The name of Ballycastle has become known to many people throughout Ireland and across the world first and foremost on account of its famous song ‘The Ould Lammas Fair’. It is the work of one of her most famous citizens of a generation ago, John Henry Macaulay, better known as the bog oak carver. A plaque over McLister’s stationery shop in Ann Street marks his premises, and records his composition of the song.
In recent years, however, Ballycastle has acquired another link with the song. Mrs. Edna Anderson, who has resided in the town since 1986, was a young lady who back in 1934 first sang the song as arranged by John Vine at a musical festival, and by so doing helped to bring it to the attention of a wider public.
Edna Finlay of Lisburn was a most talented young singer and a pupil of John Vine. One day when she arrived for her music lesson, there was a new song sitting on the piano waiting for her to try. John Vine told her how he had bought it at the door from someone who had called. It would seem that the song first appeared in print in the Northern Constitution in October 1925, as 101 in a series entitled ‘Songs of the People.’ It quickly won widespread popularity, and was reprinted in response to numerous requests. The original second verse had an obvious reference to the days of the First World War:
“In Flanders fields afar, when resting from the war,
We drank ‘Bon Sainte’ to the Flemish lasses, O!
But the scene that haunts my memory is kissing Mary Anne,
Her pouting lips all sticky from eating “yellow man,”
As we crossed the silver Margey and walked along the strand
From the Ould Lammas Fair at Ballycastle, O!“
Macaulay later added a third verse to the song. The Northern Constitution described it thus ‘Mr. Macaulay has consummated the courtship of the original song by describing a happy marriage in an additional verse of tender sentiment.’
“There’s a nate little cabin on the slopes of ould Knocklayd,
It’s lit by love and sunshine where the heather honey’s made
By the bees ever humming and our childhers’ joyous call,
Resounds across the valley when the shadows fall;
I take my fiddle down and my Mary smiling there,
Brings back a happy memory of the Lammas Fair. “
The 1925 version of the song was printed in full with the tune in tonic solfa. The title of the tune was ‘The Carver’s Choice.’ It was in all probability this sheet that fell into the gifted hands of John Vine. He now arranged the music in a more professional way, and asked his young pupil to sing it over with him. He told her he would like her to sing it in a few weeks time at the Dungannon Festival in the Folk Song Class. This she readily agreed to do, and duly travelled to Dungannon, where she won.
Next day the morning paper carried a full report with the heading ‘Lisburn does it! The report was read by Macaulay, who wrote a warm letter of congratulations to Edna Finlay. He did not know her address, so he directed the letter simply to Miss Edna Finlay, Winner of the Folk-Song Comp, at Dungannon Feis, Lisburn.
It got to her all right. The letter was dated April 28, 1934, and read;
‘Congratulations Edna from the Bog Oak Carver. Where did you get the “Lammas Fair” it is very popular around here. But I never expected anyone to sing it in Dungannon. Yours sine. John H. Macaulay.’
One can detect in the letter an unspoken question as to how Macaulay’s song had been taken over by someone else. Edna Finlay put Macaulay in touch with John Vine, and to the best of her recollection they worked out some details about Vine’s arrangement, Macaulay insisting that no alteration be made to the original wording.
Ballycastle is rightly proud of Macaulay, and of his splendid folk song that has helped make famous both the town itself and its historic Lammas Fair. It is nice to know that one of its more recent citizens was also involved in the process of marketing the song to a wider public, and that Macaulay himself knew and approved!
(Mrs. Edna Anderson is the mother-in-law of The Very Rev. Dr. Godfrey Brown, Minister of Ballycastle Presbyterian Church and an Honorary Life Member of the Society).