> Folk Music > Songs > John Riley
; Laws M8
; G/D 1:22
; Henry H468
; Ballad Index
; VWML CJS2/9/1316
Paul & Liz Davenport: Down Yorkshire Lanes Alan Helsdon: Vaughan Williams in Norfolk Gale Huntington: Sam Henry's Songs of the People Roy Palmer: Folk Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams Songs of the Midlands Frank Purslow: The Constant Lovers
Sarah Makem sang John Reilly to Peter Kennedy and Sean O'Boyle in 1952. This recording was included in 2011 on her Musical Traditions anthology As I Roved Out. Rod Stradling noted in the accompanying booklet:
This song is usually titled John Reilly or Young Reilly. Peter Kennedy used the name Willie, perhaps because Robert Cinnamond, who he had recorded earlier, did so. Lovers seeking to unite across class boundaries are thwarted by an obdurate parent and meet a tragic fate; this theme had enormous appeal, as evidenced by a plethora of broadside printings from London to Newcastle, and oral records from right across these islands and North America and, despite Reilly's Irish surname, there are more English entries than Irish ones.
Pete Seeger sang John Riley in 1958 on his Topic EP Pete and Five Strings. A live recording from a Ballads and Blues concert at St. Pancras Town Hall Theatre on 4 October 1959 was release in 1963 on his Folklore Records album Pete Seeger in Concert, which was reissued in 2016 on his Fellside CD Pete Seeger in England.
Joan Baez sang John Riley in 1960 on her first, eponymous album on the Vanguard label, Joan Baez.
Paddie Bell sang John Riley on her 1965 EMI/Waverley album Paddie – Herself.
Eleanor Leith sang John Riley in 1965 on the Waverley album The Hoot'nanny Show Vol. 2.
The Trugs sang John Riley in 1971 on their Traditional Sound album And Boldly Go to Sea. This track was included in 2001 on the Fellside anthology of English traditional songs, Voices in Harmony.
George Dunn of Quarry Bank, Staffordshire, sang John Riley to Bill Leader on 4-5 December 1971, which was released in 1973 on his eponymous Leader album George Dunn. He also sang it earlier to Roy Palmer, on 14 July 1971, which was printed in 1972 in Palmer's book Songs of the Midlands, and was included in 2002 on Dunn's Musical Traditions anthology Chainmaker. Rod Stradling noted in the accompanying booklet:
Lovers seeking to unite across class boundaries are thwarted by an obdurate parent and meet a tragic fate. The theme, as expressed here, had enormous appeal, as evidenced by a plethora of broadside printings from London to Newcastle, and oral records from England, Scotland, Ireland and North America.
Almost 100 examples are to be found in Roud for this present song alone, and quite evenly spread throughout these islands and Canada and the US, but only George Dunn in this area of England. Only one of the 22 sound recordings (Harry Cox) is from outside Ireland or Canada, and only Sarah Anne O'Neill, Co Tyrone (Topic TSCD654) and John Kennedy, Co Armagh (Veteran VT137CD) seem to have made the change to a digital medium.
Cf: John Ashton, Modern Street Ballads (1888), p.390, as Riley's Farewell. Laws prefers the title of Young Riley, of which he suggests his N37 is an offshoot.
Michael Flanagan from Luogh, Doolin, sang O'Reilly to America to Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie in August 1974. This recording was included in 2004 on the Musical Traditions anthology of their recordings, Around the Hills of Clare. They noted:
While widely acknowledged to be of Irish origin, this has also been found all over Britain and the United States, and was said to have been printed by all the important broadside presses. Frank Purslow [in The Constant Lovers] suggested in his note to the Hampshire version that the final verse had “been added by a printer's hack who could not bear to see a song without a colourful and slightly moralising ending”.
Sarah Anne O'Neill sang John Reilly at home near Derrytresk, Coalisland, Co. Tyrone, to Robin Morton in 1977. This recording was included in the following year on George Hanna's and her Topic album On the Shores of Lough Neagh, in 1996 on the Topic compilation CD Irish Voices, and in 1998 on the Topic anthology of songs of exile and emigration, Farewell, My Own Dear Native Land (The Voice of the People Volume 4). John Moulden noted, citing Sarah Anne O'Neill:
“My father used to sing John Reilly from the Town of Bray but l never learned it. After that l heard it a few times and was interested because of my father so I got the words from Brian Mullan of Derry. I heard it once at a Fleadh, I think from Kevin Mitchell.”
Sarah Anne has remade parts of this song since learning it. This very widespread song more often called Reilly the Fisherman has a story of tragedy, almost certainly the work of a broadsheet writer. All the ingredients are here, true love, forbidding father, departed lover, lover returning prosperous, elopement, mutual accidental death and, final irony, the discovery of the dead lovers, locked in each other’s arms, by the cruel parent. The air is a variant of the Star of the County Down and, like it, pentatonic.
Roger McGuinn and Judy Collins sang John Riley in 2001 on McGuinn's Appleseed album Treasures from the Folk Den.
Magpie Lane sang John Reilly in 2002 on their Beautiful Jo album Six for Gold.
Coope Boyes & Simpson sang Riley the Fisherman in 2005 on their No Masters album of songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and Percy Grainger, Triple Echo.
The Demon Barbers learned John Riley from Alex Campbell's 1965 album In Copenhagen and sang it in 2005 on their CD Waxed.
The Gloworms sang Reilly the Fisherman on the 2005 CD by Laurel Swift and Friends, Beam.
Josienne Clarke sang John Riley on her and Ben Walker's 2011 album The Seas Are Deep.
Barbara Brown sang Riley in 2014 on Tom and Barbara Brown's WildGoose album of songs collected by Cecil Sharp from two retired sea captains in Minehead, Somerset, Just Another Day. They noted:
A song well-known on both sides of the Atlantic under several different titles—Reilly the Fisherman, Reilly Sent to America, Bold Riley, etc. Captain Vickery sang a different first verse when he sang it to Cecil Sharp [ VWML CJS2/9/1316 ] —a verse actually from a different song.
Alice Jones sang Young Riley the Fisherman in 2014 on her and Pete Coe's album of song from the Frank Kidson collection, The Search for Five Finger Frank.
Jon Bickley sang John Riley on his 2018 Podcast album Live at the Invisible Folk Club No 9.
Méabh Meir sang Riley the Fisherman on the 2019 anthology 'Tis Pretty to Be in Ballinderry. It is a tribute to Robert Cinnamond on the 50th anniversary of his death.
Jon Wilks sang John Riley on his 2021 album Up the Cut. He noted:
Roy Palmer recorded George Dunn singing this song on 14 July 1971. While John Riley is a well-known title in the traditional songs canon, this seems to me to be rather different in lyrical and melodic content to many of the other versions I’ve heard.
It was one of those that leapt out at me from the source recording, and I’ve wondered many times since about why I haven’t found any other recordings of this particular version. While I find the final verse a little trite (surely the warning should be about not trusting fathers that go out hunting young men in the dead of night?), the haunting melody seems a peculiar one to overlook. I’d love to hear a great singer tackle this song. It’s ripe for the picking.
Sarah Makem sings John Reilly
As I roved out one evening
down by a river side
I heard a maid complaining and the tears stood in her eye.
“This is a cold and stormy night”, these words to me did say,
“My love lies on the radiant main bound for Americay.”
“My love he is a tall young man
his age is scarce sixteen
He is as nice a young man as e'er my eyes have seen.
For riches I had plenty but Reilly he was poor,
And because I loved my sailor lad they could not me endure.
“My mother took me by the hand,
these words to me did say
‘If you be fond of Reilly you must leave this country.
For your father swears he'll have your life
Or shun his company.’ ”
Oh, it's “Mamma dear, don't be severe
where will I send my love?
My heart lies in his bosom as constant as a dove.”
“Oh, daughter dear, I'm not severe here is five hundred pounds
And send Reilly to America to purchase there some ground.”
Oh, it's when she got the money
to Reilly she did run
“This very night to take your life my father charged his gun
Here is five hundred pounds in gold my mother sent to you
And sail off unto Americay and I will follow you.”
George Dunn sings John Riley
John Riley was her true love's name,
an honest man was he;
He loved a farmer's daughter dear as faithful as could be.
Her father he had riches but Riley he was poor;
Because she loved this honest man he could not her endure.
“O mother dear, O mother dear,
where shall I send my love?
My very heart lies in his breast as constant as a dove.”
“O daughter dear, I'm not severe, and here's a thousand pound;
Send Riley to America to purchase there some ground.”
Soon as she'd got the money
to Riley she did run.
“This very night to have your life my father's charged the gun,
But here's a thousand pound in gold my mother sent to you.
Go quickly to America and quickly I'll pursue.”
Soon as they'd got the money,
next day they sailed away,
And very quickly came a storm that lasted all the day.
The ship went down, all hands were lost; her father grieved full sore
When they found her in Riley's arms, drownded on the shore.
Upon her breast a note was found
with letters wrote in blood,
Saying, “Cruel was my father, who went to shoot my love.
I pray this be a warning to all fair maidens gay
Never to let the lad you love sail to Americay.”
Michael Flanagan sings O'Reilly to America
As I roved out one evening
down by a riverside,
It was there I spied a damsel as the tears rolled from her eyes;
Saying, “This is a dark and stormy night”, those words to me did say,
“My love lies on the raging seas bound for Americay.”
“My love he is a tall young man,
his age is scarce eighteen;
He is the nicest young man that ever your eyes have seen.
My father, he has riches great, but O'Reilly, he is poor;
Although I love my sailor boy, they cannot me endure.”
“O'Reilly is my true-love's name,
lived near the town of Bray;
My mamma took me by the hand and those words to me did say:
Saying, ‘If you be fond of O'Reilly, let him quit this countery,
For your father says he'll have his life or shun his company.’ ”
“Oh mother dear, don't be severe,
where will I send my love?
For my heart lies in his bosom as constant as a dove.”
“Oh daughter dear, I'm not severe, here is five hundred pounds;
Send O'Reilly to Americay and purchase there some ground.”
So when she got the money,
to O'Reilly she did run;
Saying, “This very night, to take your life, my father charged his gun.
Here is five hundred pounds in gold my mamma sent to you;
So sail away to Americay and I will follow you.”
So when he got his foot on board
these were the words he said;
Saying, “Here is a true-lovers token, I will break it into two”;
Saying, “Half my heart and half my ring until I find out you.”
They were not long sailing, but scarcely three days,
When O'Reilly, he came back again to take his love away.
The ship got wrecked and all was lost and her father grieved full sore;
He found Reilly in her arms and they drowned upon the shore.
He found a letter in her breast
and it was wrote with blood;
Saying, “Cruel was my father who thought to shoot my love;
So this may be a warning to all maidens fair so gay:
Don't ever let the lad you love sail to Americay.”