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Once There Lived a Captain / The Sea Captain

[ Roud 3376 ; Ballad Index RcOTLACa ; trad.]

John Reilly sang Once There Lived a Captain to Tom Munnelly in his own home in Dublin in Winter 1967. This was published in 1977 on his Topic album of “songs of an Irish Traveller”, The Bonny Green Tree. his track was also included in 1997 on the Topic ballad anthology It Fell on a Day, a Bonny Summer Day (The Voice of the People Volume 17). Munnelly noted:

The motif of the suitor who, on gaining admittance to the side of his recently deceased true-love, there ends his own life is not uncommon in broadsheet balladry for such a tragic theme would undoubtedly have great popular appeal. An interesting occurrence of this motif appears in Lord Abore and Mary Flynn, a version of Prince Robert which, like The Well Below the Valley, is a Child ballad (No. 87) extant only, if tenaciously, in the Irish singing tradition.

Once There Lived a Captain is also something of a rarity for the only other traditional performance of the song which I have heard is that of Seán Ó Conaire of Rosmue, Co. Galway. Kevin Conniff, a fine Dublin revivalist singer, now with the Chieftains, has song had it in his repertoire, his source being Seán Ó Conaire.

Jean ‘Sauce’ Driscoll sang The Sea Captain to Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie in between 1973 and 1985. This recording was released in 2003 on their Musical Traditions anthology of songs of Irish Travellers in England, From Puck to Appleby. They noted:

To our knowledge, the only other two versions to have been found in the tradition are from Seán Ó Conaire of Rosmuc, Co Galway and from Traveller John ‘Jacko’ Reilly of Roscommon.

We first recorded this from the singer’s father, Mikeen McCarthy, who had sold it around the fairs and markets in Kerry on a ballad sheet some time in the nineteen-forties. Unfortunately, he was only able to remember four verses and we tried on a number of occasions, without success, to see if he could recall more. One evening, he proudly announced that his daughter, a young woman then in her early twenties, had learned all of it from another Traveller, Nora Coffey. To our knowledge, this is the only traditional song she sings.

Lankum sang The Sea Captain in 2019 on Topic's 80th year anthology, Vision & Revision. They noted:

We first heard John Reilly's Once There Lived a Captain on [the] The Bonny Green Tree LP and were reminded of it manyyears later when we heard Helen Grehan sing it at a talk she gave on her memories of John Reilly and his singing. It is an otherworldly song that seems to have been distilled right down to its dark and poignant core. If all songs were films, this one would be a late night B-movie, seen late at night when still in childhood, yet somehow still remembered forever.

Lyrics

John Reilly sang Once There Lived a Captain

Once there lived a captain
Who was borne out-ah for sea
An’ before that he got married
He was sent far away.

Oh, but when that he returned
To ‘er father he did go
“Is your daughter inside, sir?
Can I see her once more?”

“For my daughter is not here, sir,
She left us here last night
She is gone to some a-nunnery.”
Was the old man’s reply.

He went on a-to this nunnery
An’ ‘e knocked all at the door
Out comes the (R)everand Mother
An’ she tearin’ go leor.

Sayin’, “Your true love is not here, sir,
She is left us here last night,
She is gone to some asylum
Where she’s fractured in mind.”

“Let me in”, a-sez the Captain,
“Let me in”, the Captain cried.
“Let me in until I see her
An’ l’ll die by her side.”

For he stood at her left side
An’ his sharp sword ‘e drew,
He stood to great attention
An’ ‘e pierced ‘is heart through.

Oh sad it was the partin’
An’ hard it was the dooms
To see two loyal lovers
Lyin’ dead on the floor.

Oh but green grows the laurel
And soft it falls the dew
Sayin’ “Sorry am I, true lover
For ever partin’ from you.”

Jean ‘Sauce’ Driscoll sings The Sea Captain

For once there lived a captain
Who was borned out on sea;
And before that he got married
He was sent far away.

All on his returning
Up to his sweetheart's cottage he goes.
Straight up to her old, aged father,
And he knocked on the door.

Saying, “Is your daughter inside sir,
Can I see her once more?”
“Your true love's not inside sir,
For she left here last night.
She is gone to some annunery.”
Was the old man’s reply.

For he went up into the nunnery
And he knocked all on the door,
Out comes the reverend mother
And she sweeping the floor.

Saying, “Your true love, she's not inside sir,
She left here last night,
She's gone to some asylum.”
Was the reverend mother's reply.

For he went up into the 'sylum
And he knocked on the door,
Out comes the innkeeper
And his tears in galore.

Saying, “Your true love she is inside sir,
She died here last night,
She came from some annunery.”
Was the old man's reply.

“Oh let me in”, cried the captain,
“Let me in”, the captain cried.
“Oh let me in”, cried the captain,
“'Til I die by her side.”