James McKee, song

Jimmy Butcher, singing in English
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James McKee they do call me, the same I’ll ne’er deny,
I was reared with my grandmother, of me she took great care:
Six years in Dublin I was taught at the academy,
My learning would have served a knight or lord of high degree.

My father and my mother died, I had one aunt alive,
She was married to an Orangeman, with him she did connive;
She went before the justice my life to swear away
Still thinking she’d become the heir of all my property.

She went before the justice and at the green table stood
Saying, – Good my lord and jurymen, take heed to what I say,
This is the man who done the wrong, so do not let him shun,
Last Thursday night at ten o’clock he stole my husband’s gun.

– Oh aunt, he says, God pardon you lest your soul might injured be,
He says again, – God pardon me lest judgéd I might be,
He says, – Think on that awful day when on us He will call,
There’ll be no lawyers there, nor jurymen, one judge will stand for all.

– McKee, I can’t defend you, she has swore so bitterly,
You must leave your wife and family, you’re bound to cross the sea,
You must leave your wife and family in sorrow to bewail,
You’re going to cross the ocean and you’re bound for New South Wales.

– It’s not my far-off sailing or yet my tedious voyage,
It’s the leaving of my little ones before they’re come of age;
May the curse of me and my three babes, my wife and children small
Light down upon you, Kate McKee, my aunt I should you call.

I had a house both long and broad six rooms it could afford
For to entertain a Ribbonman when he was in record
And when I met an Orangeman I treated him right well,
But they all pass by and none calls in where James McKee does (spoken) dwell.


The few versions, all but one from Ulster, have a consistent air of historicity, but the circumstances they sketch have not led to the identity of the characters. Outside our district the hero is called ‘James Magee’, except in Moneymore, S. Derry, where Henry reported ‘James MacLean’ – notes to A. In D Moneymore is the actual setting, the aunt is married to a Ribbonman and the hero is a friend of Orangemen. A good song touching only incidentally on politics could obviously lend itself to political preferences. Henry’s ‘neutral’ text seems to be the product of editorial rewriting, but another singer, singing the song for an unfamiliar audience, suppressed the partisan features in exactly the same way: see Notes, 2.2, 7.2–3.

The song dates from the early nineteenth century. The Protestant Orange Order was founded in 1795 and the Catholic Ribbon Society was particularly active round 1820: see G. Broeker Rural disorder and police reform in Ireland, 1812–1836 London and Toronto 1970, p. 12. The strongly formulaic diction includes a line also occurring in a Catholic song entitled ‘The Armagh Cross’ and dating from a sectarian incident in 1813: Notes, 4.4.