FolkWorld #64 11/2017
© Seán Laffey

Month of January

Songs That Made History: The song is a featured track on the new album Between the Half Light from Deirdre Starr. It tells the story, in an oblique way of an out of wedlock unplanned pregnancy and the banishment from the family home of the new mother.

Peter Kennedy and Sean O'Boyle collected the song from Sarah Makem in Keady County Armagh in 1953. The song was published in Kennedy's book Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, in 1975, under the title The False Young Man.

It has many versions with the story appearing in songs from Ireland, Canada, Scotland, the USA and England. For example in the American collection compiled by Helen Hartness Flanders it is called Cruel Was My Father.

In Ireland the song has become popular amongst traditional singers over the past 30 years from the singing of Dolores Keane. Tommy Makem also sang the song and it was published in The Irish Songbook: 75 songs collected, adapted, written, and sung by The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, arranged for piano and guitar by Robert DeCormier, compiled by Joy Graeme, with a foreword by Pete Hamil.

Researchers on the Mudcat Café have traced the song back to printed versions from Maine (1943), England (1907) and back to Smith's Victorian sentimental poem The Snow Storm, A Ballad, poetry by Seba Smith, music by L. Heath (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1843). That version had a pattern of four lines followed by three lines as its structure, not over convincing for a song one must admit. Songs that came down in the tradition kept the story but adopted four line stanzas.

Month of January

It was in the month of January, the hills all clad with snow
It was over hills and valley my true love he did go
It was then I met a pretty young girl with a salt tear in her eye
She had a baby in her arms and bitter she did cry

"Oh cruel was my father that he barred the door to me
And cruel was my mother that dreadful crime to see
Cruel was my own true love that he changed his mind for gold
And cruel was that winter's night that pierced my heart with cold

For the taller that the palm tree grows the sweeter is the bark
And the fairer that a young man speaks, the falser is his heart
For he'll kiss you and embrace you till he thinks he has you won
Then he'll go away and leave you all for some other one

So come all you pretty fair maidens and a warning take by me
Never try and build your nest at the top of a high tree
For the green leaves they will wither and the branches all decay
And the beauty of a young man it soon will fade away"

The 1943 version from Maine has two additional verses that
would work equally well if melded into Sarah Makem's variant.

"Oh hush, my little baby, thy little life has gone"
How the tears from her eyes, how they run trickling down
So fast as they flow they froze before they fall
"Oh wretched, wretched mother, you grieves me more than all

And then she sank her baby all in the depth of snow
And like a little lamb again lamenting she did go
She kissed her baby's cold wet lips and laid it by her side
She cast her eyes to Heaven, and bowed her head and died

 Listen to Month of January from:
       Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, The House Devils,
       Rose Laughlin, Cathal McConnell, Anne Sands

 Watch Month of January from:
       Sarah Makem

Deirdre Starr

Deirdre Starr: Between the Half Light
In The Month of January (Trad) »This traditional song, referenced in the Roud Folk Song Index, was originally sung by Sarah Makem on a recording made in 1967. It tells the tragic story of a young woman who became pregnant by her poor lover and her rich parents bribe the young man to disappear, leaving her to freeze out in the wintery weather with her young baby.«
(from: Deirdre Starr, "Between the Half Light", 2016)

Artist Video Deirdre Starr @ FROG

Irish Music Magazine

First published @ Irish Music Magazine (

Photo Credits: (1) Deirdre Starr, (2) Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, (3) Cathal McConnell, (unknown/website); (4) Mat Walklate (by Walkin' Tom).

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