Located on the road between Ennis and Tulla in Co. Clare, Spancil Hill is widely known as the site of one of Ireland’s oldest and most renowned horse fairs that has been held annually at the crossroads there on the eve of the summer solstice for centuries.
Spancil refers to the cruel practice of “spancilling” which was to use a shot rope to tie a horse’s left fore-leg to its right hind leg, thereby restricting the animal from wandering too far.
The name Spancil Hill also lives passionately in every Irish sing-along throughout the world with the traditional Irish folk ballad’s subject matter telling of the loneliness of immigration and a longing for one’s home. This is a theme that resonates fervently with the millions of Irish people forced throughout the years to leave their native soil in search of a better life. The ballad has been recorded by a host of top musicians throughout the years and sung all over the world.
While the lyrics of the song are steeped in nostalgia, the actual story behind the melody is far more heart wrenching, and one that could easily live in a Greek tragedy. Spancil Hill was originally composed by Michael Considine who was born not far from the Crossroads in 1850. At the tender age of 20, like millions before him who suffered during the great famine, he immigrated to America, arriving in Boston in 1870. He left Ireland intending to make enough money to send for his childhood sweetheart so they could be married and start a new life together in America. Her name was Mary McNamara, and she is mentioned in the song as ‘Mack the ranger’s daughter’.
Considine worked in Boston for two or so years before moving west to follow the gold rush in California. It was during this time that he fell ill and fearing that he may never get to see his love or his birthplace again, he wrote the poem Spancil Hill. This later became the ballad we know today. Michael Considine did not see past his 23 years. Before he succumbed to death however, he managed to send his composition home to his then six-year-old nephew, John Considine.
As is the case with many ballads, the original lyrics have been altered over the years but amazingly in this case, in 1940 the renowned folk singer Robbie McMahon was at a music session in Spancil Hill when he was approached by a woman who identified herself as a relative of Michael Considine and handed the stunned McMahon the original lyrics of the ballad.
The song plays out as a dream that the emigrant is having of his homeland and the people he left behind. We meet his love Mary as ‘Mack the ranger’s daughter’ and many of his friends such as Quigley the tailor, who in real life lived near the family home and had made their clothes. However, it was his sweetheart that he enjoyed meeting most in his dream, yet their union was short lived as he is woken from his dream, and he realizes that he is in California.
Just like the ballad Michael Considine’s true life story ends on a rather heart wrenching note as he died never again seeing the girl that he wanted to make his wife and she, in turn, decided to live her life in mourning and never married.
Michael Considine died age 23 in 1873, in America…… many miles from Spancil Hill.