“The Brown and Yellow Ale”

Alternate titles: “The Brown and Yellow Earl”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1983 (Harte), and said to have been sung by James Joyce; the Irish is older
Keywords: seduction drink nobility death adultery


The singer and his wife are walking when they meet the Brown and Yellow (Ale/Earl). He asks to take the wife aside. When she returns, he is so ashamed that he dies and is buried


Reportedly a translation of the Irish "Chuaca Lan De Bui." Several translations are said to exist, including one by James Joyce.

What's interesting is the two titles: "The Brown and Yellow Ale," apparently Dominic Behan's title and followed by Harte, and "The Brown and Yellow Earl," which I heard from Debby McClatchy. Obviously one could be an error of hearing for the other -- indeed, *must* be an error of hearing, since the mistake could not occur in print. And yet, how could such an error slip through? There seem to be no genuinely traditional collections to explain it.

And which is original? Presumably the Irish Gaelic would make it clear, but I failed to turn up a reliable text, and Cliff Abrams did an earlier search which didn't net much either, at least in the way of genuine folk sources.

"Ale" seems much the more strongly attested -- but it hardly makes sense. Harte offers Sean O'Boyle's explanation, which is that drink has rendered the husband impotent so that his wife prefers a younger man. This is possible, but a stretch. Whereas if the Brown and Yellow item is an Earl, then he is exercising droit de siegneur, and the husband is a cuckold and commits suicide as a result. This makes perfect sense.

The flip side is, it makes such perfect sense that it's hard to imagine the change going the other way. So I think the weight of evidence favours "Brown and Yellow Ale." I wouldn't bet much on it, though. - RBW


  2. ADDITIONAL: Frank Harte _Songs of Dublin_, second edition, Ossian, 1993, pp. 80-81, "The Brown and Yellow Ale" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. BI, Hart080