When You Were Sweet 16 isn’t actually an Irish song at all although it is now often associated with Irish traditional folk music.
This is mainly because it was such a success when it was recorded by Dublin band, The Fureys.
Both the words and the music were written by the Irish American songwriter James Thornton in the late 19th century.
The first person to perform it was his wife Bonnie, who was a popular vaudeville singer in the United States.
Thornton supposedly got the idea for the song from an off the cuff remark he made to his wife.
One day when she was feeling a little insecure, she asked him if he still loved her. He replied. “I love you as I loved you when you were 16.”
His songwriter’s instinct kicked in immediately and he realised that would not only provide a good line for a song but also an excellent theme on which a complete song could be based.
The song was first published in 1898 by M Witmark & Sons of New York and Chicago.
The cover of the sheet music announces that the song had been “sung with great success by Bonnie Thornton”. It was “also sung with success by Raymon Moore,” another popular vaudeville singer of the day.
The sheet music is described as being arranged for a “5 band orchestra banjo mandolin guitar”. This is not far removed from The Fureys version recorded nearly a hundred years later featuring two guitars, a banjo, a violin and an accordion.
When You Were Sweet Sixteen is a very simple lyric with only two verses and a chorus.
Its great strength is the way it conjures up a sense of warmth and nostalgia without tipping over too far towards sentimentality.
The third line of the second verse mentions Auld Lang Syne. This is an old Scottish phrase made famous in the song of the same name, which is sung across the world on New Year’s Eve.
It refers to happy times in days gone by; a sentiment is completely in keeping with the theme of looking back to the halcyon days of being sweet sixteen.