by Cynthia Smith

Sing a song of sixpence A pocket full of rye,

Four and twenty blackbirds Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened, The birds began to sing.

Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before a king?

 The King was in his counting house, Counting out his money,

The Queen was in the parlour, Eating bread and honey.

The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,

Along came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!

This well-known English nursery rhyme is thought to originate from the 18th century. Many different meanings have been attributed to its lyrics. An Italian cookbook from 1549 contains a recipe “to make pies so that birds may be alive in them and fly out when the pies are cut up”. Symbolically, the rhyme has been linked with folklore, the King representing the sun, the Queen the moon and the blackbirds the number of hours in a day. The birds were also thought to represent monks during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. The blackbird biting off the maid’s nose was seen by some as the Devil taking her soul.

However, I wondered what the maid could tell us…
“Lawks, I’m not ‘appy about this! I’m s’posed t’ be the maid, not the bloomin’ cook! But she got the sack after ‘er blackbird pie failed. Well, it’s not easy. ‘ave you ever tried t’ get twenty four live bloomin’ birds t’ stay in a pie dish long enough t’ slap the pastry over ’em? Thought not.
Well, Mrs B did ‘er best, but when the pie were cut open – in front of all Their Majesties’ importan’ guests – instead of the birds flyin’ out an’ singin’, they was all laid there, limp an’ dead. The King was furious an’ the Queen told Mrs B she had never bin so …what was it? Embarrassed. Mrs B said the pastry must’ve bin a bit too thin and she wouldn’t get it wrong again. No she wouldn’t, cos ‘er Maj gave ‘er ‘er marchin’ orders!
 Seems the Queen went t’ see the King t’ tell ‘im she ‘ad sacked the cook, but ‘e was in ‘is countin’ ‘ouse, counting out ‘is money, and couldn’t be arsed what t’ do. This made the Queen very cross, so she went to the pantry fer ‘er fav’rit food, like she does when she’s upset I know cos when I went into the parlour to clean, ‘er Maj was tuckin’ in to a whole loaf of bread an’ a pot of ‘oney. But it didn’ improve ‘er mood. Soon as she saw me she said I was t’ be the new cook – with another penny a week t’ do the cleaning as well! She said I would just ‘ave t’ get up earlier. Earlier! Lawks! I’d soon be gettin’ up afore I went t’ bed.
Well, things went alright fer a while. I’m not a bad cook as I’d often ‘elped Mrs B a bit, specially when she was making eyes at the butcher when ‘e delivered. Hmm – I don’t think it was just three pound o’ steak an’ a fat ‘en ‘e wanted t’ give ‘er.
Then one day, what I was dreadin’, ‘appened. The Queen told me there was some lords an’ ladies comin’ t’ dinner next day an’ she wanted me t’ make a blackbird pie! I was quakin’ in me boots at the thought of it, an’ the stable boy wasn’t ‘appy at bein’ asked t’ catch two dozen blackbirds again. ‘e tried t’ slip in a thrush an’ a couple of sparrers, but I wasn’t ‘avin’ it. This pie was goin’ t’ be the best the King an’ Queen ‘ad ever seen an’ their noble guests would be amazed!
When the footman took the pie into the dinin’ ‘all, I waited out’ve sight to’ear what ‘appened. Well, I never ‘eard such a beautiful sound as all them birds singin’ as they escaped from the dish an’ flew roun’ the room! I rushed back to the kitchen and when the footman returned I felt right pleased wi’ meself when ‘e told me ‘ow delighted Their Majesties were at their guests’ amusement. I were minded to ‘ave a little nip o’ cookin’ brandy and do a jig roun’ the kitchen, but there was no time fer that. I ‘ad to ‘ang out the washin’, so as to get it dry enough to iron afore I went t’ bed.
So there I was, peggin’ out the sheets on the line, when the scariest thing ‘appened! Somethin’ was rushin’ t’wards me an’ then there was a sharp pain in me nose. I felt blood pourin’ down me face!
I screamed an’ ran back to the kitchen. The under maid were there an’ ‘anded me a cloth fer the blood. She was white as me clean sheets an’ said me nose were ‘anging off! She’d seen it all when she was shakin’ out the dusters an’ said me attacker were …….. .a blackbird!



The Pestilential Little Mouse by Michael Healy

The Pestilential Little Mouse

A sweet little thing – perhaps not!

How dare you come into my house
You pestilential little mouse
You use our home as though it’s yours
Upset us all without good cause
Disturb us as we fall asleep
With sounds of tiny running feet
Gnaw the carpets and the doors
Deposit mess across the floors
Be off with you, you little pest
And take away your rancid nest
Go back into the fields you know
Feast on seeds in furrowed row,
For there the farmer, if he sees
You munching on his fresh green peas
Or hiding in his stooks of corn
Will surely, and here I must warn,
Set his cat to seek you out
And that, I am sure I have no doubt
Will bring about the sorry end
Of you my pestilential friend

Michael Healy



The truth behind ‘Knick-knack Paddywack’

The truth behind ‘Knick-Knack Paddy whack’? by Kevin Patrick Murphy

 The source of the Nursery Rhyme “This is old Man”, has been unearthed in the archives of RTE – the Irish Broadcasting Company. It refers to the variety of punishments meted out on the Irish poor during the Great Famine of 1846-53, when a million starved to death and another million were forced to emigrate, despite the fact that the country was a net exporter of food during the whole period.

During the Famine ninety six percent of Irish Land was ‘owned’ by people who didn’t live there – Grandees who had got the land through gift, often through fealty to royalty or chieftains, and felt no allegiance or sense of either ownership or belonging to that land. They lived elsewhere, often in big houses in England, so were ‘absentee landlords’. I live in the ‘Dukeries’, seat of Viscount Galway, whose other titles included Clanricarde, Imanney and Tyaquin in Ireland.

Being absent, they still wanted to profit from their estates of course, either not knowing, or ignoring that they were rotting and stinking through the failure of the staple of the poor in the Potato Blight.

Not that it was Viscount Galway, but this one old man played one merry hell and sent troops to evict people who would not – could not – pay the rent. The playing on the drum could be heard over the hills and sank fear into the very hearts.

Another old man played on two – shoes, leaving a million barefoot children to starve to death.

We know of punishment three which continued into our lifetimes – kneecapping – shooting people’s knees to cripple them and be a warning to others to pay up.

Sanction four followed the knock at the door and would be the tearing down of the main house beam and torching.

Punishment five would be setting the hives on the people – a reference to the stinging of whips as they were chased away from their family homes.

Retribution six played upon the few sticks of furniture some of the evicted would still have and the Gombeen men would buy for a bag of meal, or worse, kicking the dog when he’s down – not giving him meat – only a bone.

These punishments have gone into the lexicon of sufferings borne by the people – all the whacks on the ‘Paddies’, as they became known the world over when they were washed up on foreign shores.

The dead kept the faith and seven took them up to Heaven with number eight knocking on the Pearly Gate.

Finally there is this old man who played nine, he played knick-knack on the spine – a treble pun: knick knacks are small possessions, sold, stolen and burnt; paddywhack is the ligament from the neck and spine of sheep and cattle – a final piece of ‘meat’ the poor could chew on to stave off hunger; nick-nacks are also the vertebrae used in the famous game of Knucklebones, Fivestones, or Jacks played since even Sophocles attempted to date it. It is played the world over and often used angular bones such as vertebrae. Just as in that other Nursery Rhyme where “The Ring o’Roses” was a symptom of the great plague, he sad reference in this children’s nursery rhyme, is to the vertebrae of tens of thousands of unburied children which would continue to be found in fields and ditches around every town or village of Ireland for the next fifty years.

The rhyme for the final verse expresses the fear that the famine would return another year, so the old man, the devil, would play ten and come again.

Each verse concludes to remind all listeners of the greed behind it all – the exploitation of the starving by the rich old man and his venal Gombeen man – living the life taken from Riley, and in his drunkenness he came rolling home.


A truly fanciful notion of Kevin “Paddy” Murphy

THE GIFT by Cynthia Smith

THE GIFT by Cynthia Smith


Will it ever, ever stop? Has there ever been a time when I was not in agony? Someone is screaming. God, it’s me. “I can’t stand any more – get it out of me!” It should be that deceiving bastard suffering this torture, not me, I think bitterly.

“Come on now love – you know no-one can do this but you! I’ll get the midwife to check you again.”

Eons later the pain finally stops. “Look, love, you’ve got a beautiful boy – well done!” As if I could care what it looks like. I just want to sleep for ever. The nurses chide me to have a shower but I don’t care that I’m drenched in sweat … The noise and bustle of the maternity ward breaks through my temporary oblivion.

“Oh, you’re awake”, beams Nursey. “After a nice hot shower and a bit of brecky, I’ll bring baby to you. You must be dying to see him!”

How I wish I were at home, with no-one to tell me what to do, or presume what I want. I was stupid to get pregnant but I will get the child adopted as soon as possible and pick up the pieces of my life. I suppose I do feel better with clean skin and hair and fresh sheets. The hospital coffee is foul, but having not eaten for so long, even the cold toast is welcome.

Now here’s my nurse wreathed in smiles, coming towards me with a bundle in her arms. I’m surprised she’s not escorted by liveried trumpeters to herald this momentous event: the birth of another unwanted child who would soon be despatched to a family which wanted to look after it, and save its birth mother any further disruption of her life.

“Here he is love. What a handsome little boy. Have you decided what to call him yet?”

Handsome? When I had peered groggily at him yesterday his face had been red and puffy. He was an ugly little thing. “You’re no son of mine”, I had thought dismissively. But this baby is quite different. His smooth skin is perfect, he has a little quiff of dark hair … and his blue eyes are looking straight at me. He is beautiful! “Are you sure you’ve given me the right baby?” The nurse laughs and shows me the name tag on the child’s wrist. He is mine! My son …


When my best friend came to visit and I told her I was going to keep the baby, she was incredulous at my total change of heart.

“Are you really sure? How will you manage?”

“Millions do, many with fewer resources than I have.”

“Perhaps it’s your hormones – you may feel different in a few days. And even if you don’t, it’s bound to be a struggle. It will change your whole life!”

“Yes, I hope so”, I smiled.

I told her I realised it would not be easy – many of the most rewarding things in life are difficult at times. But he was my child. I could not give away my flesh and blood to a stranger and never have any contact or knowledge of what was happening in his life. His biological father was not interested in him and I did not want him to go through life thinking neither of his parents wanted him.

Gradually things began to fall into place. I found a flat which was just about big enough for me and a growing child. My parents lived the other end of the country and I did not visit them as often as I should. They had not known I was pregnant so it was a bit of a shock when I phoned to say they had a grandson. But thankfully they were supportive; in fact quite excited to see us both as soon as possible.

When I contacted my previous job to see if there was a vacancy, my old boss was pleased to hear from me and said they had been unable to fill my position satisfactorily. It was agreed that I would return to work in the New Year, with a salary review. Perhaps best of all, the company had a crèche and as a single mother I qualified for free childcare.

Money would be really tight until I returned to work, so Christmas would be very different this year. I usually spent it at home with Mum and Dad and my younger brother and sister; but the baby had a bit of a cold and I did not want to take him out in the freezing weather. But my lovely Dad said he and Mum would pick me up the day before New Year’s Eve and we would all have a special celebration then.

So for the first Christmas in my life there were no little family traditions; no dressing the tree, no special food and drink, no wrapping of presents. The flat seemed rather empty and bare. “But it’s not long till New Year”, I told myself, pushing away encroaching feelings of loneliness.

As I laid my tiny son in his cot that Christmas Eve, I was struck by the most profound revelation. Christmas presents are mere trinkets. Having one’s own child is the most perfect gift of all.