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shameless pleading

“Kathleen Mavourneen”

Wachet auf!

Dear Word Detective: I have a great love for a wonderful Irish song titled “Kathleen Mavourneen” (which started out as a poem circa 1833). One of the lyrics goes like this: “Ah, where is the spell that once hung on thy numbers?” I have scoured the Oxford English Dictionary (well, at least the entry for “numbers”) and have found nothing to enlighten me on what the word “numbers” means in this context. Can you help? — Pat Brennan.

I’m not sure. I’ve been sitting on this question for a couple of months, and every so often I take another crack at decoding that word “numbers,” but I’ve yet to find anything in print that really explains it. That’s especially odd because “Kathleen Mavourneen” may be one of the most popular songs in American history. You’d think there’d be at least one doctoral thesis out there picking it apart. In any case, “Kathleen Mavourneen” was written in 1837 by the British composer Frederick Crouch (with lyrics by Marion Crawford), popularized in Britain and the US by Irish singer Catherine Hayes, and immensely popular in the US during the Civil War. It’s been used in the soundtracks of several movies and TV series about that war.

Briefly, “Kathleen Mavourneen” is sung by one of a pair of young lovers on the morning they must part, perhaps forever. (“Mavourneen” is an Anglicized form of the Irish “mo mhuirnín,” meaning “my darling.”) Part of the lyrics run:

“Kathleen, mavourneen, the grey dawn is breaking, The horn of the hunter is heard on the hill. The lark from her light wing the bright dew is shaking, Kathleen, mavourneen, what! Slumbering still? / Oh, hast thou forgotten how soon we must sever? Oh, hast thou forgotten this day we must part? It may be for years, and it may be forever, Then why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart? It may be for years and it may be forever, Then why art thou silent, Kathleen, mavourneen? / Kathleen, mavourneen, awake from thy slumbers, The blue mountains glow in the sun’s golden light. Ah! Where is the spell that once hung on thy numbers, Arise in thy beauty, thou star of my night!”

It’s pretty clear that Kathleen, unable to face parting from her love, has chosen not to awake. What’s very unclear is what Crouch meant by “numbers.” I think we can discount the literal meaning of the word and all related mathematical senses, which leaves us with the more figurative uses of the noun. Some of these are pretty vague, and I think we have to grant them even more “wiggle room” than we otherwise might because Crouch and Crawford did, after all, need something to rhyme with “slumbers.”

I think the most likely meaning of “numbers” here is “musical numbers,” i.e., songs (the term being taken from the programs of musical performances presented as a numbered list). A well-bred young woman at the time “Kathleen Mavourneen” was written would most likely have had some basic musical training, and, since this was before the advent of audio recording, in-home recitals were a common cultural event. It is possible that Kathleen’s swain is remembering the “spell” cast by her singing and, by extension, her vivacity and warmth so absent at the moment.

The only other possible interpretation I can imagine is that “numbers” is a very poetical use of “number” in the sense of “group of persons of a kind” greatly stretched to mean “personal characteristics,” but I haven’t found another example of that usage, so I really doubt that’s the answer. If any of my readers have any insight into this question (especially a slam-dunk answer, even if it makes me feel like an idiot), I’m all ears.

One last light note on the whole shebang. Apparently the song “Kathleen Mavourneen” was so popular for so long in the US that I came across several jocular references to what were known as “Kathleen Mavourneen” loans. These were bank loans of an indeterminate term, so-called because the loan, as the refrain of the song goes, “may be for years and it may be forever.”

15 comments to “Kathleen Mavourneen”

  • Gary Smith

    “Where is the spell that once hung on thy numbers” to me sounds like “enchantment of youth”. “Where is the innocent little girl I used to know?” In reference to since the speaker must now go to war, Kathleen has to suddenly grow up and face the horrors of a loved one going off to war.

  • Herb Reeves

    Longfellow uses “numbers” famously in “The Psalm of Life” to refer to the verse, or poem, itself:

    Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
    Life is but an empty dream!
    For the soul is dead that slumbers,
    And things are not what they seem.

    I think it’s clear that “numbers” is a figure of speech where a characteristic, or part, of something stands for the whole (synecdoche? I think). In this case, the verses of the song.

    He’s saying that the spell that her song once cast is gone. John Ciardi pointed this out in a 1966 column written for the (much missed) Saturday Review citing the 15th definition of numbers in Webster’s Unabridged:

    15. Poetry & Music. a. Regular count of syllables or beats, esp. with alternation of accents. b. pI. Metrical, esp. syllabic, verses or measures; hence, verses or verse.
    means the poetic verse . . .

  • admin

    Bingo. I think you’re right. Thanks.

  • B. G. Berg

    Am I missing something? It seems pretty obvious that the singer is standing at Kathleen’s grave, in tears because she (obviously) can’t answer him. It “may be for years and it may be forever” before he can visit her grave again. “Where is the spell that once hung on thy numbers” is his way of lamenting her lost beauty, now gone forever. It is really hard for me to believe there could be a popular song about a man bidding a tearful farewell to a women who prefers to sleep in rather than see him!

  • Harry Newman

    I believe that “numbers” was an old medical term used to describe the bones in the skeleton. So, “frame’ or “body” would be a synonym.

  • David

    I’ll add a couple of unfounded shots in the dark.

    1. Since the line is preceded by “sun” and followed by “star”, going with the theme of orbs, it could be a reference to her eyes. The 2D version of spheres, ocular or celestial, being circles. Or zeroes…numbers. The preceding line specifically pointing out the view which she is missing adds a touch of weight to this theory as well.

    2. As an alternative theory, fingers are also called digits. And digits also mean numbers. Adding to this theory is that casting a spell is often associated with wiggling ones fingers or hand-waving.

    Closed eyes and still hands both seem to fit the character of the song.

  • Peter Berry

    Hi, I think numbers mean her age or years.
    On thy numbers–On thy age–On thy years.

  • Kathleen

    We always referred to our measurements as our “numbers” I think it means her spell surrounds her.

  • Kathleen jones

    My nane is kathleen and my grandad loved that song so when I was born he asked my mum to call me kathleen he always gave me the full tittle when he wanted me he would say kathleen mavouneen come in I always thought that it was my full name

  • Lynn

    I have found all these comments fascinating – FWNC is my ancestor – the story is that he sold it for £5 and it was sold on for £1500. I believe in later years he was paid £100 for publishing rights. Apparently Queen Victoria loved it and Catherine Hayes sang it at Buckingham Palace for her and 500 guests in June 1849.

    I’d never thought of the possibility that he might be singing it at a grave – interesting – I’ve often wondered myself why she is sleeping in!! And love Kathleen Jones’ granddad!
    I have just met with FWNC’s 90 yr old grt-grand-daughter and let her hear this tune – they thought it was a family myth (ie drunken ramblings)!

  • Steve

    http://digital.nls.uk/broadsides/broadside.cfm/id/16136

    This link will take you to a facsimile of the original song sheet. The correct words are ‘hung on my slumbers’ which although a same word rhyme makes perfect sense. ‘Numbers’ must have been a typo which crept in at a later date, and makes no sense at all.

  • Dr. Edward Palmer

    In the Colum poem, “O men from the fields,” who is Mary and who is the deceased?

    Thanks,

    Ed Palmer

  • Pat Brennan

    Bravo to Steve for coming up with the original song sheet (7/11/13 comment). Ordinarily, I would say such evidence provides the conclusive answer. However, I just can’t accept the idea that any poet worth her salt would rhyme “slumbers” with “slumbers.” Maybe there are examples of that kind of poetic atrocity around, but I can’t think of one–and particularly not from the nineteenth century, when rhyming was taken very seriously.

    Call me crazy, but I think it’s entirely possible that the printer got it wrong on the song sheet and that Ms. Crawford’s original lyric was restored in later editions. For one thing, what kind of later “typo” would change “my slumbers” to “thy numbers”? (I should point out that my Internet research on the lyrics produced at least one instance where the lyric is given as “thy slumbers.”) Having worked as a proofreader for a number of years (albeit decades ago), I think it’s more likely for a typesetter to mistakenly reproduce a previous line (or part of one)–which I’m theorizing the first printer did–than for a later printer to change a word or two completely out of carelessness.

    As I said, call me crazy, but the use of “slumbers” to rhyme with itself is more suspect to me than the notion that the original printer made an error that was corrected later. As for what “numbers” might mean, Evan is most likely right that it refers to Kathleen’s singing. Herb Reeves’s comment is also really good and supports Evan’s theory. The usage is archaic, but, then, the poem is 175 years old.

  • My Mother was named Willie Mavourneen. I had been told that it was Irish for “my darling”. Up until today I had never known about the song of long ago, Kathleen Mavourneen. I only wish I had known more about this history behind the song while my Mother was still alive. She was a great pianist. Makes me wonder if she knew the music to that song.

    I’ve enjoyed all the comments above. When I read the poem/song I felt that maybe she was dead.

    God Bless you for sharing this info.
    Jimmie Jeansonne

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