Red is the Rose is a traditional song that has seen a resurgence in popularity recently thanks to recordings by artists like the High Kings and Orla Fallon.
The writer is unknown but the melody is taken from the classic Scottish folk song, Loch Lomond.
Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem were the first artists to bring Red is the Rose to a worldwide audience. Makem said he learned the song from his mother, Sarah, who was a well known singer and folk song collector from Armagh in Northern Ireland. Tommy Makem recorded the song on his Songbag album in 1990.
The song lyrics are quite simple, telling a love story with a sad, wistful ending. The lovers begin by swearing love and eternal devotion in the first two verses; in the final verse we find that they have to separate. But why?
It’s not for the parting that my sister pains
It’s not for the grief of my mother
‘Tis all for the loss of my bonnie Irish lass
That my heart is breaking forever.
The first two lines don’t really make any sense and are probably due to mishearing of the song as it was handed down over the generations. A recording of Red is the Rose that was made in 1934 by Josephine Beirne and George Sweatman under the title, My Bonnie Irish Lass, helps to clear up the confusion. In that version the final verse is:
It’s not for the parting of my sister Kate
It’s not for the loss of my mother
It’s all for the loss of my bonnie Irish lass
That is leaving old Ireland forever.
This makes it clear that it’s not the parting from his sister or the loss of his mother that pains him but the parting from his true love. The reason for the separation, as with countless other Irish people over the centuries, is emigration. The final line suggests that it’s the girl who is leaving, possibly because her whole family is leaving Ireland. Such events were not uncommon.
Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem will always be closely associated with Red is the Rose, but recently it’s been recorded with great success by several major artists including The High Kings, Orla Fallon and by Nanci Griffith with The Chieftains.
The Irish tenor Anthony Kearns also recorded a version at a performance at the John F Kennedy Library in 2012. He dedicated the song to Rose Kennedy, mother of President Kennedy.