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The Green Linnet

[ Roud 1619 ; Ballad Index SWMS211 ; Bodleian Roud 1619 ; trad.]

O.J. Abbott from Hull, Quebec, sang The Green Linnet to Canadian folklorist Edith Fowke in 1957. This recording was included in 1961 on his Folkways album Irish and British Songs from the Ottawa Valley. Edith Fowke noted:

This is one of the many broadside ballads about Napoleon that circulated in Ireland shortly after Waterloo. As in most of them, the Irish sympathy is obviously with Napoleon: his English conquerors were even less popular than usual while the memory of the great 1798 rebellion was still green.

The romantic theme is historically unjustified for Napoleon's first wife, the Empress Josephine, had died before him; in any case, she had been far from a devoted wife, and Napoleon had had their marriage annulled in 1809. His second Empress, Marie Louise, whom he married in 1810, abandoned him in 1814. This was another of the songs learned from Mrs O'Malley.

In 1972, Bill Leader issued three albums on his Trailer label with a version of the Napoleon Bonaparte song The Green Linnet. Al O'Donnell sang it on his eponymous album Al O'Donnell, Dick Gaughan sang it on No More Forever, and Tim Lyons sang it as the title track of his album The Green Linnet. Tim also sang it in 2012 on his and his brother John Lyons's Veteran CD Easy & Bold. The latter album's producer, John Howson, commented in the liner notes:

Often called Maria Louisa's Lamentation for the Green Linnet, this ballad concerns Napoleon Bonaparte's second wife Maria Louisa of Austria whom he married in 1810 after divorcing his first wife Josephine. She is in search of her young emperor and recounts his exploits, saying that she will search until she finds him. It is not unusual in Irish history to use a bird as the name of a leader. During the Jacobite period the Stuart Pretender was known as the ‘Royal Blackbird’, Dan O'Connell was known as the ‘Kerry Eagle’, and Charles Stewart Parnell was known as the ‘Blackbird of Avondale’.

The Green Linnet was another song which was favoured by song publishers with the earliest seeming to be that given in Zimmermann's Songs of the Irish Rebellion (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1967) which comes from a garland printed by W. Kelly in Waterdorf, c.1830, under the title Maria Louisa's Lamentation for the Loss of her Lover. Under the title The Green Lennet it was included in John Ross's Catalogue of Slip Songs which was published in Newcastle on Tyne in 1849. English broadside printers particularly favoured the song and in London alone there were at least five different imprints including Hillatt & Martin, Hodges, Catnach, Batchelar and Birt. In Cork, ballad printer Haly published it and that text is included in P.W. Joyce's Old Folk Music and Songs (Hodges & Figgis, Dublin, 1909). Tim learned the song from the great west Cork singer Elisabeth Cronin.

Outside of Ireland the song was popular in Canada: Kenneth Peacock collected it from Philip Foley of Tilting, Newfoundland, in 1952, and Edith Fowke recorded it from O.J. Abbott in Hull, Quebec, in 1957. That recording was included on the Folkways LP Irish & British Songs from Ottawa Valley (FM4051). Recordings from Ireland include Elizabeth Cronin from Macroom, Co. Cork, on one of the CDs which accompany the book The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin (Four Courts, Dublin, 2000) under the title Sweet Boney Will I E'er See You More, and Joe Heaney from Connemara, Co. Mayo, on CIC 020 Come All Ye Gallant Irishmen.

Joe Heaney sang The Green Linnet on his 1975 album Come All Ye Gallant Irishmen. Kenneth S. Goldstein and Michael Moloney noted on his Philo Records album's sleeve:

Joe learned this beautiful ballad from Willie Clancy, the well known uillean piper from Miltown Malbay, County Clare, who died in 1973. The earliest publication of it was on broadsides in the 1830s, with the earliest report from tradition dating from the last decade of that century. The song was frequently published in Irish and Irish-American songbooks at the turn of the century and after, but is not as frequently sung as such widespread printing might lead one to expect.

“The Green Linnet” is, of course, Napoleon Bonaparte, a favourite with the Irish peasantry who looked to him as a potential liberator. They sang his praises in numerous other ballads as well, including The Bonny Bunch of Roses, The Plains of Waterloo and The Ould Gray Mare. This ballad should not be confused with other pieces, usually love songs, of the same title and sung to less grandiloquent tunes.

Martin Simpson sang Green Linnet, followed by American delta blues singer Son House's song Grinning in Your Face, in 1983 on his Topic album Grinning in Your Face. This track was also included in 1992 on his Topic anthology The Collection. Another recording is on the deluxe 2 CD version of his 2013 Topic album Vagrant Stanzas. He noted:

Dick Gaughan sang The Green Linnet on his first LP No More Forever which remains a massive influence for me. It is a song about Napoleon Bonaparte, who was largely vilified by the English, a bogey man for children, and a popular bust moulded into the bottom of chamber pots. He was regarded however as a possible saviour by the Irish, and was therefore mourned in a number of exquisitely verbose songs.

Damien Barber and Mike Wilson learned The Green Linnet from Dick Gaughan's album too and recorded it for their 2009 album Under the Influence.

Maggie Boyle sang The Green Linnet with somewhat different verses to Gaughan's on her 2012 WildGoose CD Won't You Come Away. She noted:

Another song from dear Oliver [Mulligan of Co. Monaghan]. Given to me, as I recall, on the same session as Donal Óg. A classic. How lucky I was.

Lyrics

O.J. Abbott sings The Green Linnet

Curiosity bore a young native of Erin
To view the gay banks of the Rhine,
When an Empress he saw, and the robe that she was wearing,
All over with diamonds did shine.
No goddess of splendour was ever yet seen
That could equal this fair one, so mild and serene.
In soft murmurs she says, “My linnet so green,
Are you gone, will I e'er see thee more?

“The cold lofty Alps you freely went over,
Which nature had placed in your way;
That Marengo Saloney around you did hover
All Paris rejoiced the next day.
It grieves me the hardships that you did undergo;
Over mountains you travelled all covered with snow;
The balance of power your courage laid low;
Are you gone, will I e'er see thee more?

“That numbers of men are eager to slay you,
Their malice you view'd with a smile;
Their gold through all Europe they sowed to betray you,
And joined with the Mamelukes on the Nile.
Like ravens for blood their vile passions did burn;
Orphans they slain and left widows for to mourn.
They say my linnet's gone; will he ever return?
Oh, sweet Boney, will I ever see you more?

“I will roam through the deserts of wild Abyssinia,
And yet find no cure for my pain.
Will I go and inquire at the isle of St. Helena?
Oh, no, we will whisper in vain.
Tell me, ye critics, oh tell to me in time,
Or this world I'll range over my green linnet for to find.
Was he slain at Waterloo, the Elba, on the Rhine?
If he was I shall ne'er see him more.”

Dick Gaughan sings The Green Linnet

Curiosity led a young native of Erin
For to view the lone banks of the Rhine
Where an empress he saw and the robe that she was wearing
All over with diamonds did shine
No goddess in splendour was ever yet seen
To equal this fair maid so mild and serene
In soft murmurs she cried, “Oh, my linnet so green
Sweet Boney, will I ne'er see you more?”

The cold frosty Alps you did freely pass over
Which nature had placed in your way
At Marengo, Beltona all around you did hover
All Paris rejoiced the next day
It grieved me the hardships you did undergo
The mountains that you travelled all covered with snow
But the balance of power your courage laid low
Sweet Boney, will I ne'er see you more?

The crowned heads of Europe they were in great splendour
And they swore they would have you submit
But the goddess of freedom soon had them to surrender
And they lowered their standards to your wit
Old Frederik's colours to France he did bring
His offspring found shelter under your wing
That year at Vienna you so sweetly did sing
Sweet Boney, will I ne'er see you more?

What numbers of men there were eager to slay you
Their malice you viewed with a smile
Their gold through all Europe was found to betray you
And they joined with the Mamelukes on the Nile
Like ravenous vultures their vile passions did burn
The orphans they slew and caused the widows to mourn
But my linnet he is gone and he never will return
Sweet Boney, will I ne'er see you more?

I have roamed through the deserts of wild Abyssinia
And could yet find no cure for my pain
I will go and enquire at the isle of Saint Helena
But soft whispers murmur, “'tis vain”
Come tell me ye critics, come tell me in time
What nations I must roam my green linnet to find
Was he slain at Waterloo in France or on the Rhine?
No—he's dead on St Helena's bleak shore.

Maggie Boyle sings The Green Linnet

Curiosity led a young native of Erin
To view the green banks of the Rhine
When an empress he saw and the robes that she was wearing
All over with diamonds did shine
No goddess in splendour was ever yet seen
To equal this beauty so mild and serene
In soft murmur she cried, “My linnet so green
Sweet Boney, shall I ne'er see you more?”

Neither Hannibal nor Caesar nor brave Alexander
Nor Hector the Trojan so bold
Was ever yet braver wherever you did wander
You cared not for heat or for cold
It grieves me the hardships you did undergo
Over mountains you travelled all covered with snow
And the balance of power you swiftly laid low
Sweet Boney, shall I ne’er see you more?

Oh, the crowned heads of Europe they sat in great splendour
And swore they would bear you no way
But the goddess of freedom soon made them surrender
And they lowered their banks to your weight
Bold Frederik's colours to France you did bring
His offspring found sheltering under your wing
And that year in Vienna you sweetly did sing
Sweet Boney, shall I ne'er see you more?

I have searched all the deserts of wide Abyssinia
But can't find no cure for my pain
I would go and enquire at the isle of Saint Helena
But for murmurs whispered, “Surely 'tis in vain”
Come tell me ye critics, come tell me in time
What lands must I wander my green linnet to find
Was he slain at Waterloo, in Spain or on the Rhine?
No—he's dead on St Helena's lake shore.