I’ll Tell Me Ma has almost as many names as it has cities fighting over its origin.
The song is also well known as The Belle of Belfast City and The Boys Won’t Leave the Girls Alone.
Most commentators agree that it originated as a children’s skipping song with steady beat of the music nicely complimenting the rhythm of the skipping.
Belle of Belfast … or is it Dublin … or even London
The consensus tends to disappear when it comes to determining where the song comes from. Most popular versions cite Belfast but that may be as much to do with the fact that the phrase “Belle of Belfast” has an attractive sound to it.
There’s no doubt the song was sung in Belfast for well over a century, probably longer.
But is that where it originated?
Dublin performers stake a claim
Most Irish cities have versions of the song and the lyric is often changed to suit. Dublin performers are perhaps the most assertive in this respect.
It’s noticeable that both The Dubliners and The Young Dubliners sing Belle of Dublin City, which doesn’t have as a good a ring to it but makes it more local. People can get very possessive about their folk songs!
Classic folk songs move from city to city
Such civic pride is understandable but in a way it is missing the point. Folk songs by their very nature, especially ones as good as I’ll Tell Me Ma, move from city to city and get modified along the way to suit local needs.
A hundred years later, it is impossible to say where it originally came from and everywhere can stake a claim.
English versions and the Belle of the Golden City
The book, The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Wales by Alice B Gomme published in 1984, shows there were versions of a similar song throughout the UK in the 19th century, although it usually went under the name of The Wind.
Again, the name of the town tended to change to suit the location in question, but there was also a version in which the belle came from the Golden City, which also has a good ring to it and nicely dodges the question of origin.
The children’s game that went with the song
Gomme’s book was primarily concerned with children’s games. In some areas, the game that accompanied The Wind, or I’ll Tell Me Ma, involved children standing in a circle while they sang the song.
At the start of the game there would be a girl in the centre of the circle. When the chorus got to the line asking about who is being courted, the girl gives the name of one of the boys standing in the circle.
The boy then moves into the centre of the circle and must in turn name a girl when the question comes round in the next chorus.