Crooning, and Moaning, and Drowsily Knitting

Photo source.

Some time around 1853 (this is the date of the issue where he published a version in the Dublin University Magazine), probably in Dublin, John Francis Waller wrote this:


Mellow the moonlight to shine is beginning;
Close by the window young Eileen is spinning;
Bent o’er the fire her blind grandmother, sitting,
Is crooning, and moaning, and drowsily knitting—
“Eileen, achara, I hear some one tapping.”—
“‘Tis the ivy, dear mother, against the glass flapping.”
“Eileen, I surely hear somebody sighing.”—
“‘Tis the sound, mother dear, of the summer wind dying.”
Merrily, cheerily, noisily whirring,
Swings the wheel, spins the reel, while the foot’s stirring;
Sprightly, and lightly, and airily ringing,
Thrills the sweet voice of the young maiden singing.

“What’s that noise that I hear at the window, I wonder?”—
“‘Tis the little birds chirping the holly-bush under.”—
“What makes you be shoving and moving your stool on,
And singing all wrong that old song of ‘The Coolun’?”—
There’s a form at the casement—the form of her true love—
And he whispers, with face bent, “I’m waiting for you, love;
Get up on the stool, through the lattice step lightly,
We’ll rove in the grove while the moon’s shining brightly.”
Merrily, cheerily, noisily whirring,
Swings the wheel, spins the reel, while the foot’s stirring;
Sprightly, and lightly, and airily ringing,
Thrills the sweet voice of the young maiden singing.

The maid shakes her head, on her lip lays her fingers,
Steals up from the seat—longs to go, and yet lingers;
A frightened glance turns to her drowsy grandmother,
Puts one foot on the stool, spins the wheel with the other.
Lazily, easily, swings now the wheel round;
Slowly and lowly is heard now the reel’s sound;
Noiseless and light to the lattice above her
The maid steps—then leaps to the arms of her lover.
Slower—and slower—and slower the wheel swings;
Lower—and lower—and lower the reel rings;
Ere the reel and the wheel stopped their ringing and moving,
Through the grove the young lovers by moonlight are roving.

In 1939, the song was recorded by Delia Murphy for HMV, and became popular as an ‘Irish traditional ballad’. Here’s the music sheet for the song, and here’s the link to a piano version on YouTube. Murphy’s original recording is on YouTube here.

John Francis Waller was born in 1810 in Limerick, to Tipperary parents Margaret and Thomas. He attended Trinity College Dublin, graduating in 1831; he was called to the Bar in 1833. He spent his life writing poetry, contributing articles to the Dublin University Magazine (under the pseudonym Jonathan Freke Slingsby – there’s a free ebook of his collected columns in this publication here), and editing the works of Goldsmith, Moore, and Swift. He died in 1894, in Hertfordshire, having spent the second half of his life living in London while working as a writer for Cassell & Co.

On Waller’s ten-year editorship of the DUM, Wayne Hall has said (while describing the DUM as a ‘tory periodical in a time of famine’) that:

Assuming the editorship from Charles Lever in the latter half of 1845 and then continuing to guide the DUM until 1855, Waller brought the magazine to a combination of middle-class values, mid-Victorian smugness, and late-collegiate wit that showed political or social vision but of the narrowest kind.

Balanced against this view of Waller’s writing was that of Oscar Wilde. On the 5th of April in 1882, in San Francisco, Wilde gave a public lecture to the local Irish-American community on ‘Irish Poets of the Nineteenth Century’.

There are many others worthy of mention and quotation… John Francis Waller, a delicate lyricist full of light and laughter and little shallow flights of song, one of whose poems is so exquisite that I must quote it – the one called ‘Kitty Neil’.

And so here is ‘Kitty Neil’, a second spinning-wheel song from Waller.


“AH, sweet Kitty Neil, rise up from that wheel,
Your neat little foot will be weary from spinning;
Come trip down with me to the sycamore tree,
Half the parish is there, and the dance is beginning.
The sun is gone down, but the full harvest-moon
Shines sweetly and cool on the dew-whiten’d valley,
While all the air rings with the soft, loving things
Each little bird sings in the green shaded alley.”

With a blush and a smile Kitty rose up the while,
Her eye in the glass, as she bound her hair, glancing;
’Tis hard to refuse when a young lover sues,
So she couldn’t but choose to—go off to the dancing.
And now on the green the glad groups are seen,
Each gay-hearted lad with the lass of his choosing;
And Pat, without fail, leads out sweet Kitty Neil,—
Somehow, when he ask’d, she ne’er thought of refusing.

Now, Felix Magee puts his pipes to his knee,
And with flourish so free sets each couple in motion;
With a cheer and a bound, the lads patter the ground,
The maids move around just like swans on the ocean:
Cheeks bright as the rose—feet light as the doe’s,
Now coyly retiring, now boldly advancing—
Search the world all round, from the sky to the ground,
No such sight can be found as an Irish lass dancing!

Sweet Kate! who could view your bright eyes of deep blue,
Beaming humidly through their dark lashes so mildly,
Your fair-turned arm, heaving breast, rounded form,
Nor feel his heart warm, and his pulses throb wildly;
Young Pat feels his heart, as he gazes, depart,
Subdued by the smart of such painful yet sweet love;
The sight leaves his eye, as he cries with a sigh,
“Dance light, for my heart it lies under your feet, love!”

This entry was posted in ireland, nineteenth century, personalities, poetry, spinning. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Crooning, and Moaning, and Drowsily Knitting

  1. undermeoxter says:

    These poems/ songs have to be read/ sung out loud and I find it fascinating how “dancing” (for want of a better word) Wallers’ poetry is. Even if “Kitty Neil” is not a song it has an incredible rhythm to it. As someone who enjoys the Irish Language (even if I lack fluency) it seems evident – to me – its influence on these writers in English (both Wilde and Waller).
    (Also, thanks for the earworm!…)

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