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The Flower of Sweet Strabane

[ Roud 2745 ; G/D 4:722 ; Henry H224a ; Ballad Index HHH224a ; DT FLWRSTRB ; Mudcat 8569 , 26566 ; trad.]

John McGettigan sang Martha, the Flower of Sweet Strabane in a 1936 recording made in Philadelphia. It was included in 1979 on the Topic album of classic recordings of Irish traditional music in America, John McGettigan and His Irish Minstrels.

Margaret Barry sang The Flower of Sweet Strabane to Ewan MacColl on 10 March 1955. This recording was included a year later on her Riverside album Songs of an Irish Tinker Lady, and in 1965 on her Topic album with Michael Gordon Her Mantle So Green. An earlier recording made by Peter Kennedy in Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland, in 1952 was included in 1998 on her Rounder anthology I Sang Through the Fairs. The last album’s booklet noted:

The town of Strabane is in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland; near the border of County Donegal in the Irish Republic. This song has been circulating among Irish singers since the 1840s and was first published in a Derry newspaper in 1909.

Margaret loved to sing unaccompanied in the traditional Irish style. Sadly, few recordings were ever made of her singing without her banjo.

Paddy Tunney sang The Flower of Sweet Strabane in 1965 on his Topic album of Irish traditional ballads, A Wild Bee’s Nest. Sean O’Boyle noted:

There is one idea that underlies song after song in Ulster—the idea that the poets own lovely locality has produced the fairest woman in all Ireland. Sometimes she is The Rose of Moneymore, sometimes The Maid of Ballydoo or The Flower of Magherally. Paddy sings of lovely Martha whose coldness sends a lovelorn poet away from Sweet Strabane to exile in America. The tune is Re Mode, pentatonic.

Norma Waterson sang Flower of Sweet Strabane in 2000 on her third solo album, Bright Shiny Morning. She noted:

Sort of from Margaret Barry. I first heard Margaret Barry in Ken Colyer’s Jazz Club in 1957 the first time I went to London. She opened her mouth, struck on her banjo and I was lost.

Andy Turner learned The Flower of Sweet Strabane from the singing of Johnny Moynihan on De Danann’s second album, Selected Jigs, Reels and Songs (they got the song from Margaret Barry or Eamonn O’Doherty). He sang it as the 14 February 2014 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.


Margaret Barry sings The Flower of Sweet Strabane

If I was king of Erin’s Isle, had all things at my will,
I would roam through every inch, and seek for comfort still.
The comfort I would seek, as you may understand,
Would be to gain you, lovely Martha, the flower of sweet Strabane.

Her cheeks they are a rosy red, her eyes a lovely brown,
And o’er her lily-white shoulders, her golden hair it hangs down.
She is one of the fairest creatures, and fairest of her clan.
She is my pride, my lovely Martha, the flower of sweet Strabane.

If I had you, lovely Martha, way down in Inishowen,
Or in some lonesome valley, or the wil d woods of Tyrone,
I would end my whole endeavour, and I’d try to work a plan
For to gain you lovely myrtle, the flower of sweet Strabane.

Norma Waterson sings Flower of Sweet Strabane

As I rode out one evening being in the month of May
Down by a shady garden I carelessly did stray
I spied a lovely fair maiden as you can understand
Aye and they called her lovely Martha the flower of sweet Strabane

Were I the king of Erin’s isle and had all things at my will
I’d roam for recreation few comforts to find still
But the comfort I would look for as you can understand
Is for to win the heart of Martha the flower of sweet Strabane

Her cheeks are like the roses red her hair is a lovely brown
And o’er her milk-white shoulders in ringlets it hangs down
She’s one of the fairest creatures in the whole Milesian* clan
And my heart is captivated by the flower of sweet Strabane

I wish I had my darling way down in Inishowen
Or in some lonesome valley in the wild woods of Tyrone
I would do my endeavour and I would work my plan
All for to gain the heart of Martha the flower of sweet Strabane

I’ve often been to Phoenix Park and to Killarney’s fair
In blithe and bonny Scotland on the winding banks of Ayr
And yet in all of my travelling I never met that one
That could compare with Martha the flower of sweet Strabane

Farewell bonny Lifford and to Mourne’s sweet waterside
For I am bound for America whatever may betide
Sailing down Lough Foyle brave boys I’ll wave my bonny white hand
Aye and I’ll bid adieu to my Martha the flower of sweet Strabane

*Milesian: Of Milesius, a mythical king of Spain, or his sons and their followers who seized Ireland: Irish, an Irishman (usu. jocular). [Chambers]