This is possibly the saddest song ever written, in a very good way. As a genealogist, an inquirer into generations and life histories, I love it. It is epic in scale, yet rooted in real history, and, I believe, based on actual letters found in an attic. Somewhere out there you can find several nice recordings of it, but I’m quite satisfied just to read the lyrics. Once you’ve heard it, you’ll never forget the tune.
by Peter and Steve Jones
(c) copyright 1984, 1988 Peter and Steve Jones
Kilkelly, Ireland eighteen and sixty, my dear and loving son John:
Your good friend the schoolmaster Pat MacNamara
So good as to write these words down
Your brothers have all gone to find work in England
The house is so empty and sad
The crop of potatoes is sorely infected
A third to a half of them bad
And your sister Bridget and Patrick O’Donnell
Are going to get married in June
And your mother says not to work on the railroad
And be sure to come on home soon.
Kilkelly, Ireland eighteen and seventy, my dear and loving son John:
Hello to your Mrs. and to your four children
May they grow up healthy and strong
Michael has got in a wee bit of trouble
I suppose that he never will learn
Because of the dampness there’s no turf to speak of
And now there’s nothing to burn
Bridget is happy you named the child for her,
You know she’s got six of her own
You say you’ve found work but you don’t say what kind
And when will you be coming home?
Kilkelly, Ireland eighteen and eighty dear Michael and John my sons:
I’m sorry to give you the very sad news
That your dear old mother passed on
We buried her down at the church at Kilkelly
Your brothers and Bridget were there
You don’t have to worry she died very quickly
Remember her in your prayers
And it’s so good to hear that Michael’s returning
With money he’s sure to buy land
But the crop has been poor and people are selling
At any price that they can.
Kilkelly, Ireland eighteen and ninety my dear and loving son John:
I suppose that I must be close on to eighty
It’s thirty years since you’ve been gone
Because of all the money you sent me
I’m still living out on my own
Michael has built himself a fine house
And Bridget’s daughters are grown.
And thank you for sending your family picture
They’re lovely young women and men
You say you might even come for a visit
What joy to see you again
Kilkelly, Ireland eighteen and ninety-two my dear brother John:
I’m sorry that I didn’t write sooner
To tell you Father passed on
He was living with Bridget she said he was cheerful
And healthy right up to the end
You should have seen him playing with the grandchildren
Of Pat MacNamara, your friend
We buried him along side of Mother
Down at the Kilkelly church yard
He was a strong man, a feisty old man
Considering his life was so hard
And it’s funny the way he kept talking about you
He called for you at the end.
Why don’t you think about coming to visit
We’d love to see you again.
How does that hold up without music? I really can’t tell.