The great fantasy writer Terry Pratchett, a ballad enthusiast who frequented many sessions in Co Clare even before he became adjunct Professor of English at TCD, loved to parody the double meanings in folk songs in his allegorical novels.

In his frequent references to folk singing, every bunch of thyme or slice of cheese that was stolen and any lad who roved out on a bright May morning was accompanied by a nod and a wink to more earthy matters.

So when we hear about the Spanish lady washing her feet by candlelight, we should be on red alert, or more likely Redemptorist alert. The title was first registered by a London printer in 1624. Spanish ladies were as beautiful and exotic then as now. We are told the term “Spanish lady” became a euphemism for the woman of the night. But is there more to the Spanish lady we love to sing about?

Evidently she was an avid traveller. The same Spanish Lady was spotted by the authors of two different Dublin versions of the ballad – The Dubliners is a well-known version, there are several in London, one in Chester, Galway City, Belfast and Portland Maine.

The best known version is relayed by a narrator that would likely be arrested in modern times. Some deft detective work would land most of our ballad singers in the cells for stalking, Burl Ives, Theodore Bikel and Scottish group the Corries (for The Ettrick Valley) would be there as well as duet Cilla Fisher and Artie Tresize who sang it in Finnish.

Whack for the toor

Chief amongst them would have been the late Frank Harte from Chapelizod in Dublin, who transformed the popular “whack for the toor” chorus into a hybrid of the counting song: the list of odd and even numbers down from 20 in alternative lines of the chorus following an older allegory for being complete, in millennial-speak “the real deal”.

This version was recorded by Frank but as with many of his songs, best interpreted by others, a popular version is by Maighréad and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill from Meath with Dónal Lunny from Kildare. In the Ní Dhomhnaill version, the unrequited love was reciprocated for modern ears, which spoils the plot somewhat.

Galway City, recorded by Tommy Makem’s cousin Tom Sweeney, may be equally old. Spanish was widely spoken in Galway, as in Dingle, up to the last six generations and the Spanish Arch is a tourist attraction there.

Dublin’s widely sung version comes with a puzzling local addendum: “She’s no moth for a puddle swaddy with her ivory comb and her mantle so fine.” Frank Harte assumed this referred to the Poddle, a river through the Liberties that is now culverted, but was then an open sewer.

Far from being a lady of the night, the Spanish lady of these songs is dressed in finery and destined for an aristocrat inaccessible to the ordinary lady, in one version the Provost Marshall, boss of the watchman who harried our love lorn youth.

The young balladeer’s wander is indeed north and south, about 100 minutes in all, covering 9km, enough to make us lonely and footsore, and help us date the song.

The placenames would be familiar to an audience in the 1820s, half an hour to Stoneybatter, first mentioned as “the Stoany Boaghter” in 1641, and 37 minutes to the Gloucester Diamond, at the intersection at Gloucester Place and Sean MacDermott Street (originally Gloucester Street) which was first mentioned in 1811.

It is then 32 minutes back to Napper Tandy’s house. Napper Tandy had half a dozen residences in Dublin at different times as he was frequently on the run, but we can assume the song refers to 7 Bride Street opposite St Patrick’s Park where he lived between 1789 and 1795. This was demolished to make way for corporation housing, around the corner from St Patrick’s Close. Napper Tandy escaped execution after 1798 and died in Bordeaux in 1803.

As for Pratchett, he once wrote: “We had folk singers in the lower bar for six months back home where I worked. In the end we had to get a man in with a ferret.”

I wandered north and I wandered south, indeed.

The Dubliners: the spanish Lady

As I came down through Dublin City

At the hour of twelve at night

Who should I spy but a Spanish lady

Washing her feet by the candlelight

First she washed them, then she dried them

Over a fire of amber coals

In all me life I ne’er did see

A maid so sweet about the soul

Whack for the Too Rye, ooh, Ray lady

Whack for the Too Rye, ooh, Rye aye

As I came back through Dublin City

At the hour of half past eight

Who should I spy but the Spanish lady

Brushing her hair in the broad daylight

First she brushed it, then she tossed it

On her lap was a silver comb

In all me life I ne’er did see

A maid so fair since I did roam

Whack for the Too Rye, ooh, Ray lady

Whack for the Too Rye, ooh, Rye aye

As I returned to Dublin City

As the sun began to set

Who should I spy but a Spanish lady

Catching a moth, in a golden net

First she saw me, then she fled me

Lifted her petticoats o’er her knee

In all me life I ne’er did see

A maid so fair as the Spanish lady

Whack for the Too Rye, ooh, Ray lady

Whack for the Too Rye, ooh, Rye aye

I’ve wandered north and I have wonder south

Through Stoney Barter and Patrick’s close

Up and around, by the Gloucester Diamond

And back by Napper Tandys’ house

Auld age has laid her hands on me

Cold as a fire of ashy coals

But there is the love of me Spanish lady

A maid so sweet about the soul.

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