Friday, 24 January 2014

The Spinning Wheel

For quite a while I've been wanting to write blogs about well known women's Irish songs and here's No. 1 in what will hopefully become a series.

The Spinning Wheel (John Frances Waller)

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

When I first learned this as a little girl I pictured this beautiful young girl gazing longingly out of the window, dressed of course in a perfect long skirt, with long hair and an angelic face!!   The old lady was knowingly sitting in the corner  ....   

I can still see the sash window, the moon shining, the wood outside where the young lovers ended up walking ...  Isn't it funny the pictures that stay in  your head with a song:))

Delia Murphy
The Spinning Wheel is one of the most famous Irish folksongs  and was one of the first songs I learned as a child.

The Spinning Wheel was written in the late 1800s by John Frances Waller (1909-1894) and it's said that the melody is actually French, although it quickly became known as an Irish song.   Really, it was a parlour song that was part of the Anglo Irish tradition, nothing at all to do with traditional Irish music, but more to do with an idealised quaint way of life.  It quickly became a favourite for young girls to sing and instantly brings back memories of a gentler way of life.

Well known singers of the song
It was one of the songs recorded by Delia Murphy in her first recording session in 1936, one of the songs that made her a star and she in turn was the person who made the song popular.

Later, it became the first international hit for Mary O'Hara, although she didn't even want to record it.   Delia sang it at her husband's inauguration as the first Irish Ambassador to Australia and she said that if it's sung correctly you should feel the spinning wheel turning.  In our TV series - Songbirds, the First Ladies of Irish Song - it was the only song that we found that had been recorded by all the featured ladies - Ruby Murray, Margaret Barry, Bridie Gallagher, Delia Murphy and Mary O'Hara - and they all sang it in very different styles.

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 a chara I hear someone tapping
Tis the ivy dear mother against the glass flapping
Eily I surely hear someone sighing
Tis the sound mother dear of the autumn winds dying

Merrily cheerily noiselessly whirring
Swings the wheel spins the reel while the foot’s stirring
Sprightly and brightly and airily ringing
Thrills the sweet voice of the young maiden singing

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
And we’ll rove in the grove with the moon shining brightly”

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 turned on 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 sound
Noiseless and light through the lattice above her
The maid creeps then leaps to the arms of her lover

Slower and slower and slower the wheel spins
Lower and lower and lower the reel rings
E’er the reel and the wheel stop their ringing and moving
Through the grove the young lovers by moonlight are roving

The songwriter: 
John Francis Waller (1810 - 1894) was born in Limerick, educated at Trinity College, Dublin and was called to the Irish Bar in 1833. He became a contributor to and ultimately editor of the Dublin University Magazine, usually writing under the pseudonym of "Jonathan Freke Slingsby"

He published several volumes of poems and also wrote popular songs, including Cushla Ma ChreeThe Spinning Wheel and Song of the Glass. He was responsible for the explanatory notes and a life of the author in a new edition of "Gulliver's Travels" written by Dean Jonathan Swift


If you're interested in spinning as an art I found this fascinating blog from a lady in Scotland.

Have you any memories of the song?  


  1. Hi Mum has advanced Alzheimer's/Dementia and no longer knows me.
    When I sing "The Spinning Wheel" to her, she nods her head! Singing is the one thing that evokes a response!

  2. In the days before color was invented evening intervals on TV were filled with a clip and this song. The clip was of course in black and white and spookily dark if I remember rightly. I can't remember if it was on UTV of BBC, probably UTV with no ads to fill the slot. I'd love to see it again. We weren't a musical family and my next foray into music was certainly a lot heavier yet this song remains a favourite.


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