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Margot Kinberg’s blog had a thought-provoking post yesterday about “another sort of crime fiction: songs that tell the story of a crime”. While its examples come from rock and pop, it got me thinking of all those traditional Irish songs down the centuries that tell of various crimes and misdemeanours.

They range from The Fields of Athenry (a modern ballad that has become a very popular song in sports stadiums; it’s about a poor man’s theft of “Trevelyan’s corn” during the Irish Famine) to a very gory old nursery rhyme or “murder ballad” called The River Saile.

The latter song was also known as Weile Waile because of its refrain that was sung with much gusto when we were young.

The song was popularised by the late Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners (the above rumbustious version is from Swedish TV, from 1973). It also makes a guest appearance of sorts in Sebastian Barry’s 2003 novel Annie Dunne.

Basically it tells of how there was this old woman who lived in a wood “down by the River Saile”. Possibly that’s the Poddle in Dublin, which was also known as the river Salach, or “dirty river” in Irish. Or then again it may be a completely different river in the west of Ireland.

(Readers with a delicate disposition may want to look away now.)

Anyway, as the song explains, the old woman had a three-month-old baby. She also had “a penknife, long and sharp”. With great relish (or possibly earnestness) we sang:

She stuck the penknife in the baby’s heart, weile weile waile / She stuck the penknife in the baby’s heart, down by the River Saile.

Then “three loud knocks come a-knocking on the door.” It’s two policemen and a Special Branch man (the Special Branch was a 1970s addition), who take her away, put her in jail, put a rope around her neck…

And that was the end of the woman in the woods, weile weile waile. / And that was the end of the baby too, down by the River Saile.

As I said, it’s a nursery rhyme. Or as Peter Gabriel’s band Genesis might have put it, a nursery cryme. We thought The River Saile was the best Irish crime story ever.

The gory cover of the Genesis album "Nursery Cryme"

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