“Bonny Portmore”: a song about a tree and so much more

My previous post about a photographer who’s taking pictures of the same tree every day for a year got me to thinking about the song “Bonny Portmore,” a traditional Irish ballad (which some of you will remember from the Highlander movies). There are several modern recordings of the song. My favorite is by Loreena McKennitt, from her 1991 album, The Visit. It’s a haunting rendition, and she really captures the song’s emotion. Here’s a live version:

Different renditions of the song have slightly different lyrics. McKennitt sang these:

O, bonny Portmore, I am sorry to see
Such a woeful destruction of your ornament tree
For it stood on your shore, for many’s the long day
Till the long boats from Antrim came to float it away

O, bonny Portmore, you shine where you stand
And the more I think on you, the more I think long
If I had you now as I had once before
All the lords in Old England would not purchase Portmore

All the birds in the forest they bitterly weep
Saying, “Where shall we shelter? Where shall we sleep?”
For the Oak and the Ash, they are all cutten down
And the walls of bonny Portmore are all down to the ground

McKennitt added this to the liner notes of her album:

The destruction of old growth forests has become an important conservation issue in recent years, but it is not a new phenomenon. Over the centuries many of Ireland’s old oak forests were leveled for military and shipbuilding purposes. Only recently has there been an effort to reestablish these great hardwoods. The Great Oak of Portmore stood on the property of Portmore Castle on the shore of Lough Beg. – L.M.

From what I’ve been able to find, it appears the great oak or “ornament tree” actually fell in storm in 1760 before being floated away for lumber, but nevertheless was emblematic of the deforestation taking place at that time. According to the 1840 edition of Bunting’s Ancient Music of Ireland, the author collected the song from a harper named Daniel Black, at Glenoak in 1796.

The music is soothing, almost a lullaby, but the lyrics tell a story that provokes outrage and longing for the (impossible) return of what was lost. There’s a bitterness in the line, “All the lords in Old England would not purchase Portmore,” and here the loss of the tree represents far more than deforestation.

It’s this combination of elements that makes the song work so well: the soothing beauty of the melody, the sorrow and longing in the lyrics, plus more than a hint of underlying anger, plus that special something that many of us feel about trees, especially the old and majestic ones.

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2 thoughts on ““Bonny Portmore”: a song about a tree and so much more

  1. Fomoose

    This song actually came to my mind when I read your last post. I love Loreena McKennitt’s music, but it’s been a while since I’ve listed to The Visit. One of the last times was several years ago when I played Bonny Portmore while watching workers cut down a beautiful old tree outside my office window. It had become too big to support itself and had to come down for safety reasons. It was very sad to see it go, though. It left behind a huge empty space.

    As an aside, Loreena McKennitt led me to my very favorite poem which was written by W.B. Yeats. It also has a sylvan theme:

    http://www.poetry-archive.com/y/the_two_trees.html

    McKennitt put this poem to music on her album The Mask and the Mirror.

    Reply
    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      Yes, “The Two Trees” is a great poem — thanks for reminding me of that — and I love Loreena’s rendition of it. I haven’t listened to it for quite a while, though–I’ll have to get out The Mask and the Mirror. It’s funny how you can forget about a song or an artist until something unexpected reminds you.

      Reply

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