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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Previous Issues > Vol. 3 > A Tune that Could Calm Any Storm: The influence of ballads on my two children’s books
A Tune that Could Calm Any Storm: The influence of ballads on my two children’s books
Author: Catherine Ann Cullen
Catherine Ann Cullen illustrates how the use of ballads, personal reading and listening, imaginative interconnections and theorizing, helped her forge her children’s fiction.


This essay explores the influence of my ballad-rich upbringing on my two children’s books, The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat (2001) and Thirsty Baby (2003), both published by Little, Brown (US). The essay takes its title from the first of these books, where one of the buttons on the child protagonist’s coat “plays a tune that could calm any storm.” In my works for children, I have often taken inspiration from macabre ballads, subverting them into optimistic stories. The essay details the influence of a wide range of folksongs on The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat, which won a gold award for poetry and folklore in the National Parenting Product Awards (NAPPA) of America. It evaluates the inspiration of ballads, especially “cumulative memory songs” such as “The Old Women Who Swallowed a Fly” and “The Rattlin’ Bog”, and songs with “frame repetition” such as “Spin, Spin, My Dear Daughter”, on my second children’s book, and identifies the source of this jaunty verse-story as a dark Irish-language poem I learned as a child. The essay is based on Chapter 2 of my PhD in Published Works, “A City Out of Old Songs”, submitted in October 2016 to the School of Creative Arts and Media at Middlesex University.


Keywords: ballad, folksong, writing for children


I grew up in an Irish family where the singing of ballads and other songs was woven into the ordinary fabric of our days. My uncle, Gerry Cullen, played a significant part in a resurgence of interest in traditional songs and singing in our home town of Drogheda, County Louth, and has for over a quarter of a century been a member of the respected, unaccompanied singing trio, The Voice Squad. My writing output consists mainly of poetry (my third collection, The Other Now: New and Selected Works, was published by Dedalus Press in October 2016), but this essay explores the influence of my ballad-rich upbringing on my two children’s books, The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat (2001) and Thirsty Baby (2003), both published by Little, Brown in the US. The essay takes its title from the first of these books, where one of the buttons on the child protagonist’s coat “plays a tune that could calm any storm.” It details the influence of a wide range of songs I learned in childhood on these works, sharing (I hope) the pleasure of my own growing consciousness of this influence in my recent studies for a PhD in Published Works at Middlesex University. It also briefly explores the effect that the reading aloud of the texts has had on groups of children.

In the two works for children considered here, I have sometimes been inspired by ballads that are dark and even deadly in theme and tone, and subverted them into more optimistic stories. 


A note on referencing the ballads

I have used two main standards for indexing ballads, the Child and Roud systems. Francis Child collected 305 unique ballads from England and Scotland between 1882 and 1898. Child differentiated variants of the same song by placing a letter after the number i.e. 302A, 302B etc. I have in all cases given just the number itself, as the versions of the songs I know do not always coincide exactly with any of the Child versions[i]. The Roud system is a far more comprehensive work-in-progress that combines two recent indexes compiled by folklorist, librarian and author Steve Roud, the Folk Song Index and the Broadside Index. The Folk Song Index aims to provide details of English-language traditional songs which have been recorded across all media: in books, journals, newspapers and manuscripts, as well as in published or unpublished sound recordings, videos, and websites. The Broadside Index references songs published in the form of broadsides, chapbooks, and cheap songbooks from the late 16th century to 1920[ii].

To avoid confusion between song references and the normal author-date-page references, I have put Child and Roud numbers in square brackets in the text. For example, the song “The Clever Lass” is referenced [Child 1, Roud 161] and “Molly Malone” is referenced [Roud 16932]. 


The influence of ballads on The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat

There were two motivations for my first children’s book; I was fully cognizant of only one of them as I wrote. My first niece and god-daughter, Olivia, was turning three. Born and raised in New York, she was already singing Irish songs such as “Molly Malone” [Roud 16932] with its street-hawker’s cry, “cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o!” and the more stage-Irish “My Irish Molly-O” [Roud 16109], whose chorus has a tricky penultimate line, word-heavy and sung at breakneck speed:

Change your name, go on be game! Begorrah, wouldn’t I do the same?
My Irish Molly-o.

I wanted to write something that Olivia might commit to memory, something more substantial than the throw-away, often spontaneous rhymes I had invented to amuse her up until then. I didn’t need to think about the form the story would take: the obvious vehicle for the tale was the one most familiar to me from childhood, the narrative ballad.

What were the elements of the ballad that I wanted to harness? One was the classic opening, which involves the narrator going out and coming upon a story. I have written about this kind of opening in a radio essay on May ballads:

If you go a-walking one morning in May, or rove out on a bright May morning, what would you expect to see? I’m only asking because there are so many songs that start with the narrator walking or roving out in this merry month. (Cullen 2015: n.p.)

But the phenomenon is not confined to the month of May. As A.L. Lloyd argues in his seminal work on English folk songs, “most English songs…  pose a situation (‘As I walked out… ‘) and provide a setting (‘down by the riverside’) for an encounter (‘’twas there I met a bold fisherman come floating on the tide’)” (1967: 135). My narrative ballad was to follow this formula, posing a situation and providing its young protagonist with a series of settings and encounters, from a giant sweltering in the heat to a group of sailors wracked by a storm. The child would go out “to see what I’d see”, drawing on the clapping rhyme, “A sailor went to sea, sea, sea/To see what he could see, see, see” [Roud 18338], and the children’s song, “The Bear went over the Mountain” [Roud 3727] “to see what he could see”. Unlike the narrative voice in most ballads, my child narrator would be a participant in the story, making a series of interventions which would change the story itself.

The metrical form of the story was also based, albeit unconsciously, on many verse-narratives that I had enjoyed as a child – on a series of the anapestic tetrameters beloved of Dr Seuss, for example from his first book And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, (Seuss 1937) where he characteristically omits the first beat of the first line, as I do in my verse-story. Illustrating the unstressed syllables with an “x” and the stressed with an “l”, the form looks like this:

    x       l      x  x     l    x    x       l     x      x       l

And that is a story that no one can beat

    x     x       l       x     x      l      x    x      l     x  x     l

And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.

Clement Clarke Moore takes a similar approach in A Visit From Saint Nicholas, another classic of my childhood which I committed to memory:

   x        l        x          x          l        x     x         l        x      x        l

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care

 x        l         x         x         l       x    x        l        x       x         l

In hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there    (Moore 1844)

My story follows this pattern exactly, with four anapaestic metrical feet per line, each foot having two unstressed followed by one stressed syllable, the first unstressed syllable omitted in some or all of the lines:

 x         l         x     x      l          x      x        l       x    x       l

The coat that I wear from the Fall to the Spring

x     x         l     x   x      l      x  x      l     x   x       l

Is my chunkiest, funkiest, favourite thing

Another element of the traditional ballad I wanted to use was the built-in mnemonic of a predictable structure. The structure I chose was one used in many songs of my childhood – the days of the week. Works that feature this seven-day structure range from the succinct life of “Solomon Grundy” [Roud 19299], “Born on a Monday/Christened on Tuesday/ Married on Wednesday…” and the fortune-telling rhyme, “Monday’s Child is Fair of Face” [Roud 19526], to the English folksong “Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron” [Roud 869], and the raucous “Seven Drunken Nights”, an Irish version of a popular ballad [Child 274, Roud 114], in which a gullible husband comes home each night to find evidence of his wife’s infidelity, but is assured that he is mistaken. An English version of the song is mentioned by Lloyd as “Five Nights Drunk” (Lloyd 1967: 157), and indeed the politer versions of the Irish ballad[iii] usually end on the fifth, Friday night when the husband sees “a head upon the bed where my old head should be”, and his wife assures him the head is “a lovely cabbage that my mother gave to me”.

This mnemonic structure employs what the ballad-scholar Francis B. Gummere (1907: 117) identified as incremental repetition, where a phrase recurs but is changed as the song progresses. My childhood favourite, “Henry, My Son” [Child 12, Roud 10], uses this device at the start of each verse as the mother asks her failing son a series of questions: “Where have you been all day, Henry, my son?”; “What did you have to eat, Henry, my son?”; and then, in turn, “What will you leave your (mother/father/children/sweetheart), Henry, my son?”

In the same way, the openings of the six central verses of The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat reference the days of the week: “I went out on Monday/Tuesday/etc to see what I’d see/And I saw….” and the second quatrain of these six verses begins with another incremental repetition, “So I bit off my button,” followed by six different phrases: “the one that said warm/cold”; “the one like a star/stone”; “that played a sweet tune”; and “my dolly herself”. I had contrived two intersecting mnemonics – of the days of the week, and of the six buttons – which are listed in the first verse, recur once each in the ensuing six verses, and appear as a list once more in verse eight, and I hoped these would make the story memorable for Olivia and other readers.

These ballad devices, however, had to be adapted to my story in several ways. For example, the traditional opening couldn’t be set at the opening of my ballad – I needed to introduce the character of the coat and its magic buttons in the first verse, before I could set my narrator out a-roving “to see what I’d see”. Furthermore, I had to detach my cast of traditional characters from their usual contexts in order to bring them together in a neutral space. In doing so, I was reflecting what Máirín Nic Eoin argues about the need for modern writers to uproot the traditional motifs that they use: “the literary use of traditional material involves… a radical displacement from the social and cultural context in which the material was originally conceived and traditionally employed” (2014: 152). In The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat, despite a comforting, familiar structure based on the days of the week and the seasons (“the fall to the spring”), the “radical displacement” of the folksong and story motifs from their “social and cultural context” locate the child narrator out of time, in a strange world where all the seasons exist simultaneously. On the first three days of the week, the weather is by turns too hot, freezing with snow and violently stormy, and over the course of the six days, the child meets a cast of characters who would not normally belong together.


Saving the Story – the hidden motivation for the book

At the beginning of this chapter, I said that I was fully conscious of only one of the two motivations for writing this book – to create a narrative ballad for my niece. Like most unconscious motivations, the second one is more interesting.  The book was written in the death throes of an unhappy relationship, and I was at some level aware that the story was an attempt to create a controlled world where the key to all problems was at hand. Nic Eoin writes of the “subversion of tradition involved when the poet harnesses traditional motifs and narratives as vehicles for the expression of intense personal states” (2014: 151–2).

It is only in retrospect that I recognize that The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat could be read as, and indeed represents, an expression of intense personal unhappiness, and the desire to make perfect the broken. The moment of revelation about this motivation came when I participated in a children’s literature seminar at Trinity College Dublin, which focused for a time on my book. I found myself in the position described by McLoughlin, whereby “The poet may proceed by the same interpretive mechanism as the reader in order to tease out the various possible meanings in the text” (McLoughlin 2013: 47). One of the students suggested that the book was about “saving the story”. Her observation made me interrogate more closely the song I was weaving beneath the skin of the story.

Margaret Atwood proposes that

… not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality, by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead (Atwood 2002: 156).

What I began to realize in that moment at Trinity, and understood more fully the more I studied my own text, was that what I wanted “to bring back… from the dead” or from the brink of death in The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat was indeed the idea of story itself, and the magic that is central to story. The device I used to effect the resurrection was the traditional method of passing on stories, the narrative ballad. The elements of story I planned to save were six archetypal characters from the ballads and stories of my childhood: a giant, a swan, a group of sailors, a wizard, some rabbits and an elf. In the poem, all of these characters are threatened: the giant by being too close to the sun (like Icarus in another archetypal tale); the swan by being frozen nearly to death, like the swan Children of Lir in a beloved Irish legend; the sailors by a storm, as in countless ballads and stories; the wizard by the death of his magic; the rabbits by a hungry snake; and the elf by a lack of love. All of the characters are redeemed by the magical buttons on the child narrator’s coat, for each button possesses a unique quality tailor-made for one specific problem. The child as narrator is therefore the preserver of stories, the one who can rescue the stalled story and allow it to continue. He or she achieves this by solving a series of problems, another ballad motif featured in songs such as “The Clever Lass” [Child 1, Roud 161], “solving difficult but practicable problems, or matching and evading impossibilities” (Child 2001, 1:1). In such ballads, the questions are explicit: “What is broader than the way/And what is deeper than the sea?” In my book, however, the repeated question is implicit: how can you solve this problem, and save the story and the magic, using the materials to hand, i.e. the buttons on the coat?


The characters in the story and their origins in song

The folk and fairy tales and ballads referenced in the story, through the six endangered characters or groups of characters, are multitudinous, but the ones uppermost in my own mind as I wrote the story were almost all central to childhood songs:

1. The giant:  the hero-giant Fionn MacCumhail (often anglicized as Finn McCool), the leader of the mythical band of warriors, the Fianna. Like other Irish heroes, Fionn came alive to me in ballads learned in my early days of school. One Irish-language song, “Trup, trup, a Chapaillín” (Trip, trip, little horse), describes a happy jaunt around Dublin’s Hill of Howth:

Áit a mbíodh na filí fadó,
Áit a mbíodh Fionn is Fianna,
Diarmaid agus Gráinne óg. (Ó Baoill & Ó Ceallaigh 1969: 14–15)

(The place where the poets were long ago,
The place where Fionn and (the) Fianna,
Diarmuid and young Gráinne were.)

The song was part of a book in which action songs were interwoven into the story of a family’s day, and came with a record we sang along to in school – such aural experiences gave a tangible immediacy to the mythological characters who, it seemed, were just around the bend of a local hill as we trotted up in our imaginations. In The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat, despite his size, the giant is not threatening; he is young and he explains that his height is a challenge.

2. The swan: the Children of Lir, three boys and a girl who are transformed by their evil stepmother, and spend nine hundred years in the shape of swans, including three hundred on the freezing Sea of Moyle. Their story has inspired artists across many genres, including Thomas Moore (1779-1852), whose work, “The Song of Fionnuala”, was a standard sung by my mother’s relatives in Tralee, County Kerry. It begins with the poet entreating the stormy waters to be “Silent, o Moyle,” so that the sad song of the enchanted swan can be heard: While murmuring mournfully, Lir's lonely daughter/Tells to the night-star her tale of woes” (Moore 1854: 22). I have revisited this legend, writing a series of five poems from the point of view of five of its characters in my first poetry collection (Cullen 2007: 72–77). I discuss these Children of Lir poems in Chapter 4 of my PhD. Another inspiration for the swan in my book is the Irish ballad “Molly Bawn” [Roud 166], where a young hunter shoots his sweetheart as she shelters “under a tree” like the swan in my story. He is tried for murder, but the girl’s ghost tells the court that she had put her apron over her head and the young man mistook her for a swan. The song is believed to be a relic of the ancient myth where Cephalus kills his wife Procris, mistaking her for a deer when he is out hunting (Lloyd 1967: 155). In The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat, however, the swan does not suffer the fate of the Children of Lir (who eventually die when they return to human form) or of tragic Molly Bawn, but takes to the air “in fine flying form.”  

3. The sailors: The sea is a persistent element of the folksongs I remember from childhood, both as a benign, rocking presence in lullabies – “on wings of the wind o’er the dark rolling deep, angels are coming to watch o’er thy sleep” from the “Connemara Cradle Song” [Roud V40948], and as the last end of countless sailors and their ships who sink “in the lowlands low” in “The Golden Vanity” [Child 286, Roud 122], or “to the bottom of the sea” in “The Mermaid” [Child 289]. Particularly strong in my mind was “The Holy Ground” [Roud 929], a Cork sea-shanty which was the party-piece of a local priest and in which the endangered sailors endure only half a verse of woe before they are safe:

Oh now the storm is raging and we are far from shore;
The poor old ship she's sinking fast, the riggings they are tore.
The night is dark and dreary, we can scarcely see the moon,
But still I live in hope to see the Holy Ground once more.
It's now the storm is over and we are safe on shore
We'll drink a toast to the Holy Ground and the girls that we adore…

The sailors in The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat also endure only two lines of misery as the storm rages, until the magical tune calms the waters and they can float away.

4. The wizard: the archetypal old man/guide/helper of story. My inspiration, however, was a more sinister old man, the personification of Death in an eerie ballad I once heard my uncle Gerry sing, “Death and the Lady” [Roud 1031]:

As I walked out one morn in May…
I met an old man by the way.
His head was bald, his beard was grey,
His coat was of a myrtle shade.
I asked him what strange countryman,
Or what strange place he did belong.

Death, in the shape of an old man, tells the young woman that she must go with him, and refuses to be bribed by her offer of gold in exchange for a few more years on earth. There is no mention of a heavenly reward. In The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat, the old man is a disempowered wizard, and when the narrator revives his wand with a star, the wizard uses it to praise the coat by writing “in the heavens”. 

5. The rabbits: rhymes and songs about the creatures included a knitting rhyme that started, “In through the bunny hole, once ‘round the tree” [personal communication], and an Irish language song that began:

Damhsa na gcoiníní i ngarraí na heorna,
An coinín ab óige acu, briseadh a chos,
An coinín ba sine acu, rinne sé uachta
Is thit sé ar a thóin i dtoimín an bhroibh.

(The dance of the bunnies in the barley field
The youngest of them broke his foot
The oldest rabbit made his will
And fell on his bum in a patch of rushes.)

The rabbits of Irish stories are usually lively and playful. In the book, I place them in momentary danger of being eaten by a snake, until a stone is rolled in front of their burrow and they are safe once more.

6. The elf: Capricious leprechauns and fairies featured in many songs and folktales I learned as a child. One song I knew both in Irish and in English translation, “The Leprechaun” [Roud V34703], had as a repeating line: “And I laughed to think he was caught at last – but the fairy was laughing too”. Fairy lovers were more frightening: the leannán sídhe was a beautiful fairy woman who inspired her lover in his art, but he wasted away after a brief life under her spell. In a song my father performed with a relish for its poetic words, “My Lagan Love” [Roud 1418], the narrator claims that

Like a lovesick leannán sídhe,
She has my heart in thrall.
Nor life I own, nor liberty,
For love is lord of all.

In the manuscript for her book about songs, traditional singer Niamh Parsons gives this succinct information about the ballad:

The words were written by Joseph Campbell (1879-1944), and the air supplied by Herbert Hughes (1882-1937), a classically-educated musician, who was an avid collector of Irish airs. He supplied the music for two other famous songs by poets of the time, “She moved through the Fair” (Padraig Colum) and “The Salley Gardens” (W. B. Yeats).  I sing all three but “My Lagan Love” is my favourite (Parsons 2016: 75).

In The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat, the elf is looking for “a smallish somebody” to love, not a human whose life a fairy lover would put in danger, and the non-human doll, who comes to life when she meets the elf, provides a perfect and unthreatened partner.

Early drafts of the book show that I considered other characters for the story. These included “an old king and his fiddlers three”. On reflection, I thought this too specific a reference to one particular rhyme. I was more interested in the anonymity of a ballad, on allowing readers to “put their own slant” on the story – to imbue it with their own swans, elves and giants, in the way that I had done. I wanted to give free rein to the imagination of my child readers. I even contrived never to identify the gender of the child narrator, and was delighted when this “androgyny” was echoed by the illustrator, so that both boys and girls could imagine themselves in the role of the protagonist. Our efforts were confounded by the publishers, who in their early press releases and subsequently on the jacket flap of the book wrote “a girl goes out each day to see what she’ll see…”

The sun itself was one of the buttons in early drafts, echoing many stories where the sun is personified (fighting with the wind in Aesop’s “The North Wind and the Sun”, or as a helper in one of my favourite childhood stories, the Grimm brothers’ “The Lady and the Lion”), but I decided to employ a “warm” button instead, so the only “personification” was the sixth button, the doll.

My experience of reading the Coat book aloud to children – most recently to a group of nine-year-olds at an inner-city Dublin school where I am the first writer-in-residence – is gratifying in that, as soon as I tell them that the characters in the story were inspired by characters from songs and stories of my childhood, they are immediately driven to speculate on those sources. They regularly come up with the right ones, especially “The Children of Lir” for the swans and “Fionn” for the giant. In this they are displaying what Nikolajeva described as “The process of learning…. categorizing facts and comparing them to our existing cognitive models” (2014: 23). They are showing a sophisticated appreciation of how writers are influenced by other works, and how, unlike in the real world, “a text of fiction is a constructed set of selected characters and events, deliberately created by the author” (ibid.: p23).

They also remember the sequence of the buttons reasonably well even on first reading, so when the buttons are listed in the eighth stanza, “so we sewed back the cold, and we sewed back the warm/and we sewed back the tune that could calm any storm…”, I always pause to let them fill in the final word in each line, and many of the children succeed in doing this.

The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat won a gold award for poetry and folklore in the National Parenting Product Awards (NAPPA), and has been recommended in handbooks for educators to teach children everything from the days of the week (Ansell & Holley 2002: 490) to dramatic play (Backer 2003: 316), the value of sharing (Fentiman 2006: n.p.) and the joy of reading (Codell 2003: 396; Gillespie & Barr 2003: 15). It was the inspiration for a community festival called If I Had a Magic Button (Dworin 2013: n.p.) in the under-resourced area of Parkville CT in 2013. The use of the book that gives me most satisfaction as a writer, however, came in 2014, when it was performed by a group of schoolchildren in the “verse choirs” section of the Kern County Oral Language Festival (Kern County Library 2014: n.p.) in California, completing a circle from ballad to story and back.


The influence of ballads on Thirsty Baby

By the time I wrote my second children’s book, Thirsty Baby (Little, Brown, 2003), I had nieces aged eight and five and nephews aged four and two, who were all keen on songs and verse-stories. I had a very specific genre in mind for this book, one I had loved as a child myself – the “cumulative memory song”, sometimes more simply referred to as the “list song”. These are songs where items are added to a list as the song goes on, or the main item in each verse gets bigger and bigger – or smaller and smaller. I particularly loved the chain of reasoning in the Irish song, “The Rattlin’ Bog” [Roud 129], versions of which, as “The Tree in the Valley” or “And the Green Grass Grew All Around”, are known all over Britain and America, and of the children’s classic, “I Know an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly” [Roud 9378]. First there’s a bog, then a tree in the bog, and before long you will be singing about a speck on an egg in a nest on a twig on a branch of the tree. First the old lady swallows a fly, and the internal logic of the song ensures that, by the last verse, she is eating a horse. The folklorist Cecil Sharp was one of those who wrote about such ballads in an article about “forfeit songs and cumulative songs”, where the songs are said to be repositories of ancient traditions and entertainments: “Trivial though these nursery jingles and traditional recitations may seem… they are fragments of forgotten things: of beliefs, ceremonies and pastimes which played a part in the life of grown-up men and women of the past” (Sharp et al. 1916: 294). One of the “pastimes” Sharp refers to here was the test of memory involved in recalling, in the right order, the verses of songs that had a mnemonic structure – and there was a forfeit to be paid by anyone who forgot an element in the list in, for example, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” [Roud 68].

I set out deliberately to write a simple verse-story which would fit this genre. I remembered the glee of hearing “The Rattlin’ Bog” for the first time, sung by my uncle Gerry. Here, the entire list is crammed into one growing, clause-heavy sentence:

Now on that bird there was a feather, 
A rare feather, a rattlin’ feather,
The feather on the bird and the bird on the nest
And the nest on the twig and the twig on the limb
And the limb on the branch and the branch on the tree
And the tree in the hole and the hole in the bog
And the bog down in the valley-o!

I was in my grandmother’s house in Drogheda and there was the usual coterie of cousins and young aunts and uncles around, vying with each other to remember the growing line. The older ones were inventing smaller and smaller items to add to the list, with “a pimple”, “an amoeba” and “an atom” all featuring, and the few lisping toddlers were trying to keep up. I was determined to have by heart every word of the tongue-tripping catalogue of items in that rare, rattlin’ bog.


Thirsty Baby – the list story

Decades later, when I set out to compose my own list-story, there was a list of requirements in my mind. Firstly, there was “I Know an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly” as a model. Eating larger and larger animals had been done to great comic effect in this song, but what about drinking larger and larger bodies – of water, for instance? Secondly, I was aware that, in order to engage a young audience, I wanted to avoid giving them a long list they would have to remember. Instead, could I harness the power of repetition and accumulation ad absurdum without a list? (My publisher’s guidelines for this book was that it was for ages 2-5, rather than 5-8 for The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat.) Thirdly, there was my sense that a ballad for young children should begin and end at home, as had the previous book, whatever magical adventures would occur in between, echoing Lloyd’s contention that “The road of the ballad runs from the magical to the heroic to the domestic.” (Lloyd 1967: 139)

Finally, there was a rhythm for the story already in my head. The rhythm that is closest to it in an English song is “Three Little Fishes” also known as “Over in the Meadow” [Roud 25654], with a stressed syllable followed by three unstressed:

  l    x    x   x      l         x     x   x     l   x    x   x    l

Over in the meadow in a little bitty pool

(x)            l       x   x      l      x     x       x          l       x    x   x     l

Were three little fishes and their mammy fishy too...

A similar rhythm is found in a counting-out rhyme we used in primary school [Roud 19230]:

  l         x   x   x      l      x   x   x        l        x   x   x      l

One potato, two potato, three potato, four.

The words of Thirsty Baby fits this rhythm, although there is more variation on some of the other lines:

              l     x      x       x      l   x     x     x     l       x    l

(I’m) thirsty said the baby and I need a drink

 But beyond that beat, there was a structure and rhythm in my subconscious mind:

…inspirations, influences and writing processes… may find their way unconsciously into the text in the act of writing, but the… creative writing researcher… is obliged to make them explicit, reflect on them, analyze and examine them (McLoughlin 2013: 48–49).

That rhythm, hidden even from myself until I was “obliged to make it explicit”, was from an Irish-language poem I learned in primary school, “Cé Atá Láidir?” (Who Is Strong?), written by Lionárd Ó hAnnaidh, which went:

“Táim láidir,” arsa an bláth, nuair a shéid an ghaoth,
Ach tháinig bó agus d’ith sí é.
“Táim láidir,” arsa an bó, sa pháirc ina luí,
Ach tháinig fear is mharaidh sé í.
“Táim láidir,” arsa an fear, lena mhac Tomás.
Ach tháinig an lá agus fuair sé bás.
Níl aon duine láidir, níl ionainn ach cré,
Níl aon duine láidir ach Críost, mac Dé.

(“I’m mighty,” said the flower, when the wind blew ‘round,
But a cow came along and gobbled her down.
“I’m mighty,” said the cow in her grassy bed,
But along came a man and struck her dead.
“I’m mighty,” said the man, to his small son, Shay,
But along came the hour when he passed away.
Nobody’s mighty, we’re dust, everyone,
Nobody’s mighty but Christ, God’s son.)

My translation here is faithful to the rhythm of the Irish rather than to the exact words – láidir means “strong”, but the two equal syllables of “mighty” echo the rhythm and syntax of the Irish perfectly – and exactly match the rhythm and structure of Thirsty Baby:

“I’m thirsty,” said the baby, “and I need a drink.”
So we gave him a bottle, and what do you think?

“Cé Atá Láidir?” is a bleak memento mori for young children – I was seven or eight years old when I learned it in school. We recited it then in a sing-song way which belied the full force of its meaning. Margaret Atwood has said that “If the act of writing charts the process of thought, it's a process that leaves a trail, like a series of fossilized footprints” (2002: 156). It was only by murmuring the words of Thirsty Baby over and over to myself, until they became a sing-song rhythm buried deep in my psyche, that I was able to follow the trail of those “fossilized footprints” back to that dark Irish verse – along with its “frame repetition” structure. The grim superstition inherent in the verse is a “pride goes before a fall” story, and such stories formed a strong tenet of my early school education. There were the obvious myths, such as Icarus, and Adam and Eve, but often the stories were more immediate. Even discussion of the Titanic disaster was always framed in terms of the almost-blasphemous challenge to God’s omnipotence posed by the builders and owners of a liner they claimed was unsinkable, a challenge that God had to answer by sinking the ship. This attitude to God as capricious and vengeful is identical to the Irish attitude to the fairies or “Good People” that was still prevalent in Kerry when I was growing up. There was a strong superstition about the danger to a child if the fairies overheard a person praising him or her. Parents accepted that it was better not to “praise your own”, but if anyone did admire a child’s beauty or skill, the compliment was always tempered with the charm “God bless him”: “He’s a lovely boy, God bless him”, or “She’s great with the needle, God bless her”, an invocation that was believed to keep the child safe from supernatural vengeance or covetousness.

So, two songs or verses intersect under the surface of Thirsty Baby: “I Know an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly” [Roud 9375] as the conscious “list” model, and “Cé Atá Laidir?” as the unconscious structural and rhythmic model. Both of those songs end with the death of the human character, and there are several other deaths along the way in each. This was clearly not an appropriate end for a baby, even one who drinks an entire sea, as the baby in my story does.

Instead, my baby not only survives and indulges himself in everything, but is praised for doing so by every member of his extended family, in flagrant defiance of Catholic and pagan superstition. This praise, “Good boy!” is offered despite obvious misgivings by the speaker – the mother muttering it as she mops the floor, the granny giggling it nervously as she stands on the shore of the dried-up river, the sister saying it in the empty pond “though she wasn’t sure”. The only break from the “good boy” reaction is when the grandfather, taken aback when the sea disappears, exclaims instead, “Good grief!” a “minced oath” which is a euphemism for the original “Good God!”  

If the inspiration for Thirsty Baby is the rhetorical, pessimistic question, “Who is strong?” in that sombre Irish verse, the defiant answer my story gives is, “the baby”. The baby is all-powerful, consuming everything in his path and able to break the laws of nature without a consequence, not quite the anti-Christ, perhaps, but not the meek and mild Christ-child either. In her long list of answers to the question of why she writes, Atwood includes: “To subvert the establishment” (2002: xii), and clearly here I have done exactly that, turning on its head the concept of divine retribution which was ingrained in my child self at school and at home. 

But if Thirsty Baby is subversive in content, it is conservative in form. The story has a strong “frame structure”, with the repetition of first and subsequent lines found in many folksongs. One such song is the German/Scandinavian ballad translated into English as “Spin, Spin, My Dear Daughter” [Roud 1570]. The version I learned from cousins in Drogheda differs slightly from other translations I have found:

Spin, spin, my dear daughter, I’ll buy you a gown,
Yes, Yes, my dear mother, the finest in town,
But I can’t keep spinning, my fingers are hurting,
It’s sore, it’s sore, I’ll spin no more.

Each verse is similar, with the mother offering shoes, a hat, etc, and the daughter agreeing to the purchase, but complaining that “It’s sore, it’s sore, I’ll spin no more”. In the final verse, the mother promises a beau, and the daughter’s line changes to, “It’s fine, it’s fine, I’ll spin all the time.” Thirsty Baby mimics the strong “frame repetition” of such songs, in contrast to The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat, where the frame is on the periphery of each verse: in each eight-line stanza of the book, there are five lines that are more or less “new”. In Thirsty Baby, however, the frame is far more rigid: of the six-line stanzas, the entire first line (“I’m thirsty,” said the baby, “and I need a drink”), the third (“He started with a sip and he finished with a sup”) and the sixth (“But the baby said, I’m thirsty, and I want more!”) are identical in most of the verses, and the remaining three lines each have one repeated phrase: “what do you think?” in the second line; “he drank it all up” in the fourth; and “Good boy” in the fifth. Gummere called this framing structure “the chief mark of ballad style… a sort of progressive iteration… each increment in a series of related facts has a stanza for itself, identical, save for the new fact, with the other stanzas” (1894: xxxii).

Each of the new facts in Thirsty Baby – the different repositories of water that the baby drinks – has a stanza to itself which strongly echoes the stanzas that went before. “Spin, Spin, My Dear Daughter” also offered me the model of a “list song” without an actual list – the hat, gown, shoes, etc, are offered in turn rather than added to a growing list. In Thirsty Baby, the list of the items that the baby drinks is eventually catalogued by the baby himself in the last verse – “I drank the bottle and the bath-tub too, and the pond, and the river, and the sea so blue” – but the child reader or listener is not required to memorize the list as they go along.

This use of repeating lines and phrases echoes many of the ballads and folktales of my childhood. Researchers have identified “heavy use of repetition” as a feature that attracts children, e.g.:

[Folktales] are popular with children because the repetitive elements attract their attention and impress upon them the structure and content of the story… The repetition of formulaic refrains increases not only recall, but the predictability of folktales (Christian 1993: 53).

Another textual feature I used in the story was alliteration, which was also an element in my first book. Everything the baby drinks – the pink plastic bottle, the blue bubbly bathtub, the pond in the park, the red rolling river, and the shining sea of silver – is described in an alliterative phrase. Alliteration is one of the stock-in-trades of ballads – Pound refers to “stock alliterative epithets… ‘merry men’, ‘wan water’… so helpful to the technique and to the memory of the Old English scop [ie poet or minstrel]” (1921: 109).

Some of the phrases I use in Thirsty Baby are based on alliteration in other ballads and folksongs. The “red, rolling river” comes from a combination of two American songs: “The Red River Valley” [Roud 756], with its poignant, “Just remember the red river valley, and the cowboy who loved you so true”, and “Oh Shenandoah” [Roud 324], with its chant, “Away, you rolling river”. Both songs are about leaving and loss. In Thirsty Baby, of course, there is neither loss nor leave-taking – the baby is firmly embedded in his extended family, with mother, father, sister, and grandparents all playing their loving part in his story. The “shining sea of silver” has echoes of the anthem “America the Beautiful” [Katharine Lee Bates 1859-1929] with its line, “from sea to shining sea”, as well as of a beloved lullaby of my childhood, “Connemara Cradle Song” [Roud V40948], whose chorus contained the lines: “silver the herring and silver the sea, soon there’ll be silver for my love and me.” But alliteration is not a strong feature of ballads alone. It is one of a list of “devices” identified by Stockwell as giving a text a sense of “literariness” and foregrounding important elements, the full list being: “repetition, unusual naming, innovative descriptions, creative syntactic ordering, puns, rhyme, alliteration, metrical emphasis, the use of creative metaphor, and so on” (2002: 14). Alliteration has also been identified as a feature that piques children’s interest in and engagement with texts, along with other features that are embedded in Thirsty Baby, such as repeated lines:

children respond to the repetition of sounds as in alliteration… They also respond to the repetition of lines and phrases, whole refrains, and to structural repetitions such as can be found in cyclical story structures and cumulative patterns in narratives (Christian 1993: 52).

The second line of most of the stanzas of Thirsty Baby ends with the question, “what do you think?” It’s a familiar expression in children’s songs, occurring in “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” [Roud 3727], where the child is asked in alternating verses, “And what do you think he did?” or “And what do you think he saw?” The questions are immediately answered – “He saw another mountain” and “He climbed that other mountain”. This “what do you think?” motif also occurs in a carol that was one of my childhood party-pieces, “I Saw Three Ships” [Roud 700], which has, “And what do you think was in them then/On New Year’s Day in the morning?” The listener is invited to speculate for a moment on the content of the ships, until we hear they contain three fair young maids, who can whistle, sing and play the violin.

In the same way, in Thirsty Baby, the child reader is asked in the text “what do you think” will transpire, and is soon told what does happen – with the slight delay effected by the repeated line, “He started with a sip and he finished with a sup” (“and the blue bubbly bathtub/the pond in the park/the red rolling river, he drank it all up.”) Even the relatively young children I have read the book aloud to have been eager to predict what will happen in the story. It’s logical enough for the baby to drink the bottle, but my young audiences are not necessarily prepared for him to drink the bathtub. As Nikolajeva points out, “Novice readers… need to understand the conventions used in literary works” (2014: 23), and once the baby has drunk the bathtub, children are ready to believe that he will empty the pond, and then the river. By then, they have grasped the inevitable sequence of events, an early acquisition according to Kummerling: “It is important to note that with the first picturebooks children are led to basic concepts of literature – for example, sequentiality” (Kümmerling-Meibauer & Meibauer 2013: 144).

When it comes to the baby in the story drinking the sea, however, my child audiences are less certain – “it’s too salty!” or “it’s too big!” they call when I read, and then ask, “what do you think?” The age-group I read this book to most often, five- to eight-year olds, are used to the sequence in a story breaking for the final link in the chain. They already know that something has to change to stop the story or set it repeating – the old woman dies when she swallows the horse, or the darling is “a-wearing of her linen-o” on a Sunday, so her laundry routine will start again on the Monday. So, when asked, “what do you think?” in the fifth stanza of Thirsty Baby, they are often divided over whether or not the baby will drink the sea. What Rose calls the “acquisition of fictional competence” (1984: 63) is of no real assistance to them here – this last act of the baby is less predictable than the others, and what would be of more help to the children is a knowledge of the uncommon “commonplaces” of ballads, “often presented through a kind of heightened realism, perhaps even a magical realism, so that their situations and personnel are rarely quite those of the ordinary folk” (Atkinson 2013: 123).



I have interrogated in this essay a rich variety of ballad, hymn and song influences on my two children’s books. Employing traditional forms, motifs and rhythms has sprung naturally from my early immersion in ballads, but subverting these forms and motifs, often by turning a dark song or character into a joyful experience for children, “turning darkness into light”[iv], has been an equally constant, although not always a conscious, feature of my work. I have also touched on the effect of reading these two texts aloud to child audiences, where their appreciation of features such as repeating lines and alliteration confirms the rhyming ballad-based story as one that continues to be a satisfying one for primary-school children.


[i] The Child index can be found online here:

[ii]The Roud system can be found online at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library here:

[iii] Versions of the “Drunken Nights” that include Saturday and Sunday night are obscene – the Irish group, The Dubliners, reached number seven in the British charts with one such recording in 1967, but the song was banned by the BBC.

[iv] From “Pangur Bán”, (anonymous, 9th Century) written in Irish and translated by Robin Flower (1881-1946).



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Dr Catherine Ann Cullen is the author of three poetry collections and two children's books. Her new and selected poems, The Other Now, was published by Dedalus Press in October 2016. She is writer-in-residence in St Joseph's School in East Wall, Dublin.