Isle Of Innisfree
Analysed by Robert Walton
Most folk songs are the work of unknown composers or instrumentalists but because they are part of our ancient heritage many names which existed are now long forgotten. Perhaps its got something to do with having been passed on orally from generation to generation unaccompanied. They originally had a rural background before reaching towns and cities via a ‘musical’ landline.
Occasionally along comes a new song which has all the qualities of the real McCoy. Inspired by Yeats’ poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Richard Farrelly wrote the words and music of a beautifully spiritual song called The Isle of Innisfree which even though it was 1950, automatically entered the hallowed halls of the folk-song world. If ever a song deserved such an upgrade it was The Isle of Innisfree. The director of “The Quiet Man” John Ford liked it so much he included it in the opening of the film, but unbelievably neglected to mention Farrelly by name on the screen credits. At least Victor Young redressed the situation with a brilliant orchestration for the soundtrack as well as arranging Bing Crosby’s independent recording. That certainly helped with the advertising! I’m sure the ghost-like Londonderry Air hovered somewhere in the ether as Farrelly skillfully sculptured his little piece of pure magic. He got the idea for The Isle of Innisfree on a bus journey from his native Kells, County Meath to Dublin where he was a policeman.
Let’s take a closer look at the music and find out what makes this song so special. It’s important to note that never before have words and music gelled together quite so tightly. Farrelly had hit upon the perfect match. Essentially it’s a simple song in G, but the harmony has elements of ‘frozen’ dissonance at times like White Christmas. In the third bar on the first part of the word “dream(er”) there’s a momentary clash of F sharp against C but in reality the F sharp is only a passing melodic note leading on to the “er” of “dream”. The repetitive 4 quaver notation might weaken some songs, but in the case of The Isle of Innisfree was absolutely vital. Have you noticed the ditty has a very small range? It never leaves the treble clef. No big leaps to create a climax. It just doesn’t need it. One of the most natural songs ever composed, as if it wrote itself. It was ideal for Vera Lynn who recorded it, because her range was limited to an octave.
Irish songwriter, policeman and poet Richard Farrelly wrote over 200 songs and poems. No composer/lyricist (serious or light) ever came up with such a sublime song of hymnal simplicity and the irresistible call of home. Genius!