The truth and intrigue behind one of our best loved ballads

“As beautiful Kitty one morning was tripping, With a pitcher of milk from the fair of Coleraine.”

Thursday, 3rd December 2020, 11:08 am
Kitty Weeps as Barney McCleary Tries to Console Her
Kitty Weeps as Barney McCleary Tries to Console Her

Thus begins the well-known ballad ‘Kitty of Coleraine.’

But who was Kitty?

The question has piqued Mitchell Smyth’s curiosity since he was a reporter in the Northern Constitution in Coleraine 60 years ago.

'A kiss then he gave her . . .' as Kitty of Coleraine Weeps for her Broken Pitcher of 'sweet buttermilk'

Ballycastle-born Smyth, now retired after a career as reporter, editor and columnist with the Toronto Star, has done some sleuthing in the matter, and although he hasn’t been able to establish who Kitty was, he has unearthed some interesting information.

Among other things, the back story links Kitty to Bing Crosby, the Blarney Stone, and a duelling barrister and wit from County Clare.

Smyth says a veteran newspaperman in Coleraine once told him that Kitty was a real woman.

She lived, he said, at The Cutts, near a salmon-leap cataract on the River Bann, on the western outskirts of the town.

Bing Crosby Finds Love in Ireland, with Ann Blyth, in 'Top o' The Morning'

The smashed pitcher of ‘sweet buttermilk’ that is a central part of the story, is reported to have been a true incident, one witnessed by Edward Lasaght

Lysaght (1763 - 1810) was a barrister and poet in County Clare. What he might have been doing in Coleraine is a mystery, but most folksong historians agree that he wrote it originally as a poem.

We don’t know when he wrote it, but it was put to music and published in 1810, the year Lysaght died.

For over a century the song was performed in the music halls of Ireland and at ceilidhs and church socials all over the island, but generally stayed under the world-wide radar. Until 1949, that is, when Bing Crosby, then arguably the most popular singer on the planet, introduced it to the world.

He did it in the movie, ‘Top o’ The Morning’, in which he plays a New York insurance detective sent to County Cork to investigate after the Blarney Stone is stolen.

The local Garda sergeant (played by Barry Fitzgerald) throws him jail, and from behind bars he picks up a concertina and entertains Fitzgerald and his constable (played by Hume Cronyn) with ‘Kitty of Coleraine’.

Now the whole world knew the song!

The film, of course, had nothing to do with Blarney - it was filmed on a Paramount Pictures’ backlot, with Hollywood’s version of what an Irish village should look like, with locals talking in awful Irish brogues (‘cept for Fitzgerald, who was an alumnus of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin).

Ann Blyth (born in New York state) played the sergeant’s daughter, with whom Crosby naturally falls in love.

It has been speculated that ‘Pleasant Ned’ Lysaght, as he was widely known, might have been witness to the broken pitcher incident when he was in Coleraine as a barrister involved in a court case. He mentions ‘haymaking season’ which suggests he might have been appearing at the Autumn Assizes.

Pleasant Ned seems to have been more interested in writing poems than in the law. In his later years, one biographer says, he came to live “for little beyond poetry and pistols, wine and women”, a reference to his extra-marital dalliances and to his having fought some duels.

Another biography describes him as “brave, brilliant, witty, eloquent and devil-may-care.”

And he was a spendthrift - in the end he lived within the confines of Trinity College, Dublin (where he had been educated, before going to Oxford) to avoid arrest for debt.

Unfortunately, much of his humorous poetry and original manuscripts have been lost to posterity.

He died, penniless, in 1810, aged only 47.

It’s a measure of the esteem in which he was held that an appeal for funds to aid his widow and two unmarried daughters raised £2,464 (equivalent to £165,000 today, according to the UK Inflation Calculator.)

Yes, an interesting character.

How did ‘Kitty of Coleraine’ end up in a Hollywood movie? There are a couple of new songs in the film (written by Jimmy Van Heusen) but the producers told screenwriters Edmund Beloin and Richard Breen that they wanted a real Irish song, too.

Breen, whose parents were Irish immigrants to Chicago, remembered his dad singing ‘Kitty of Coleraine’, so he wrote it into the screenplay.

Crosby loved it!

You can watch a clip from ‘Top o’ The Morning’ featuring Bing Crosby, by Googling ‘Bing Sings Kitty of Coleraine.’

Here’s a reminder of Lyaght’s full poem, told in the third person. Some versions give it in the first person, supposedly in Barney McCleary’s words:

“As beautiful Kitty one morning was tripping,

With a pitcher of milk from the fair of Coleraine,

When she saw him she stumbled, the pitcher it tumbled,

And all the sweet buttermilk water’d the plain.

Oh! What shall I do now, ‘twas looking at you now,

Sure, sure, such a pitcher I’ll ne’er meet again.

‘Twas the pride of my dairy, Oh, Barney McCleary,

You’re sent as a plague on the girls of Coleraine.

He sat down beside her and gently did chide her,

That such a misfortune should give her such pain.

A kiss then he gave her, and before he did leave her,

She vowed for such pleasure, she’d break it again.

‘Twas haymaking season, I can’t tell the reason,

Misfortune will never come single ‘tis plain,

For very soon after poor Kitty’s disaster,

The divil a pitcher was whole in Coleraine.”