It was written by Michal Considine who was born around 1850 near Spancil Hill, which lies between Ennis and Tulla in County Clare in Ireland.
Like millions of others, Considine was forced to leave his homeland because of the potato famine which devastated Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century.
County Clare, Ireland
He went to Boston in 1870 but only stayed for a few years before moving to California.
The pride of Spancil Hill
It’s thought his plan was to earn enough money to be able to bring his true love over to America to join him. Her name was Mary MacNamara. Considine refers to her in the song as “Mac the ranger’s daughter and the pride of Spancil Hill”.
As the song became popular over the years, the name became changed to Mag or Nell “the farmer’s daughter”.
Considine knew he hadn’t long to live
When Considine was about 23, however, he fell ill and realised he hadn’t long to live. He wrote Spancil Hill so it could be sent home to express his feelings to all who knew him, especially, of course, his beloved Mac.
The lyric tells how he was dreaming one night when he “stepped on board a vision” which took him all the way to Spancil Hill back in Ireland.
The characters of Spancil Hill are real
Spancil Hill was the scene of a horse fair every year and Considine arrives the day before it’s about to take place. Once there he sees the familiar faces and sights of his youth. All the people named in the song are thought to be real people rather than fictional characters.
He sees his family and friends attending the parish church of Clooney, and he bumps into the tailor Quigley, who used to make his britches when he lived in Spancil Hill.
The cock he crew in the morning
The most emotional reunion is with Mac, his “first and only love.” She throws her arms around him and he dreams that he kisses her “as in the days of yore”. The joy is short lived, however, as very soon the cock crows and he awakes from his reverie. Once awake, he is no longer in Spancil Hill but back in the real world, thousands of miles away in California.
Considine died shortly after writing the song and sadly was never reunited with his beloved Mary MacNamara. She remained true to his memory and never married.
Performances of Spancil Hill
Spancil Hill is less well known than many Irish ballads but it has still been performed by many Irish and American traditional singers. For many people, the definitive version is the one by The Dubliners featuring Jim McCann on vocals.