She Moves Through The Fair: Meaning and Interpretation (Part 1)

Most of the interest in the song’s meaning has concentrated on the modern version, based on Padraic Colum’s poem, so I’ll start there.

The original poem starts with the narrator looking forward to the wedding day and enjoying the sight of his “young love” at the fair. The lady in question assures the narrator that neither her brothers nor her parents will have any objection to the match, and reminds him that the day itself isn’t far away. He watches her moving away through the fair – the market – and this seems to please him.

But verse three jars; what of “the sorrow that never was said”? Is it a secret? Whose secret? Is it dissatisfaction? Is it something else? It has been suggested that the “sorrow” is an illness: tuberculosis, which was common at the time. And why was that the last that he saw of her? Does she die? Does she run off with another? Do her family change their minds? Does she just disappear, mysteriously?

I think that the mystery is key to the popularity of this song – along with the hauntingly beautiful melody, of course.

Later versions make a significant alteration to the interpretation by changing just one word. In verse 4, Colum’s “young love” (who appears in a dream) becomes a ghostly “dead love” who visits the narrator. Here we have the answer to the question raised at the end of verse 3 ( it is a shame that so many singers omit this verse). It is now evident that she dies. Now her assurance that the two of them will soon be wed is ominous: will the narrator die, too?

Ghost story or otherwise, there are still a few archaic expressions that may need explaining.

lack of kind – I think that the most likely meaning for this is “lack of kin”, ie the narrator has no family to support him (perhaps he is an orphan, a foundling or his family are so unspeakable that he has forsworn them).

An alternative possibility is the lack of “goods and commodities as distinguished from money” (definition from Merriam-Webster), as used in the phrase “payment in kind”. While many are convinced by this explanation, I am not; why the distinction between belongings and cash? You could, of course, argue poetic licence, which could be enough.

It has also been suggested that this could be “lack of kine”, where kine is cattle, and so the narrator is either poor or not a farmer; however, Colum wrote “kind”.

In the alternate lyric version of the song, the narrator is in want of years, ie he is deemed too young.

the fair – the market. It has been suggested that it is a meadow with flowers, but the alternate version talks specifically about “hand clappen dealers”, which implies buying and selling. The pertinent Oxford definition is a periodic gathering for the sale of goods.

one star awake – early evening. Just one star is showing in the sky (probably the evening star, which is actually the planet Venus).

the swan in the evening – quite literally, a swan in the evening. There is no point looking for deeper meaning here; the swan is employed as a poetical device to describe her graceful movements.

no two were e’er wed – no two people were ever married.

a sorrow that never was said – this is ambiguous. I read it as an unfortunate open secret (perhaps she has had a child out of wedlock; perhaps it is his dreadful family that I alluded to above). Others have read it as referring to a disease – TB (tuberculosis ) was mentioned by one poster (Chris) in this Mudcat thread. It may also refer to the fact that there is always sorrow in this life.

her goods and her gear – a long and poetical way of saying “the things she is carrying”. Things she has bought or is selling; equipment or tools.

no din – no noise, quietly.

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21 thoughts on “She Moves Through The Fair: Meaning and Interpretation (Part 1)

  1. Martin Bedford says:

    Just a thought about the phrase, “lack of kine” it might indeed be” lack of Kind” and the explanations you gave most reasonable; however, my family are Irish, of Cork and Kilkenny roots, and always said kines for coins; so perhaps lack of cash. As I said it’s justa thought

  2. Julian says:

    I always assumed (perhaps wrongly) that ‘lack of kind’ meant from a lower social class

    • Zalamanda says:

      So did I, but there didn’t seem to be any support for the assumption. However, it makes sense, and that’s enough to make it a valid interpretation in my book!

  3. bansidh says:

    I believe kine is cattle

  4. John Coggeshall says:

    I have loved this song since about 1952 (born 1944). My interpretation, developed in the 1950’s, as I came of age: She says “My parents won’t mind (if we sleep together); your lack of kind (manners, or family status); and ‘she moves through the fair’, and later that day, they sleep together…she gets pregnant, and dies either from pregnancy or suicide; her ghost comes to him later, and says “it will not be long now…” he will join her, either through suicide or illness.

    I think that makes a consistant and coherent story—sad and beautiful.

  5. karl says:

    I see the swans in the evening as a symbol of death. Recall the “swan song” plus the darkness of night.

  6. James says:

    I feel pretty certain that ‘lack of kind’ means that he lacks social graces perhaps. Perhaps lacks a personality or manner that is common to the social class he is interested in marrying into.

  7. raventracks says:

    Caiseal Mor, an Irish fantasy author and musician who lives in Australia, interprets it as the woman being stolen by the fairies. I don’t see any evidence, but who knows? 🙂

  8. samira ka says:

    I’m African American and have loved this song since the 70’s when for some reason I inherited the Watermark Album I’m still intrigued by the music and lyrics of all these songs they still bring tears to my eye and deep questions to my mind Back then I didn’t understand why this music stirred such deep emotions today at 61 years with lots of life experience I’m more forbearing and full of reverence it helps when understanding these beautiful and haunting lyrics thanks to a those enlightened commenters!

  9. Willy Sinclair says:

    Kine is an archaic term for cow(s). In other words, he’s got no assets but she’s convinced Daddy won’t mind..
    She comes to the man later as a ghostly figure so I reckon she’s dead and, as she tells him they’ll be married soon, he’s not long for this life either. I believe therefore that she has been taken by some fatal and contagious illness

  10. Love this song since schooldays now 60 always brought a tear to my eye sang it at weddings and st paddys day my Irish roots I guess

  11. Penny Boyle says:

    I love this song and have wondered if she was, in fact, a gypsy of some type? That she was coming through town, he fell in love with her, but then she had to leave………….. Just a thought. 😉

  12. John Boyle says:

    Beautiful, haunting song, one of my favourites. For me ‘lack of kine’ means lack of cattle, which in rural Ireland then could have been a problem for a prospective husband. Over time, I have grown to prefer the short version: I agree that ‘verse 3 jars’. The mystery is all – no need to spell everything out (though I do like ‘my dead love came in’ – it makes the short version clearer). For me, the girl dies, this is her young lover’s last sight of her, and surely that’s tragedy enough for anyone?

  13. weenze says:

    my fiance is irish, and i am indian. I am looking for an Irish song for our wedding and came upon this. it’s a sad song and i’m truly wondering how it’s played at weddings.. if Google is to be believed. sound really beautiful though.

  14. Is the “Last night she came to me” line about him seeing her as a ghost after she’s dead?

  15. Eileen Meara says:

    ive always loved this song with its haunting melody. It reminds me of The Pot of Basil by Keats and I have always assumed that the young woman was murdered by her family for associating with an impoverished young man. The mutterings of the people at the fair add weight to this. The secret is hers because she knows what will happen to her when they find out . The young man either dies of a broken heart or is also murdered by the family.

  16. Laura Moss says:

    the word kine/kind; whether is means family/status/coin/cows, it does not really matter. all are obsticles to being an acceptable suitor to a young lady who’s family cares about a beloved daughter’s marriage and choice of husband. the narrator seems grateful for the gift of her affection and its clear the loss of her has literally and figuratively haunted him. this is a snap-shot of the moment his life altered forever. a grief so powerful, he can not seem to move on from it. the reason for the loss of her is not known and open to speculation on our part. knowing does nothing to diminish the grief expressed in the lyrics and melody. as for the phrase “a sorrow was never said” could be the taboo associated with expressing emotion/grief, something i found to me be true in my older Irish relatives. they seemed to keep a tight rein on emotion. Or perhaps its the feeling of ‘unworthiness’ or gulit in being her suitor, that possibly was the cause of her death/disapearance. we cant know. The story could be written a hundred different ways. all versions would lead to the audience experiencing the emotion the same way that is convyed in this materpiece of a song.

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