McBreen’s Heifer is a sublime piece of comedy writing by the master of whimsical comic songs, Percy French.
It focuses on the dilemma faced by a young farmer as he tries to decide which of two sisters he should marry: one has the advantage of being pretty but the other, who is plain, comes with a heifer as a dowry.
He ties up himself up in knots as he struggles to make a decision.
French was a master of exploring local customs
French travelled extensively throughout Ireland all his life, first in his work as an engineer and later performing his one-man shows.
He was also brought up in rural Ireland and was steeped in its customs.
One custom which was still widespread at the end of the 19th century was matchmaking by parents who would arrange suitable marriages for their offspring.
Dowry system in rural Ireland
The dowry system was an important part of this matchmaking process. The parents of a girl would offer a dowry such as money, land or livestock, to enable her to marry well into a good family.
French was quick to see how this system could be exploited for comic purposes. He imagined a situation in which a farmer had two daughters; one beautiful, the other plain. What if the farmer couldn’t afford a dowry for both girls? What would he do?
Kitty was pretty but Jane was plain
In McBreen’s Heifer, the farmer comes up with the solution of offering a heifer as a dowry with the plain daughter, and no dowry at all for the pretty girl in the hope that her looks would be enough win her a husband.
Young Jamesy O’Byrne is then presented with the dilemma of having to decide which girl to choose.
The comedy comes as he tries to work out the best option.
Still a heifer’s a heifer when all’s said and done
The question is whether a heifer is worth the difference between the attractiveness of the two girls.
Jamesey considers that while Kitty is pretty, she may lose her good looks over time, whereas a heifer “might grow to an elegant cow”.
Just as he seems to be coming to a conclusion in favour of plain Jane, he remembers that she “has a face that the Devil designed”.
Reduce the two girls to shillings and pence
Jamesey asks the schoolmaster for advice who suggests that the matter should just be down to money.
When the two girls are reduced “to shillings and pence” it seems that Jane will be better value by a couple of pound.
But again, just as Jamesy looks set to make a decision, he remembers that the price of stock has fallen on the market so the schoolmaster’s calculations might be inaccurate.
Till girls might be cheaper or stock might be dear
Unable to decide, Jamesy decides to put the decision off until the end of the year until “girls might be cheaper or stock might be dear”.
The humour comes from James’s outrageously commercial approach to matters of the heart. In the end, the last laugh is on him because both girls marry someone else so he loses both.