The May Morning Dew is one of those songs that seems to have been around forever and is a great favorite with singers and players of slow airs. I have heard it described as traditional but I’ve also heard a story that it was written by a returning emigrant to Donegal. In that story, I believe I got it confused with Slieve Gallon Braes, which has a similar provenance ascribed to it. A few years ago, at a concert in Colorado Springs, I introduced the song and told the story of it being written by an old man who had emigrated from Ireland as a child and who had returned as an old man and had then written this song. A couple of days later I was grateful to get an email from one Alan G. Humphrey who had been at the concert and who directed me to Paddy Tunney’s book, The Stone Fiddle. In it, Tunney refers to Mandy Gallagher of Tullagh near Carrigart at the bottom end of the Rossguill peninsula in the northern part of Co. Donegal. Mandy Gallagher was a fiddler with a repertoire of fairly obscure tunes but he was mostly known as a singer. Paddy Tunny says “Mandy Gallagher had a fine song in praise of the may morning dew” and goes on to give the words much as they appear in the version that I sing. That he ‘had’ the song suggests to me merely that he knew it and that it was a song he was known for. he may have composed it himself but I think that would have been particularly mentioned. Paddy Tunney goes on to say of Mandy Gallagher that “Alas! he died young”. So my guess is that the song is probably traditional and Mandy Gallagher was not the author. I did a little research but the only other reference I found was in Caoimhín MacAoidh’s In Between the Jigs and Reels (p. 174) where Mandy Gallagher is mentioned briefly among other fiddlers from the Carrigart area. However, nothing else is said of him.
The song could be said to be sean-nós in English. The sean-nós, or old style of Irish singing is generally unaccompanied, free in its meter and phrasing, features some greater or lesser degree of ornamentation in the melody and is often personal and emotional. And it’s nearly always in Irish. Given that Mandy Gallagher was from the Irish-speaking Carrigart area, the form of the song makes perfect sense but it’s a little odd that it’s not in Irish. This, too, makes me think that it’s a song he acquired somewhere else. And, indeed, we can think of the fact that it’s in English as a good thing for those who don’t speak Irish -- they get to hear a sean-nós song as it was meant to be.