Brian O’Linn is a comical song based on a man who finds bizarre solutions to everyday situations such as what to wear, where to live and even how many women to marry.
His clothes are made out of animal skins and sacks, his house has no door or roof and when a mother and daughter start fighting over him, he decides he’s he’ll marry them both.
Throughout all his poverty and hardship, he maintains an unflappable positive attitude. Even though his house is just a hole in a bog, he describes it as a “fine habitation”. When he and his family fall from a bridge into a river, he just shrugs it off and says “we’ll go home by water”.
Song may be an English satire on the wild Irish
The origin of the song is unknown and there are versions from England, and also from Scotland, where it is known as Tam O’ the Linn.
In Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, the collector Peter Kennedy speculated that the song may have originated in England as a way of mocking the rude and primitive Irish. The joke being that not only were the savage Irish obliged to live in poverty and wear animal skins, they actually liked it and thought they were doing fine.
This is just a theory, of course, but it does fit with the lyrics. If it was a satire then it backfired because the Irish, and the Scottish, regard the song as just a piece of fun involving an eccentric character.
Was there a real Brian O’Linn?
Sam Henry, who wrote a column called Songs of the People in the 1930s for the Derry newspaper, Northern Constitution, thought the original Brian O’Linn may have been a market overseer from the late 18th century.
Henry writes: “Bryan was a popular and distinguished character in those days, at whose expense any Tom, Dick or Harry might add a verse to the song that had taken the people’s fancy.
“The innocent gibes at his expense he must have taken in good part. He seems to have been a happy-go-lucky man, easily contented and with a ready answer for all emergencies.”
Henry’s theory is interesting but there is no way of knowing whether he is right in asserting that this was the man on whom the song was based.
The tune to Brian O’Linn is taken from an old Irish air, Pili Cat Ban. The great Irish song collector Colm O’Lochlainn remembers hearing it in his childhood in the early 1900s. He published it in his collection, Irish Street Ballads, in 1939.