The Spinningwheel Song has a beautiful, hypnotic melody that has enchanted listeners for more than a hundred years.
The song is in slow waltz time and has a rigid but gentle beat that seems to echo the foot movements of the girl operating the spinning wheel. Listeners talk about their minds drifting peacefully away as the song progresses.
The song was written in 1884 by the Irish poet, John Francis Waller.
It tells the story of a young woman who is spinning in her home in Ireland while looking after her blind grandmother who is sitting by the fireside.
The girl reassures her it is only the wind moving the ivy but the grandmother senses something is wrong.
She asks why the girl keeps moving her stool and has started “singing all wrong” a well known old song called the The Coolun – the anglicised name for a Gaelic tune, An Chuilfhionn, which means the The Fair Haired One.
The words a chara in the second verse simply mean “dear”.
It’s not until the fourth verse that listener finds out what is happening.
The young woman’s lover has come to call and is urging her come with him and go courting in the moonlight. The young girl is torn between going to her lover and staying to look after her grandmother.
We can feel her dilemma as she shakes her head and says no, but hesitates and longs to go.
The girl, of course, cannot resist and as her grandmother snoozes, she keeps the spinning wheel going with one foot as she steps on the stool before raising herself up to the window and into the arms of her lover.
As she is no longer operating the spinning wheel it starts to slow but by then the girls is off and away with her lover in the moonlight.
The song ends at that point so we don’t find out whether grandmother wakes up or whether the girl gets away with her little adventure, but we sort of hope she does because the song has a wonderful sense of innocence from a bygone age.
The origin of the melody is not certain but there is no known reference to it before Waller wrote the lyrics in 1884.
Waller was a lawyer but had been educated at University College Dublin and was the editor of the Dublin University Magazine. He was a contemporary of Robert Prescott Stewart, one of Ireland’s leading musical figures and, among many other things, Professor of Music at the University of Dublin.
Waller and Stewart knew each other well and it’s thought Stewart may have written the melody for the Spinning Wheel Song.
The Spinning Wheel Song was very popular in late 19th century Ireland, and also became well known in Great Britain and throughout the world.
It fell into neglect in the first half of the 20th century but was then popularised in the 1950s by the Irish singer, Delia Murphy, who performed it to a harp accompaniment.