“The Red-Haired Man's Wife”


The singer asks his sweetheart, by letter and in person, to leave her husband. She had sworn fidelity but married the red-haired man instead. She will not "break the command" He offers a way out: "For the Patriarch David had a number of wives"


According to Milner and Kaplan, _A Bonny Bunch of Roses_, this is based on a Gaelic song, Bean An Fhir Ruaidh.

The argument that the Patriarch David was repeatedly married has its problems. There is the nitpicky one that, based on the standard definition, he was not a Patriarch; they preceded the Judges, and David was after.

More to the point, while David had many wives, and they produced many sons, the sons fought over the inheritance; eventually the oldest three died at the hands of their relatives. Solomon, the survivor, also took many wives, but they "turned away his heart after other gods" (2 Kings 11:3).

Various others in the Bible had multiple wives, but the only significant patriarch to have multiple wives *simultaneously* was Jacob, who had two wives (Rachel and Leah) and two concubines, who collectively gave birth to the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

I know of no instance whatsoever of a wife with multiple husbands. - RBW

The song translated from Gaelic in Bell/O Conchubhair is quite different from the "Englished" version. Further, there is a story to be told that sets the stage: "Our song is no simple tale of lust. Fair lad and red-head were apprentices to the rich tailor. His only daughter and the fair lad were in love, betrothed to be married.... The foxy boy stole some silver knives of the tailor's and hid them in his rival's baggage [cf. Genesis 44]. Discovered. Three years in gaol. Came out to find his love married to the rogue." Now the song starts in either version; in the Gaelic he has no answer from her but the outcome is likely the same.

Hoagland's version follows the story told in Bell/O Conchubhair commentary. - BS


  • Bodleian, Harding B 11(2188), "The Red Haired Man's Wife," J. Pitts (London), 1819-1844; also Firth b.25(347), Harding B 26(564), Firth c.18(83), "The Red Haired Man's Wife"; 2806 c.16(206), 2806 b.9(113), Harding B 25(1603)[some words illegible], "The Red Hair'd Man's Wife"


  1. OLochlainn 97, "The Red-Haired Man's Wife" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. ADDITIONAL: Bell/O Conchubhair, Traditional Songs of the North of Ireland, pp. 60-62, "Bean an Fhir Rua" ("The Red-Haired Man's Wife") [Gaelic and English] (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Kathleen Hoagland, editor, One Thousand Years of Irish Poetry (New York, 1947), pp. 232-233, "The Red Man's Wife" (1 text, translated by Douglas Hyde)
  5. Donagh MacDonagh and Lennox Robinson, _The Oxford Book of Irish Verse_ (Oxford, 1958, 1979), pp. 128-129, "The Red Man's Wife" (1 text, translated by Douglas Hyde)
  6. Roud #3046
  7. BI, OLoc097


Author: unknown
Earliest date: before 1845 (broadside, Bodleian Harding B 11(2188))
Found in: Ireland