She Moved Through the Fair is probably one of the most ancient of Irish folk songs yet is immensely popular with contemporary singers and modern day audiences.
It has a strange, mystical sounding melody and tells the story of a young man and the beautiful woman he hopes to marry. Unfortunately for him, he is destined to be disappointed.
The first verse opens optimistically with the young woman assuring her suitor that her parents won’t slight him or mind his lack of wealth. She then leaves him but first assures him that it won’t be long until their wedding day.
The young man watches her leave as she moves through the fair and makes her way homeward. She has beauty and elegance, and glides along as the “swan in the evening moves over the lake”.
The wedding theme continues in the third verse though it has a melancholy twist. There’s a comment that “no two were e’er wed but one has a sorrow that never was said”.
We’re still absorbing the negative sentiment when we hear of the young woman smiling to passersby as she makes her way homeward. The end of the first verse then takes us by surprise as we hear that the young man never sees her again.
We are not told what happened to her but we hear that the young man dreams that she visits him and lays her hand on him. Again she reassures him that it “will not be long love, till our wedding day”.
In some versions of the song, including one of the earliest recordings by John McCormack, we are told that the woman is dead and so it is her ghost that visits the young man rather that it just being a dream.
One explanation for the incomplete narrative in the song is that some verses may be missing. It’s a very old song, possibly dating back to medieval times.
It would not be unusual for verses to be modified or discarded over time. Audiences were familiar with stories of loss and heartbreak and could fill in the gaps themselves. Also, the beauty of the melody and the general sense of melancholy in the lyrics is enough to make the song satisfying and complete.