“Kathleen Mavourneen”

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25 comments on this post.
  1. 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.

  2. 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 . . .

  3. admin:

    Bingo. I think you’re right. Thanks.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Peter Berry:

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

  8. Kathleen:

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

  9. 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

  10. Kathleen Mavourneen | The Telegraph:

    […] For some interesting thoughts. […]

  11. 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)!

  12. Steve:


    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.

  13. Dr. Edward Palmer:

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


    Ed Palmer

  14. 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.

  15. Jimmie Jeansonne:

    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

  16. Marty:

    What the heck, I’m gonna say “my slumbers”, nobody will know the difference.



  17. Linda:

    Love the song. We sang it in chorus in high school. I always thought the “numbers” referred to her Dance Card. No one probably remembers dance cards, nor did I ever have one, but as a historian I think they were also taken very seriously.

  18. brian:

    has no-one considered the possibility that Kathleen may have died in the night, and that this why the singer cannot understand why sho does not wake?

  19. Sheila mulcahy:

    Mary is the mother of Jesus. A little child is dying and the mother is entrusting his soul to Mary who is traditionally represented wearing a blue cloak in which she will wrap the dead infant.

  20. Gary Silber:

    Wonderful conversation! I love musicology. It’s a beautiful song, no matter what the exact meaning of numbers was . Happy Holidays to All!


    I am happy to see the confusion that surrounds this line of the lyric. I have struggled with this issue over many years and have come to think that the phrase is related to numerology which is kind of guide to greater self-knowledge through examination of one’s unique number patterns. Thus, Kathleen was blessed with number patterns that indicated happiness and success, but the poor lad does not fit into her life’s pattern. A fine justification for this lament.

  22. Peter:

    The term simply means the sequence of notes she sang in her songs.

  23. Peter:

    An example is from Pope’s Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, when he talks about his first steps as a poet when he “lisped in numbers” — the sequence of rhythm, etc., he learned as he proceeded. Then applied to music…..

  24. Pat Daley:

    I have a wonderful recording of this song by Richard Crooks (also one by John McCoarmack) and I have sung whatever I remember from it for myself. I never tried to work it up for a performance. I am a mere baritone and I despair doing what Crooks, a lyric tenor, did with it.

    I just go by context. The “spell that once hung on the numbers” seems to me to obviously refer to her face, her visage. She does not look her usual self, even asleep, probably sorrowful, sad, drawn. In context, what else could it mean?

  25. Kathleen Mavourneen Kiesel Cozzarelli:

    I was born in 1938 a week before St. Patrick’s Day and hence was given this name in honor of my mother’s Irish heritage. I was told that the song had to do with a young man who is about to be sent from Ireland for some political reason. I also learned late in life that the Irish use the term Kathleen Mavourneen to mean Ireland.

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