The Galway Shawl has been popular in Ireland since at least the 1930s.
It arose out of the folk tradition and was later adopted by show bands who often used it for the slow, romantic part of their sets.
Shawls were worn by women all over Ireland in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were excellent mult-purpose garments that could double as bedspreads on cold nights, and could even be held by the four corners to turn them into makeshift baskets for carrying shopping etc.
The relevance of the shawl in this song is as a symbol of idealised Irish womanhood. The girl is so beautiful that she takes the man’s breath away. The important point though is that the beauty is natural and owes nothing to any form of make-up. This point is emphasised in the chorus which is repeated throughout the song:
She wore no jewels, no costly diamonds,
No paint no powder, no none at all.
Her only adornment is a ribbon on her bonnet. The girl’s behaviour towards the man is innocent and impeccable. She is not forward and there is no flirtation.
The girl simply chats politely to the man and invites him in meet her father. Even then, her main thought is not for herself but for others. She asks the man to play some popular tunes to please her father.
This version of Irish womanhood is too twee and sentimental for many people who feel it is unrealistic and so irrelevant. Others, however, believe it evokes the spirit of earlier more innocent times.
Old style courtship? Or a missed opportunity?
The song is sometimes seen as an example of old style courtship but it isn’t really as the man merely stays at the woman’s house for one night as a guest of her father and then moves on the next morning. The girl has tears in her eyes as she sings for him and he says that his heart remains with her but nevertheless, he leaves and there is no relationship as such.
Rather than a great romance, it is perhaps more of a case of both of them missing the chance to create a meaningful relationship, which in those days, of course, would have naturally led on to marriage.
The first known publication of the song was in 1936 when it appeared in the newspaper, The Northern Constitution, which was based in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. The Galway Shawl was one of more than 500 pieces published as part of the paper’s Songs of the People series, which was edited by the Irish folklorist and song collector, Sam Henry.
Henry was said to have learnt the song from a woman called Bridget Kealey from Dungiven.