Bob Dylan and the Mystery of Ballinalee | Cassandra Voices

Bob Dylan’s New Song and Ballinalee County Longford


Butterflies continue to fly from septuagenarian Bob Dylan’s cocoon. Last week the Bard of Duluth released yet another song ‘I Contain Multitudes’ after his long hiatus. The opening lyrics piqued our curiosity:

Today and tomorrow and yesterday, too,
The flowers are dyin’ like all things do,
Follow me close, I’m going to Ballinalee,
I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me.

Why does Ballinalee, a remote village in County Longford in the Irish midlands, feature in the song? One of our correspondents has a theory.

He suggests it is a reference to the early nineteenth century, Irish-language poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí’s (Anthony Raftery) poem ‘The Lass from Ballynalee.’ Raftery was a contemporary of James Clarence Mangan, beloved of Irish songster Shane MacGowan, the resident Bard of Ballsbridge.

Rumour has that the Bard of Duluth met the Bard of Ballsbridge for dinner in the Intercontinental Hotel a few years ago and talked poetry all night.

Conceivably, the Bard of Ballsbridge, who is a great admirer of James Clarence Mangan, suggested his fellow Bard take a look at Raftery, who was blinded as a child after a dose of smallpox. We’re actively pursuing comment from the Ballsbridge citadel.

It’s known that Dylan spent three days in Ardmore Studios, Bray, during the same trip, working on an as-yet unnamed project with his touring band. Was he inspired by Shane to write some new songs and then record them straight away?

The link might sound fanciful, but another online sleuth has noticed that a line in the final verse of the same song, “Keep your mouth away from me”, matches a line from Lord Longford’s translation of the seventeenth-century Irish poem, “Keep your Kiss to Yourself”.

The latter is anthologised in Seán Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella’s An Duanaire, 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed (Bord na Gaeilge, 1981). Did the Bard of Ballsbridge reach to his shelf and grab a copy to present to Bob on their meeting? And what did Bob give Shane?

Our operatives are tracking down the book to check if Raftery’s poem is in there too.

We know that in recent decades Dylan has littered his lyrics with quotations and allusions to sources as diverse Ovid, Chaucer and Homer and the obscure Civil-war poet, Henry Timrod, as well as the usual panoply of blues and folk sources, often within the same stanza. Can we now add an anthology of translations of Irish-language verse to his reading list?

But Dylan may have come across Raftery way back in early-60s New York, via his ballad-singing idol Liam Clancy, who loved to recite his poems.

Or maybe Bob actually sings, ‘I’m goin’ to Balian Bali’. He’s off surfing, and we’re barking up the wrong tree.

If you can help solve this mystery leave a comment below.

Here is the Raftery poem itself:

The Lass from Bally-na-Lee
(translated from the Irish)

On my way to Mass
To say a prayer,
The wind was high
Sowing rain,

I met a maid
With wind-wild hair
And madly fell
In love again.

I spoke with learning,
Charm and pride
And, as was fitting,
Answered she:

‘My mind is now
well satisfied,
So walk with me
To Bally-na-Lee.’

Given the offer,
I didn’t delay,
And blowing a laugh
At this willing young lass,

I swung with her over
The fields through the day
Till shortly we reached
The rump of the house.

A table with glasses
And drink was set
And then says the lassie,
Turning to me:

‘You are welcome, Raftery,
So drink a wet
To love’s demands
In Bally-na-Lee.’

This article contains contributions from Dr Francis Leneghan.


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  1. Of course Raftery’s BALLYLEE is not BALLINALEE, Co. Longford, but rather, a townland near Gort, Co. Galway – site of Yeats’s Thoor Ballylee. Since Bob croaks Ballinalee not Ballylee, we are still back in Longford though.

    General Seán Mac Eoin is Ballinalee’s most famous son – he went by the moniker “the Blacksmith of Ballinalee”. Now, Shane McGowan’s surname means ‘son of the blacksmith’. Indeed McGowan and Smith are actually the same name. Antóin Mac Gabhann, the noted fiddler and music teacher was known to his mammy as Tony Smith.

    Obviously, Shane regaled Bob with the yarn that he was the son of the Blacksmith of Ballinalee! He probably also mentioned that Ballinalee also translates as LEESTOWN. That’s where “The Riordans” was set. Clearly, Shane then threw in the fact that Cáit Riordan had been a member of The Pogues. After too many drams with the bould Shane, His Bobness grew a little confused by all these allusions, so he sets out for Ballinalee to sort it all out.

  2. I have listened several times, and each time it seems clearer to me that it’s Ballinalee. The other suggestions make no sense. Dylan has been into Irish traditional folklore since the early days in New York where, as mentioned, he spent much time with the Clancy Brothers. Dylan sings many old folk songs at his concerts, one of which is an Irish classic – “Eileen Aroon”. The meeting with Shane MacGowan would feed into his already existing interests. I presume MacGowan would have told him about the Irish War of Independence as well, and that a crucial battle took place at Ballinalee in 1920.

  3. Andrew Shields on

    This reinforces the connection-

    “The 18th-century poet Antoin Raftery had celebrated Mary Hynes’s beauty in verses which Lady Gregory had translated. So the tower-house carried sacred associations – with poetry, with a legendary beauty who brought sorrow in her wake (Yeats was always on the look-out for a Helen of Troy), and with the folklore and history of this beautiful part of Ireland “

  4. Apropos of nothing, The Pogues recorded a rousing instrumental entitled “The Ballinalee” during the “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” sessions. However, it was left off the album. It turned up later on the retrospective collection “Just Look Them Straight In The Eye And Say “Póg Mahone”. It’s on YouTube.

  5. Andrew Shields on

    Going to Mass by the will of God,
    The day came wet and the wind rose;
    I met Mary Hynes at the cross of Kiltartan,
    And I fell in love with her then and there.

    I spoke to her kind and mannerly,
    As by report was her own way;
    And she said, “Raftery, my mind is easy,
    You can come to-day to Ballylee.”

    When I heard her offer I did not linger,
    When her talk went to my heart my heart rose.
    We had only to go across the three fields,
    We had daylight with us to Ballylee.

    The table was laid with glasses and a quart measure,
    She had fair hair, and she was sitting beside me;
    And she said, “Drink, Raftery, and a hundred welcomes,
    There is a strong cellar in Ballylee.”

    O star of light and O sun in harvest,
    O amber hair, O my share of the world,
    Will you come with me upon Sunday
    Till we agree together before all the people?

    I would not grudge you a song every Sunday evening,
    Punch on the table, or wine if you would drink it,
    But, O king of Glory, dry the roads before me
    Till I find the way to Ballylee.

    There is sweet air on the side of the hill
    When you are looking down upon Ballylee;
    When you are walking in the valley picking nuts and blackberries,
    There is music of the birds in it and music of the Sidhe.

    What is the worth of greatness till you have the light
    Of the flower of the branch that is by your side?
    There is no god to deny it or to try and hide it,
    She is the sun in the heavens who wounded my heart.

    There was no part of Ireland I did not travel,

    From the rivers to the tops of the mountains,
    To the edge of
    Lough Greine whose mouth is hidden,
    And I saw no beauty but was behind hers.

    Her face was shining, and her brows were shining too;
    Her face was like herself, her mouth pleasant and sweet.
    She is the pride, and I give her the branch,
    She is the shining flower of Ballylee.

    It is Mary Hynes, the calm and easy woman,
    Has beauty in her mind and in her face.
    If a hundred clerks were gathered together,
    They could not write down a half of her ways.

    — Anthony Raftery (c. 1784-1835)

  6. Francis Leneghan on

    As John and Andrew point out, it’s clear that Raftery was referring to Ballylee, Co. Galway, but as Stephen says, Dylan sings ‘Bally-na-lee’.

    John Montague, “The book of Irish verse : an anthology of Irish poetry from the sixth century to the present”, has the Raftery poem as ‘The Lass from Bally-na-lee’, so maybe this is the source of the confusion?

    But I don’t think this book has the poem ‘Keep your kiss to yourself’ in it, which seems to be the source of the line ‘Keep your mouth away from me’.

    Can anyone find an anthology of translations of Irish poetry that has both these poems with ‘Bally-na-lee’ rather than ‘Ballylee’? I looked in “An Duanaire”, which has ‘Keep your kiss to yourself’ as the very first poem, but it too has ‘Ballylee’.

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