“Kathleen Mavourneen”

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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 mhuirnĂ­n,” 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.”

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