The strands of Magilligan, song

Mary Osborne, singing in English
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I’m a stranger to this country, from America I came,
There are few does but know me nor can tell my name
And it’s since they do not know me I will tarry a while,
For the sake of my darling I’d go many’s a long mile.

The strands of Magilligan divides in three parts
Where the young men and maidens go meet their sweethearts;
It was drinking strong brandy caused me for to stray,
That these false-hearted women had led me astray.

On the strands of Magilligan an old castle does stand,
It is bound round with ivy and diamonds so grand,
It is bound round with ivy and diamonds so bright,
It’s a pilot for the sailors on a dark winter’s night.

I’ll go down to yon convent, I will beg my discharge,
– Here is fifty bright guineas if you’ll set me at large,
If that does not do , love, here is fifty pounds more
If you will go with me, – Oh no, my love, no.

I’ll go down to yon convent, I will there spend my life,
I never will marry nor be any man’s wife;
It is there I’ll live single and a maid I will remain,
I never will marry till my love comes again.

Spoken: Oh, that’s a heavy old song.


This is a fusion of three English songs. Its distinctive verses of the divided strands and the castle belong to the ‘Streams of lovely Nancy’, an inconclusive lyric which already in one Somerset version borrows some narrative substance from (2) ‘The Manchester Angel’ – Sharp2 II 534, v.4. The ‘Manchester Angel’ is the source of the verses which envisage discharge from the army and entry into a convent: verses which originally wound up a story of a deserted girl. The Magilligan girl proposes to become a nun without being deserted, though perhaps the change of captain to convent in Mary’s 4.1 is reviving that narrative turn. Finally, from (3) a common broadside song entitled ‘The American stranger’ or ‘The sporting youth’, an initial verse has been prefixed which strengthens the subjective quality of the song.

Textually diverse, it gains coherence from those features of the locality which induced transfer of the lyric matter to a familiar setting. ‘Strands of Magilligan’ re-creates orally some such unfamiliar toponym as ‘Streams /stremz/ of Nancy’. In the 183s, the parish rectory at Duncrun was said to be used ‘as a landmark, by vessels passing to and from Derry through Lough Foyle’ – OS 1. Of course, the castle which serves this purpose in the song may seem better answered by the Earl Bishop’s lofty mansion at Downhill, especially in the case of the singer who situated it ‘On the top of the cliff’ (G). Others admittedly put it on the Strand, where, despite dissimilarities of purpose, it may evoke a castle of anterior native legend. At the mouth of Lough Foyle are sandbanks called the Tuns, Tonna ceann fhionne ‘white-headed waves’, which form ‘a great sand . . . (upon which it burneth greatly, when the wind bloweth from the sea)’ – Gerard Boate Irelands naturall history London 1652, p. 15, ch. II iv. The tuns were the reputed site of Manannan the sea god’s castle, which a man could possess if he once sighted it and captured the flag on its tower without taking his eyes off the castle which, if he did, would disappear.

A man name McClary seeing the flag . . . immediately without taking his eyes of[f] the castle mounted an excellent Black race Mare and galloped off . . . towards it. He accomplished the desired object but on returning nine waves followed him, the first reached the hinder legs of the mare and changed them to white from black, the second wave reached the fore legs and turned them white also and so on until the ninth wave which covered the mare and changed her entirely from black to white. A voice was then heard from the castle uttering vengeance on the name of McClary and declaring that seven smokes . . . proceeding from the chimneys of the McClary’s should never be seen in Magilligan . . . From that time seven families of the name have never been known to reside in the parish. McClary it is said placed the flag on Screen church –OS 1.