
Despite the serious implications, Old Maid in the Garret is very light hearted and is played for laughs.
The idea of the voracious spinster in search of man has long been a stock character in popular entertainment and remains so today.
Old Maid in the Garret is a very old song that may date back more than 300 years. It was popular as a children’s street song and may also have been performed in music halls throughout Ireland and the UK.
The origin of the song is uncertain although it has similarities to a ballad called The Wooing Maid, which was written by the great 17th century English songwriter Martin Parker.
It’s likely to have undergone several changes over the centuries, and also has similarities to a 19th century ballad called, The Old Maid’s Last Prayer.
The song is still popular today and has been recorded by major artists including The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Sweeney’s Men featuring Andy Irvine and the great English folk group, Steeleye Span.