“Down by the Salley Gardens” also known as “The Maids of Mourne Shore” or “The Mourne Shore” is a well-known Irish folk song and poem by William Butler Yeats. Yeats tried to reconstruct this old song by writing down lines that he remembered an old peasant woman singing in the village of Ballysodare, County Sligo. This poem was published in his collection, “The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems” in 1889. Acknowledging the original version of the song, he named it “An Old Song Re-sung” and it was only later renamed to “Sally Gardens” when it was published in his collection of Poems in 1895. Yeats is said to be a literary genius and one of the greatest writers of his time and is usually not associated with songwriting. Hence, the simplicity of the song and its musical structure come as a surprise.
Down by the Salley Gardens
Down by the salley gardens
my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens
with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy,
as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish,
with her would not agree.
In a field by the river
my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder
she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy,
as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish,
and now am full of tears.
“Salley” means “willow” in Irish [saileach]. These willow trees are also known as “salleys” or “sallies” in some parts of Ireland. Shoots of willow were used to bind roofs, therefore, willow plantations could be found close to villages. These plantations, the “Salley Gardens”, were a popular spot for young lovers to meet up.
Presumably, the song is about young lovers, however, opinions about the relationship differ and in the end the young man is left in tears.
“Salley Gardens” was purely a poem until 1909 when Herbert Hughes turned it into a song using the Irish melody “The Maids of Mourne Shore”. After that, other composers such Rebecca Clarke, John Ireland and Benjamin Britten as have set the poem into music, however, the most popular version and the one people associate it with the most still remains “The Maids of Mourne”.
Who was William Butler Yeats?
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), born in Dublin into an Irish-Protestant family, is considered one of the greatest writers and poets of the 20th century. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 and was actively involved in the Irish Literary Revival, a literary movement whose aim was to promote and revive Ireland’s Gaelic heritage and that is associated with the rise of Irish nationalism from the middle of the 19th century. He was also an Irish Senator and helped found the Abbey Theatre.
Yeats was fascinated by the occult and legends and many of his works are based on Irish folk tales and myths. He was also a member of a secret society called “The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” which was devoted to the practice of magical rites.
Especially his plays, which mostly treat Irish legends, reflect his interest in mysticism and spiritualism. Famous plays include The Countess Cathleen (1892), The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894), and The King’s Threshold (1904).