It’s not known who wrote I’ll Tell Me Ma, which is unfortunate because it is a superb piece of work, both in terms of the lyrics and the music.
The melody is infectious and irresistible, full of life and enthusiasm as befits a song being sung by children. It’s difficult not to start tapping your feet once it starts to play.
The lyrics are about young courtship, which suggests the song was popular with teenagers rather than younger children – or maybe they were youngsters who were singing about the antics of their older brothers and sisters.
The song begins with the idea of a young girl complaining about the silly antics of the boys pulling hair and stealing combs.
She’ll complain to her mother about it, but it can wait until she goes home. Maybe, as with most teenagers, in spite of her protests, she quite likes the attention from the boys.
As with many folk songs passed down and endlessly modified from generation to generation, there are inconsistencies in the lyrics. We’re told that Albert Mooney loves the belle and all the boys are fighting for her.
However, she appears to be uninterested in them and according to old Jenny Murphy, the belle wants to get the “the fellow with the roving eye”. But that then seems to be contradicted by the final line of the song which says that it’s Albert Mooney she loves.
Such inconsistencies don’t matter, of course, and are only to be expected. The likelihood is that there were several versions throughout Ireland, all with their own variations which were constantly changing over the years.
The song has been recorded under both titles by numerous artists including The Dubliners, The Irish Tenors and Christy Moore and The Clancy Brothers.
The Chieftains and Van Morrison put it on their joint album, Irish Heartbeat. The Young Dubliners put in on With All Due Respect and Sinead O’Connor put it on Sean-Nos Nua.
The late, great Kirsty McColl recorded it as the Belle of Belfast City.