The Story

Welcome to Dusty Bluebells, a digital exhibition based on recordings and manuscripts of children’s songs, rhymes and riddles made by song collector Hugh Shields (1929–2008).

Collected from the oral tradition across 10 counties in Ireland, the exhibition features 186 individual songs, rhymes and riddles. There are 170 sound recordings featuring 66 performers aged between four and eighty-seven years. Two instrumental pieces (fiddle and lilting) sit amidst a predominantly English-language based collection. Seven Irish language songs and rhymes were collected: 6 in Donegal and one in Belfast. 

Hugh planned to publish the songs and music that feature in Dusty Bluebells during his lifetime. The form that this publication would take was envisaged and re-imagined on several occasions by Hugh and his wife Lisa. New recordings were added along the way, publishers ceased trading, and, in the end, the project was put aside.

The Shields Family generously donated the reel-to-reel recordings as well as the project manuscripts, research material and publication plans envisaged by Hugh and Lisa Shields to ITMA. 

Lisa and Hugh Shields, 1995

In 2017 ITMA proposed a new digital platform for the material to Lisa Shields, an opportunity to bring the collection and the hidden publication plans to light. 

Since then we have collaborated closely with Lisa to ensure the key resources, descriptions and chronology of the planned publishing projects are in place. She herself has created and made available an invaluable new resource, a new 2019 print PDF edition of the Dusty Bluebells Collection, amalgamating the 1970, 1971 and 1975 editions and including Lisa’s own 1970s pen-and-ink drawings. 

In the headings below we delve in to the history of how the Dusty Bluebells Collection developed, and the various publication projects Hugh and Lisa Shields envisaged and re-imagined to publish and share the material.


Norah, Jean (now Carson), John and Hugh Shields, Cave Hill, Belfast, ca. 1948

Hugh Shields’s mother Norah and father John both sang and knew children’s street-rhymes and songs, and he was to develop a lifelong interest in these, as well as ‘adult’ folk songs.

Hugh’s first job after graduating was as a teacher of French and German in Coleraine, Co Derry in the academic year 1953—54. It was during that time he met the Magilligan singer Eddie Butcher and began to be immersed in the rich local song tradition. This relationship was to yield one of the most highly regarded collections of recorded and published Ulster songs in existence. The Magilligan collection Shamrock, Rose and Thistle is freely available online at ITMA, and via the ITMA shop we present the published book and CD recordings All the Days of His Life: Eddie Butcher in his Own Words.

Interestingly, the first song Hugh wrote down in manuscript at the time was the fragment Johnny Jow— one of our Dusty Bluebells items. It was sung to him by a Belfast woman staying in the same lodgings in Castlerock, Co Derry in 1953. He continued noting down song texts and tunes in manuscript until 1961, when he bought a heavy Philips 4-track mains tape recorder. In Hugh's article “Collecting songs ‘by hand’ 1954—1966.” he describes in detail the processes involved. (Irish Folk Music Studies, vols. 5—6, 1986-2001 pp. 61—76.)

Hugh Shields's Philips 4-track reel-to-reel audio tape recorder

From mid 1966 until 1983 he used the more portable Uher model, on loan from the Ulster Folk Museum. Subsequently he used a Sony Professional cassette recorder.

Lisa Shields's UHER Report 4000 L reel-to-reel audio tape recorder

Although most of his recordings were of adult songs Hugh was always on the look-out for children’s songs and rhymes, and for songs which he thought might appeal to children. During a productive but very hectic recording visit to Co Derry Hugh wrote:

“I rounded up 7—8 lovely looking children who were playing in the quite vast yards of the farm. We recorded some desultory skipping, the recording marred by a strong wind. Then we went into a large reverberant shed and recorded a ‘play’ which was really amusing: largely invented, but having traditional structure ‘Bang bang the dishes’. It was unfortunate that the two stars took a fit of giggles in the middle of it, for I had hopes of getting a really good recording. Anyway the children were very willing and did good things”.
  — Hugh Shields, writing to his wife Lisa, 16—20 July, 1969

Of the some 230 reel-to-reel tape recordings made by Hugh, about one fifth contain material in the Dusty Bluebells Collection. In the course of his collecting expeditions in France he also recorded and documented many rhymes (comptines) from French children.

Dusty Bluebells reel-to-reel

During the 1960s and 1970s, aided by his wife Lisa, Hugh noted in handwriting, in a handwritten diary of children’s songs and rhymes, children’s rhymes and songs he had collected in Ireland. He indexed and documented them, and provided rough musical notations for many of the tunes. 

Extract from: Manuscript 1. Handwritten children’s songs, rhymes and music notation / by Hugh Shields and Lisa Shields, 1960s—1970s

Manuscript 1 Handwritten children’s songs, rhymes and music notation / by Hugh Shields and Lisa Shields, 1960s—1970s was the genesis of the later proposed publishing compilations which are documented in the Manuscripts Section of the Dusty Bluebells Digital Exhibition.


Hugh Shields collected and documented songs and music from oral tradition during the 1950s without the aid of sound recording equipment. It was not until 1961 that he acquired a Philips 4-track mains tape recorder.

Hugh’s methodology in documenting the material he collected, pre- and post- sound recording technology, is richly captured in the handwritten diary of children’s songs and rhymes featured below. Successive layers of handwritten words, music notation, information on source singers, references to Hugh’s field recordings and song notes bear witness to the evolving children’s song publication.

Extract from: Manuscript 1.  Handwritten children’s songs, rhymes and music notation / by Hugh Shields ; Lisa Shields

View Manuscript 1.  Handwritten children’s songs, rhymes and music notation / by Hugh Shields ; Lisa Shields.

A searchable index of this manuscript is available.

Dusty Bluebells [Ulster], 1970

By 1970 the concept of a children’s song publication had become a defined project with a focus on material collected in Ulster. Featuring transcripts of 85 songs and rhymes, the 60-page Dusty Bluebells: songs and rhymes for children taken from the oral tradition / by Hugh Shields was to be published to accompany a gramophone record of key sound recordings. 

Title-page: Dusty Bluebells [Ulster],1970

View the complete Dusty Bluebells [Ulster], 1970 Typescript.

Dusty Bluebells [Ireland], 1971

The Ulster-focused 1970 Dusty Bluebells Typescript was expanded and revised in 1971, to incorporate a wider all Ireland selection. Hugh Shields added 26 transcriptions in his own hand and the publication grew to 80 pages with a total of 130 items. 

Title-page and Contents  page: Dusty Bluebells [Ireland], 1971

View extracts from Dusty Bluebells [Ireland], 1971.

Linnets Like to Sing, 1975

Sometime after 1975, Hugh Shields renamed the project to “Linnets Like to Sing.” The new manuscript included songs collected up until 1975 and incorporated adult songs that the collector thought might prove appealing to children. The adult singers included Hugh’s own family, Eddie Butcher, Joe McCafferty, Paddy Tunney and Eileen Keaney.

Title-page: Linnets Like to Sing, 1975

View extracts from Linnets Like to Sing, 1975 Typescript.

Dusty Bluebells, 2019

For this Digital Exhibition Lisa Shields has created a new 2019 PDF edition of the Childrens Song and Rhymes Collection. It is an amalgamation based on Dusty Bluebells, 1970; Dusty Bluebells, 1971; material from Linnets Like to sing, 1975 and the Old Grinding Young LP Project

Title-page: Dusty Bluebells, 2019

View PDF of Dusty Bluebells 2019.

Original Introductions

Hugh’s introductions provide a valuable insight into his motivation to publish the Dusty Bluebells Collection and are a key to understanding his target audience. 

While of course his scholarship and attention to detail are reflected throughout, the warm tone of his words and Lisa’s playful illustrations show the intended audiences were children and parents.

Original Introduction to Dusty Bluebells, 1971


“This little book is meant for children and parents. Its contents should be not just read, but sung, chanted or spoken as loudly as the neighbours will allow.

(Children need not read this) 

Nowadays it is common knowledge that children have for generations preserved a legacy of music and poetry that owes nothing to teacher or parent. This oral legacy derives much from a former oral tradition of adult society, part myth, part ritual, part history, a tradition which had dwindled and largely disappeared from the adult world itself. But the children’s tradition has also its own characteristics and a creative force proper to the child’s own environment. As I write this, young voices are floating up from the street:

Traffic lights, traffic lights, run for the colour: Navy blue…  White…  Russet brown…

And the ones wearing the colour run. In these chants and rhymes and songs the present-day and the primeval worlds jostle one another.

This collection is a musical and textual one. It does not dwell on the functional aspect of children’s verses. Many of them, of course, are normally the servants of game, gesture and everyday encounter in the child’s life. But change of function is not uncommon and verses are moreover often detached from their functional environment and used independently. The social functions of children’s lore have often been described and some of the books and collections on this subject are referred to in the notes (pages 99—106). The main purpose of these notes is, however, to describe exactly the sources from which they were obtained. They include references to the tape recordings from which I have transcribed many of the items.

Adults may contemplate these juvenilia with pleasure and affection; in lullabies and suchlike they may participate more actively; but as well as ‘functional’ songs I have included a number of ‘straight’ ones. These are a good meeting-ground for child and adult. Some are of juvenile inspiration; others are meant by adults for children; others still are ‘adult’ songs which have a particular appeal for children because of their direct narrative or concrete imagery. In the same way, the acting of mumming  plays is an occupation which was traditionally reserved for ‘stout, strong men’: but our Fermanagh mumming play and its songs are particularly accessible to the young. 

My own four children have been the main critics concerning my choice of ‘adult’ songs. Certainly I would not have dared to include so long a ballad as John Barbour (no 123) without the delighted and persistent approbation of a four-year-old. 

Some of these rhymes and songs are local versions of old favourites, while others are little known, perhaps never published. I hope that readers, or better, singers, will agree that they do not deserve to be forgotten. For my part, I wish to express my warmest thanks to the people who gave them to me. Their names appear on pages 97—98.

Hugh Shields, Dublin, 1971

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Once upon a time there was a man who knew lots of songs. People used to learn songs from him. But they could never sing them without changing the words and music. Sometimes they changed them so much that the man was hardly able to tell what songs they were when he heard them again.

‘My good song murdered!’ he would say. ‘It’s just like the man and his mare!

There was a man one time and he had an old mare he wanted rid of. She was no good to him, and he thought he would take her to the fair. And he took her to the fair. And when he went there, he had a notion of selling her and buying another one: a better one than her, for he thought that she was done. But when he went to the fair the dealers gathered round him. And they bought this mare off him anyway. They took this mare away and cleaned her up and gingered her, and brought her back into the fair again a while after. And he was looking for a good one. And he saw she was a good one. And bought her. And he took her home.

And whenever he went into the yard, the wife says to him, says she “Heavens! Have you your own mare back with you again?”

“Not at all” says he, “that’s the one I bought” says he. “Man, that’s a good one!”

“Take the bridle off her” says his wife, she says, “till we see where she goes.”

The man took off the bridle. And the mare goes back into the stable and straight into her own stall.

The man knew his own mare then all right.’

Very likely you know rhymes and songs like the ones in this book. And very likely the words and tunes you know are not just the same. Well, if some of the things in the book sound a bit like your own things ‘cleaned up and gingered’ don’t bother with them. Try the others. Try out the riddles on your aunts and uncles.

Most grown-ups learned songs and rhymes when they were children playing: but they are not very good at remembering them. They may even have forgotten all about them. You could probably sing and recite some of your own ones to your mother and father. This would help them to remember the ones they used to have, and encourage them to sing you some of the other songs in this book. Grown-ups like to be reminded of these things, and it is fun for children too.

Hugh Shields, Dublin, 1971”   

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Original Introduction to Old Grinding Young, 1975


“ ‘The Old Grinding Young’ was the name of a Dublin pub until about 1960. The cover illustration is from a large broadside engraving by the Belfast printer Alexander Mayne, dating from about 1820 and preserved in the library of Queen’s University, Belfast. For  a note on the motif of a rejuvenating mill see Alan Gailey in Ulster folklife, XVII (1971) 95–7.]

Generations of song play and word play in Ireland 

This record is meant, not for children or adults, but for both. Adults, no doubt, can get pleasure merely from recalling the traditional poetry of their childhood and the activities it accompanied. But if they are to share their enjoyment of such things with any children who happen to be around, some sort of cultural exchange between old and young is needed. So this is not simply a record of characteristic children’s verbal and musical lore. It also brings in several of the sort of adult folk songs which seem most likely to appeal to children, as well as interludes of adult music on fiddle, accordion, flute, fife and drum, not to mention the vocables of mouth music.

A father and son fiddling [Maggie Pickie], a father and daughter singing [Down by yon riverside] grandpa and the youngest child bouncing and chanting [Bangor boat], a father-in-law tongue-twisting a daughter-in-law’s small sister who in turn riddles the collector [If a fella met a fella]: these are collaborating generations making explicit what in folk music has caused it to be called ‘traditional’.

But to be pedantic on this subject is no better than to grow maudlin, à la Sean O’Casey (a list of books etc. referred to by author’s name only is at the end of these notes); or, like some recent collections of children’s lore, to go ferreting for ‘naughty’ pieces. The songs and verses speak largely for themselves. They include no reconstructions or ‘improved’ versions, but were all taken from popular oral tradition, recorded by me between 1964 and 1975, performed at times with inconvenient indifference to recording apparatus.

There are plenty of background happenings and eccentric noises: fiddling accompanied by the whining of a dog (A7) A parent telling a child that she has skipped ‘enough’ (B22) [Bluebells cockleshells], titters hardly less audible for being voiceless (B39) [Baint na cnó]. There is the child who sings so out of tune as to have occasioned the query whether the girls’ chorus is meant to be in parts (A12) [Dusty bluebells] and the octogenarian who pauses a second or two in mid-line in deliberate burlesque of the phrasing of traditional singers (A10) [Town of Antrim]. 

Whatever adults may think of these effects, I am confident that children will receive them well. And for older children, who find burlesque at times almost the only means of vocal expression, it is only fair to include – along with the Skin-and-bone lady [=A6 Woman at the churchyard gate] – Dives and Lazarus intra and extra muros (B9) [Walls of Jerusalem] and a comical Barbara Allen learnt about fifty years ago from a maid in a Wicklow household (B10).

The young generation
(A1—6,  11—16,  18—19,  22,  24,  27:     B1—7,  13—19,  21—32,  35—36,  38—39, 41—44)

Children’s songs-and-rhymes make no clear distinction between ‘singing’ and ‘speaking’. The verses are a special form of language in which intonation in particular is modified, with or without adopting the ‘formalization’ of a precisely repeated melody. ‘Melodies’ may be a little more than reiterated minor thirds (B22) and a particular melody recurs again and again:

Like their melodies, most rhymes are extensively practised, but several are rare or provide an unusual, often poetic, variant 
(A1 [One, two, three, four],  5 [The rippo, the rappo],  11 [Skip to maloo],  24 [Cups and saucers];   
B2 [Barry and Joan were under a bush],  5 [My mother told me], 14—19 [Our Queen up the riverOur Queen won the medalOur Queen can burl her leg,  Our Queen wonBangor boatHally go lee] ),  21 [Hairy elephant],  26—7 [Teacher, teacher,  Three, six, nine],  28 [A sailor went to sea],  29 [Denis the menace]). 
These include the Belfast May songs, which are no longer in currency and have been recalled by adults.

On the other hand, the function of the rhymes is of special interest, whether it varies in different localities or even the same locality from skipping to counting-out to ball-bouncing. Several items were recorded during performance of the appropriate occupation (A12, 15—16, 22;  B22, 25, 28, 32, 39, 42—44); the child’s attention is then concentrated on the activity and it is useless to complain of swallowed syllables or vague intonation. More ‘musical’ or ‘artistic’ effects could be had only at the expense of, for example, quite audible absorption in complex ball bouncing (B42) [One, two, three a plainsy] or dramatic spontaneity in a mother-and-children game (A22) [Bang, bang the dishes]. 

The old generation
(A7—10, 17, 20, 21, 23, 25?, 26, 28—29;  B8–12, 20, 33—34, 37, 40)

Another play figures here (A20) [Christmas rhymes], for despite the obvious appeal of mumming to children, tradition has ordained that the Christmas rhymers should be grown men. Lilting and the inconsequential verses often associated with it (A26 [Sí piper’s tune], B12 [Minnie Picken]) derive from adult dancing, in the same way as the fiddle and accordion music (A7 [Maggie Pickie], 21;  B11, 40). Flute, fife and drum produce band music; the fife and Lambeg drum of Orange parades are rarely heard outside Ulster. 

Among the songs, those which deal with the adult subjects of love and marriage remain while doing so within the reach of children (who are interested in love and marriage themselves). Like most of the children’s rhymes the adult songs have major tonality, or in some cases are more or less pentatonic (A8–10 [Maid of CulmoreLinnets like to sing [=I love my love far better], Town of Antrim] ;  B9 [Walls of Jerusalem]).

                                 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
But children do not have to sit down and learn adult folk songs in order to grow up with an interest in traditional music culture. Our record has the simple aim of re-creating for modern families – children especially – an opportunity of sharing folk-music experience between generations. Such opportunities surrounded our grandparents in the society of small communities which modern technology has displaced. They have become rare today, and it is in these opportunities that inherited oral traditions may still taste something of the remarkable rejuvenating medicine of the mummer’s doctor (A20 [Christmas mummers’ rhymes] ) or enjoy the invigorating effects of the mill grinding old people young. 
Hugh Shields” [1975]

Old Grinding Young LP Project

As well as a printed collection of children’s songs and rhymes, Hugh also envisaged a published sound recording. In 1975 he rearranged his own recordings in a form suitable for a long-playing vinyl record, with the title The old grinding young. This would have sections sung or spoken by children and adults, interspersed with a few new instrumental tracks.

The British publisher Bill Leader (Leader Records) had previously published two records for Hugh— Shamrock, rose and thistleEddie Butcher (1970) and Folk ballads of Derry and Donegal (1972).  

Hugh submitted a large reel-to-reel tape to Leader along with a typescript of sleeve notes and sample illustrations.

Extract from original typescript The old grinding young: generations of song play and word play in Ireland (c.1975

View the full typescript.

Unfortunately the record industry was badly affected by the oil crisis of the moment. Leader Records ceased publishing and Hugh's reel-to-reel and typescript were not returned.

However by a fortuitous twist of fate the long-lost items came into the possession of Reg Hall, the expert on the London-Irish folk scene. They were returned by Reg to ITMA in 2015. 

ITMA digitised and catalogued the Old Grinding Young reel-to-reel in 2016. View the catalogue record.

Notes on the term Old Grinding Young

The illustration shown above is a large broadside engraving by the Belfast printer Alexander Mayne, dating from about 1820. It is preserved in the library of Queen’s University, Belfast.  

“The Old Grinding Young” was the name of a Dublin pub until about 1960.

If you would like to read more information on the motif of a rejuvenating mill please consult Alan Gailey in Ulster folklife, XVII (1971) pp. 95–97.