Róisín Dubh in English

Working from a translation by Donal O’Sullivan of this beautiful Irish Gaelic song, Róisín Dubh, that originated sometime in the 16-or-1700’s, I’ve clarified a few words further. It is my understanding that the song is in the public domain by now, being several hundred years old. Therefore, I feel at liberty to arrange it as presented. It’s one of those beautiful tunes that make you want to know how to sing it, but it is hard to find a clear English translation that follows the tune just-so. I’ve now gotten to where I know it by heart and carry it wherever I go. I can sing it while I’m walking or at work because songs like these live inside me. How much more fun, and vital, than a digital player.

I don’t speak Gaelic, but I have great love for what I know of Gaelic languages, histories and cultures, so I offer this imperfect commoner’s adaptation with warm respect for these bardic ancestries of which I am partially descended. In any case, this is how songs naturally flow from culture to culture across time, with imprecise words but an adapted beauty that finds its own way.


Here is one of the clearest tune examples of the song for reference, for those of you like myself who can’t read written music. Most of the ancestors couldn’t either!


And here it is by the great traditional “mouth-singer” Seamus Heaney when he visited the Pacific Northwest of my North America. He tells a bit about the song before singing it in the original Irish Gaelic. This recording is available as an album with other songs he sings, which I highly recommend. There’s real magic in a live recording like this.


Róisín Dubh, do not mourn for what has happened to thee!

The friars are drawing nigher from across the sea.

Rome’s pardon for my darling will ease her woes

and wine from Spain     will ease the pain

of my small black rose.


I adore thee, watch over thee the livelong year

with no guerdon for Love’s pardon, but black despair

she is fairer, far rarer, than any flower that grows

Is she heeding     to my pleading     my small black rose?


The sea’s flood will be blood-red, the sky aflame,

the whole world will be plunged into ruin and shame!

hills will tremble,     mountains crumble      in agony’s throes

‘ere the day     death take thee     my small black rose!

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