Come all you bold sportsmen and listen to my story
It’s about noble Stewball that gallant racing pony
Arthur Marble was the man that first brought Stewball here
For to run with Miss Griesel on the Plains of Kildare.
O the fame of his actions we’ve heard of before
But now he is challenged by young Mrs. Gore
For to run with Miss Griesel that handsome grey mare
For ten thousand gold guineas on the Plains of Kildare.
And the cattle they were brought out with saddle whip and bridle
And the gentlemen did shout at the sight of the gallant riders
And in viewing the cattle just as they came there
O they all laid their money on the Monaghan grey mare.
And the order it was given and away they did fly
Stewball like an arrow the grey mare passed by
And if you had’ve been there for to see them going round
You’d’ve thought to your heart their feet ne’er touched the ground.
And when at last they came to half way round the course
Stewball and his rider began to discourse
Says Stewball to the rider “Can you tell to me
How far is that grey mare this moment from me.”
Says the rider to Stewball “You run in great style
You’re ahead of the grey mare almost half a mile
And if you keep your running I vow and I swear
That you never will be beaten by the Monaghan grey mare.”
The last winning post, Stewball passed it quite handy
Horse and rider both called for sherry wine and brandy
And they drank up a health to the noble grey mare
For she emptied their pockets on the Plains of Kildare.
Traditional (Arranged by Andy Irvine)
“Stewball and the Monaghan Grey Mare” was first recorded by Irvine on the 1976 album: Andy Irvine/Paul Brady, under the title of “The Plains of Kildare”. At the time, Irvine wrote this version to new music, based on earlier versions from Eddie Butcher and A.L. Lloyd, while also using additional sources supplied by Frank Harte.
The following background notes were written by Frank Harte for the liner notes of “Andy Irvine and Paul Brady” in 1975.
“The first time I heard this song sung was in America where Cisco Houston sang about “Stewball”
“I rode him in England, I rode him in Spain
I never did lose boys, I always did gain.”
There is also another version which found its way into the American negro tradition and was widely sung in the southern work camps.
The next time I heard the song, it was sung to me by Bert Lloyd, who called the horse “Skewbald.” In is version, Skewbald was owned by Arthur Marvel and ran against a grey mare called Miss Griselda. “on the Sporting plains of Kildare.” In 1964 Eddie Butcher of Magilligan, Co. Derry sang for me another version of Stewball, who this time was challenged by “young Mrs. Gore” to run against Miss Griesel. I in turn passed the song on to Andy and the version which you hear now is the outcome.
The facts are that sometime around 1790 a race took place on the Curragh of Kildare between a skewbald horse owned by Sir Arthur Marvel and “Miss Portly,” a grey mare owned by Sir Ralph Gore. The race seemed to take the balladmakers’ fancy and must have been widely sung — an early printed version appeared in an American song book dated 1829.
The song as sung here is a combination of Bert Lloyd’s version and Eddie Butcher’s version, but I think, for the future, it can only properly be called Andy Irvine’s version.”
-Frank Harte, 1975
The song is in the Roud Folk Song Index, #456.
Also known as “Stewball and the Monaghan Grey Mare”.
The horse was foaled in 1741 and originally owned by Francis, 2nd Earl of Godolphin, and later sold. His name has been recorded as “Squball”, “Sku-ball”, or “Stewball”. He won many races in England and was sent to Ireland. The Irish turf calendar states that he won six races worth £508 in 1752, when he was eleven years old, and was the top-earning runner of that year in Ireland. His most famous race took place on the plains of Kildare, Ireland, which is generally the subject of the song of the same name. The early ballad about the event has Skewball belonging to an Arthur Marvell or Mervin. Based on the horse’s name, Skewball was likely a skewbald horse.
There are two major different versions of the sporting ballad, generally titled either “Skewball” or “Stewball”; the latter is more popular in America. There are multiple variations within the two major divisions. Versions date at least as far back as the 18th century, appearing on numerous broadsides. In both songs the title horse is the underdog in the race, up against a favored grey mare (usually called either “Griselda” or “Molly”), and although in most versions of Stewball the winning horse triumphs due to the stumbling of the lead horse, Skewball wins simply by being the faster horse in the end. Probably the most significant lyrical difference in the songs is the conversation Skewball has with his jockey, while Stewball behaves more like a typical horse and does not speak.
The oldest broadside identified with the ballad is dated 1784 and is held by the Harding Collection of the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford. The song had spread to America by 1829 when it was published in a songbook in Hartford. American versions were sung and adapted by slaves in the Southern United States, and have Stewball racing in California, Texas, and Kentucky. British and Irish versions, when the setting is mentioned, usually place the race in Kildare, Ireland, leading some to believe that the song is actually Irish in origin. The grey mare was owned by Sir Ralph Gore, whose family had gained a great deal of land in Ireland with the Protestant Cromwellian invasion (starting in 1650), which probably accounts for the delight in Skewball’s win “breaking Sir Gore” in the final lines of this Irish-based broadside.