Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór

Turlough O’Carolan, c. 1690


Lyrics published in The Poems of Carolan

Published by The Irish Text Society in Donal O’Sullivan’s book, The Poems of Carolan (1916)

Imreas mór tháinig eidir na ríoghna,
Mar fhíoch a d’fhás ón dá chnoc sí,
Mar dúirt an tSídh Mór go mb’fhearr í féin,
Faoi dhó go mór ná ‘n tSídh Bheag.

“Ní raibh tú ariamh chomh uasal linn,
I gcéim dár ordaíoch i dtuath ná i gcill;
Beir uainn do chaint, níl suairceas ann,
Coinnigh do chos is do lámh uainn!”

An tráth chruinnigh na sluaite bhí an bualadh teann,
Ar feadh na machaireacha anonn ‘s anall;
‘S níl aon ariamh dár ghluais ón mbinn
Nár chaill a cheann san ár sin.

“Parlaidh! Parlaidh! agus fáiltím daoibh,
Sin agaibh an námhaid Charn Chlann Aoidh,
Ó bhinn Áth Chluain na sluaite díobh,
‘S a cháirde grá dhach, bí páirteach!”

English translation:

A great contention arose between the queens,
Swelling like a fury from the two fairy hills.
For the big fairy hill said that it was superior,
Twice over, twice over, to the little fairy hill.

“You were never as noble as us,
in degree conferred in tribe or church;
Take your talk away from us, it makes no sense,
Remove your foot and hand from us!”

When the hosts gathered there was a terrible battle
To and fro over the plains;
And there was none that descended from the peaks
Who did not lose his head in that slaughter.

“Truce! truce! dear friends!
Here come our enemies from Carn Clonhugh,
Down from Binn Eachluinn in great force,
And let us all stand together!”

Lyrics - Beltane Night

 Words by Harold Boulton

From the big high hill Finvarra came
The king of the small round hill to shame,
‘A hill twice as high as yours I claim,
‘Sky-high,’ says I, ‘Do you doubt it?’
The other replied – ‘Your pride’s immense,
But you do not excel in size or sense –
If you want to display your excellence,
Come put up a battle about it.’

The hosts arrayed were a wondrous sight,
All singing and dancing and full of fight;
Sing-song, ding-dong, ’twas Beltane night
When none can stop their vagaries.
As mortals awoke on that May-day morn
There’s many had heard Finvarra’s horn,
And the clash of arms by the light winds borne –
But sunrise had scattered the fairies.

Featured On:
Me Grief and Tears to Smother

• More Recordings •

About the Song:

“Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór” is an instrumental air, often played as a waltz, written by the blind harpist and poet Thurlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), whom is often regarded as one of Ireland’s most influential composers. It is most likely a reworking of the older ballad “An Chuaichín Mhaiseach,” or, “The Bonny Cuckoo.” However, contrary to popular belief, “Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór” didn’t start out as an instrumental.

Turlough left his home of Alderford at just 21 years old. The first house he stopped at was that of fellow harpist and poet, Squire George Reynolds of Lough Scur at Letterfain, County Leitrim. After playing some pieces, O’Carolan was asked if he had tried his hand at composition. He said he hadn’t, and the Squire encouraged him to do so, saying he “might make a better hand of his tongue than his fingers.”

Squire Reynolds was leaving for a few days, and proposed O’Carolan write a song immortalizing one of the many battles that took place between the kings of the fairies that lived on Sigh Beg and Sigh Mór. When the Squire returned, O’Carolan was playing his first song, with which Squire Reynolds was very pleased.

Atop of these hills sat fairy mounds, also called motes or raths. They are marked by the circular remains of pre-historic Irish buildings, now said to be inhabited by Daoine Maithe, or the “Good People.”

Legend has it, a great conflict took place between the Sighbrugha, or Fairy Palaces, in which the legendary Finn Mac Cubhail and Fianna Éirionn whom fought for Sigh Mór fell. It’s believed that the mote atop of Sigh Mór was built over the remains of one of Mac Cubhail’s fallen great heros, or even Mac Cubhail himself. Similarly, the mote on Sigh Beg was built enshrining one of their own fallen heroes.

O’Carolan’s song tells the story of one of these battles, in which tensions between the Queens of the Sighbrugha are escalating. Starting with verbal claims of superiority, it quickly evolved into bloody warfare, “the like of which had not been seen since Troy” (O’Sullivan, p. 124). A truce was called when the hostile fairy hosts of Benaughlin and Carn Clonhugh had to work together to overcome a common foe.

My main source for this is Donal Joseph O’Sullivan’s 1958 book Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper, Vol. 2, the authority on the life and works of Turlough O’Carolan.

I learned this tune from Bob Bernard & Kailin Yong’s 2012 album Harvest Queen. CDs available on the Earthwork Store!

Parent song: The Bonny Cuckoo

Other titles: Sidh Beag agus Sidh Mor, Sheebag Sheemore, Sheebeg and Sheemore, Shebeg Shemore, Shi Bheag She Mhor

Descendant songs: Beltane Night, The Fairy Hills (The Wolfe Tones)