The song was largely unknown on the folk circuit before the 1960s. It was widely thought of as a Scottish song, partly because it was performed with great success by the Scottish band, The Corries.
Luke Kelly helped to introduce it to Ireland, but again it was thought to have originated in Scotland with Kelly possibly having learnt it from his Scottish grandmother.
In fact there are several reliable references in song collections that show it originated in Canada/Nova Scotia. The Roud Index of folk songs also lists Peggy Gordon as being from Canada/Nova Scotia.
A song called Sweet Maggie Gordon was published in New York in 1880 by Pauline Lieder, which is very similar to the Peggy Gordon we know today. The full lyrics can be found in the Library of Congress Music for the Nation archive.
The chorus is instantly recognisable.
Sweet Maggie Gordon you are my bride
Come sit you down upon my knee
And tell to me the very reason
Why I am slighted thus by thee.
The verses are also similar, but strangely this version also includes verses that look as though they are borrowed from the lyrics of Carrickfergus:
The sea is deep, I can’t swim over
Neither have I the wings to fly,
But I will hire some jolly sportsman
To carry o’er my love and I.
It could be that the song was still evolving at that time, or more likely, that Lieder had tried to improve the version she chanced upon by adding lyrics from elsewhere.
Peggy Gordon has become a folk standard over the last 40 years and has been covered by numerous artists including Sinead O’Connor, The Corrs and Paddy Reilly.
It has also featured in the film, The Proposition, being sung over a rather violent flogging scene.