This song was first known as The Sick Young Lover. The song as it evolved may be a combination of two songs, one English and one Irish. A broadsheet containing both English and phoenetic Irish verses was printed by Haly in Cork circa 1830.*
Carrickfergus is a town in Ulster near Belfast.
I wish I was in Carrigfergus
Only for nights in Ballygrant
I would swim over the deepest ocean
For my love to find
But the sea is wide and I cannot cross over
And neither have I the wings to fly
I wish I could meet a handsome boatsman
To ferry me over, to my love and die
My childhood days bring back sad reflections
Of happy times I spent so long ago
My boyhood friends and my own relations
Have all passed on now like melting snow.
But I'll spend my days in endless roaming
Soft is the grass, my bed is free.
Ah, to be back now in Carrigfergus
On that long road down to the sea.
But in Kilkenny, it is reported
On marble stones there as black as ink
With gold and silver I would support her
But I'll sing no more 'till I get a drink.
For I'm drunk today, and I'm seldom sober
A handsome rover from town to town
Ah, but I'm sick now, my days are numbered
Come all you young men and lay me down.
What does “only for nights in Ballygran” actually mean? For example, the opening line is: “I wish I was in Carrickfergus, only for nights in Ballygran.” The first part about Carrickfergus is fine, but what does the second part mean?
It doesn’t seem to mean anything and one possible explanation is that O’Toole, or Behan or whoever passed on the song, may not have remembered the words correctly and so glossed over them.
Are Carrickfergus anomalies down to mishearings? Again, could the explanation be a mishearing? Other lyrics in similar songs have lines like: “Give me a boat that will carry two, and both shall row my love and I.” The last two words, “and I,” make sense in this version but they could easily could be misheard as “and die,” in the O’Toole/Behan version.
Behan’s second verse is consistent and straightforward Behan claimed to have written the second verse and there is no reason to doubt him. On the contrary, his claim is supported by the fact that the second verse is consistent and contains none of the anomalies of the other two verses which may have been modified over hundreds of years.
These inconsistencies are particularly marked in the third verse.
They’ve marble stones as black as ink The third and final verse refers to marble stones in Kilkenny, supporting his love with gold and silver before suddenly announcing that the singer will perform no more until he gets a drink.
The song then takes a dramatic shift in mood as we discover that the singer is seldom sober and believes that his days are numbered and he hasn’t long to live. These appear as disconnected thoughts and may be a truncated version of an earlier, longer lyric.
Carrickfergus The lyrics to Carrickfergus as we now know them were first recorded by Dominic Behan in the mid 1960s. The words tell the story of a wandering rover who is separated from his lover. He cannot get to her because the sea lies between them.
There are similar versions of the lyrics in most English speaking countries across the world, but Carrickfergus is probably the most widely known and recorded.
Lyrics and Chords print version
He said he had learnt the song from fellow Irishman and actor Peter O’Toole.
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The water is wide,
I can-not cross o'er. And neither have I wings to fly.
Give me a boat
that can carry two,
And both shall row,
my love and I.
O love is gentle
and love is kind
The sweetest flower
When first it is new
When love grows old and waxes cold
And fades away like the morning dew.
There is a ship and she sails a sea.
She's loaded deep as deep can be
But not as deep as the love I'm in
And I know not how
I sink or swim.