Báidín Fheilimí is a song learned by many Irish schoolchildren, and there’s something about it that keeps it in people’s hearts and consciousness in later life. Eoin Conway shares his memories of learning the song as a child, and why he plumbed deep into the well of his emotions while writing his arrangement of this classic Irish folksong.
Báidín Fheilimí is a song learned by just about every Irish schoolchild, and for good reason: its melodic contour is perfect for young voices and its lyrics are as simple as could be. Even for non-Irish speakers, it shouldn’t pose a challenge: fully 50% of the lyrics are either ‘báidín’ or ‘Fheilimí’. But its pedagogical value is not the reason why the song stuck with me. My memory of it was an emotional one, and with this arrangement I wanted to bring that back to the surface.
Báidín Fheilimí is a song that many Irish children learn and one that remains with them
The hero of our story
Báidín Fheilimí translates as ‘Phelim’s little boat’, and the boat really is the hero of the song, with Phelim himself seemingly just along for the ride. The boat carries Phelim to the islands of Gola and Tory, found off the north-west coast of Ireland. Phelim, a real-life historical figure, was fleeing from his enemies, but the song never gives that context. I like to think this is because the boat doesn’t ‘know’ that information either.
As a child, I found it almost too upsetting to sing. As an adult, I think a memory like that is worth exploring.
We hear in the choruses of the song about what a good little boat it is: a brave little boat, a willing little boat. Then — spoiler alert — the boat crashes, which is kind of heart-breaking if you’re a young child. And then the song rubs salt in the wound by making you sing the chorus again: “a brave little boat, a willing little boat…”. As a child, I found it almost too upsetting to sing. As an adult, I think a memory like that is worth exploring.
Painting waves, wind and wrecks
Film scores were what got me hooked on music, and they’re an influence that I’m happy to embrace in my own writing. I can’t always say what that influence is when writing a piece, but it’s in there somewhere, and few things make me happier than to be told by an audience member that they could visualise the scene playing while they listened.
My first arranging decision was to slow the melody down. The original tune is a jig, and that didn’t have enough gravitas for what I wanted. In triple metre, there exists a tempo just on the border between feeling the pulse in one or in three. Some of my favourite choral music, like Stanford’s Beati Quorum Via, is written in this zone. As a conductor, it’s a nightmare to control. But if the ensemble can feel this pulse together, the results are hypnotically beautiful. I return to this tempo in many arrangements.
I began by writing a four-bar introduction for piano, a simple rising-and-falling figure, to evoke the sensations of being on a boat in gentle ocean swells. This continues for the first verse, like an ostinato, with the voices in unison.
In the refrain, when we hear about the boat’s bravery, I harmonised the melody with a bright, ‘heroic’ arpeggio, reminiscent of brass fanfares, while a descending scale in the bass of the piano creates a mournful dissonance on the second beat; bravery does not equal fearlessness.
Fig. 1: Fanfare-like writing in the alto part gives a ‘heroic’ character to the refrain
Ill winds and shipwrecks
In the second verse, a shift to the Lydian mode suggests a widening out: open waters, a fresh breeze picking up, white foam gathering on the waves. Some listeners may detect an unconscious influence of the third ‘Sea Interlude’ from Britten’s Peter Grimes. This prompted some further exploration of whole-tone movement, adding to the seasick atmosphere. When the time comes for the boat to crash, the whole tone movement continues to the point of maximum dissonance. This is followed by slow motion, static harmony, and the sound of funeral bells.
Fig 2: ‘The brave little boat crashes’: Using the whole-tone scale to create dissonance
I always like to give choirs an unaccompanied moment and the third refrain seemed like the right place for it. Children’s voices have a special quality that can captivate an audience — maybe we’re evolutionarily primed to pay attention to that sound — so keeping that effect in reserve until now means I can dramatically underline the emotional high point of the song.
A fitting tribute
And that is where the song should end, but I couldn’t leave it on a tragic note like this! (I pictured some future child being doubly traumatised by both the story and my emotionally supercharged telling of it.) So, a final repeat of the refrain establishes some distance between the sad verse and the ending, giving us time to get our (musical and emotional!) bearings back.
What’s happening in this final chorus? It could be a memory of happier times, or even an alternative history where the boat survives the waves. The whole-tone movement — which earlier had overwhelmed the boat — is now inverted and transferred to the bass, while the mostly C-major harmony rides on top.
Four last bars for piano illustrate the ending: the storm has passed, the sea returns to a state of calm. The boat now lies in the murky deep, while a glimmer of sunlight flashes over the surface.
Fig 3: A watery grave or something more mysterious and magical?
Sometimes the stars align
Anyone who works in a creative field is wary of words like ‘inspiration’. The old adage about the process being 99% perspiration is an accurate one. Most arranging is a slow process for me, chipping away at the song one bar at a time until there are no bars left. But every once in a while, the stars are aligned, something in the subconscious mind is ready to emerge, it all happens much more quickly and easily.
Báidín Fheilimí was one of those happy, rare occasions for me. Most of it was written in a single afternoon.
Eoin Conway is a versatile musician based in Dublin, Ireland. He is in regular demand as a countertenor for both solo and ensemble work in Ireland and abroad, and his arrangements have been commissioned and performed by some of Ireland’s finest choirs. He also works as a pianist and conductor.
You can preview many of Eoin’s choral arrangements, including Báidín Fheilimí by clicking here.