Down by the Salley Gardens

Dolores Keane

I decided my first Music post should be about the eerily beautiful, melancholy Irish song ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’. Growing up with an itinerant, loud and song-loving Yorkshireman who spent his time farming in one of the most stunning parts of Sussex and whipping-in for the Brighton and Storrington foot beagles, Irish folk and hunting songs were the backdrop to my early life…

Harwoods Green in West Sussex, where I spent much of my early life

Harwoods Green in West Sussex, where I spent many happy years

The first time I heard ‘The Salley Gardens’ was when I played it on my recorder back in primary school from an Irish song book he had given me for my birthday. Many years past before I heard it again, sung in the most heart-breaking way by Dolores Keane, an Irish singer who grew up in County Galway in west Ireland.

The Ballisodare river, near Sligo, which is the suggested location of the 'Salley Gardens'

The Ballisodare river near Sligo, the suggested location of the ‘Salley Gardens’. Photo credit Martina Morris

The song itself is strange in that its origins are not part of Irish folklore. Its lyrics were constructed by the poet W.B. Yeats, one of my favourite poets (he also wrote ‘An Irish Airman Forsees his Death’, which can be read here), out of a few lines that he heard sung by ‘an old peasant woman in the village of Ballisodare near Sligo, who often sings them to herself’.

The film adaptation of 'Dancing at Lughnasa', which stars Meryl Streep

The film adaptation of Brian Friel’s Irish play ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’, which stars Meryl Streep

It was the closing song to the credits on the film adaptation of Brian Friel’s play ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’, which has a strong binding theme of Irish folk music running throughout its score, set against the rolling rural wilderness of Donegal. I thoroughly recommend watching it, not least as it is one of Meryl Streep’s finest but least known performances. Enjoy!

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