The Night Before Larry Was Stretched

The Night Before Larry Was Stretched

"The Night Before Larry Was Stretched" is an Irish execution ballad written in the Newgate cant.


The ballad is estimated to have been written around 1816. Will (Hurlfoot) Maher, a shoemaker from Waterford, wrote the song, though Dr. Robert Burrowes, the Dean of St. Finbar’s Cork, to whom it has been so often attributed, certainly did not. [ The Night Before Larry was Stretched (Canting Songs) ] ]

In 'Ballads from the Pubs of Ireland', p. 29, James N. Healy attributes the song to a William Maher, (Hurlfoot Bill), but doesn't note when Maher lived.

However, the song is attributed to a 'Curren' in 'The Universal Songster', 1828, possibly being J. Philpot Curran or J. W. Curren.


The Newgate cant in which the song was penned was a short-lived colloquial slang of 19th century Dublin. "This is only one of a group of execution songs written in Newgate Cant or slang style somewhere around 1780s, others being 'The Kilmainham Minuet', 'Luke Caffrey's Ghost' and 'Larry's Ghost' which, as promised in the seventh verse, comes in a sheet to sweet Molly." [Harte, Frank, 'Songs of Dublin']

A French translation of the song called ' La mort de Socrate' was written by Francis Sylvester Mahony, better known as “Father Prout” for Froser’s Magazine and is also collected in 'Musa Pedestris, Three Centuries of Canting Songs and Slang Rhymes [1536―1896] ', collected and annotated by John S. Farmer.


The tune is not an Irish one, but stems from the first line of an English song "The Bowman Prigg's Farewell." The British Union-Catalogue of Early Music (BUCEM) lists four single sheet copies with music, all tentatively dated c 1740, and there is another copy in the Julian Marshal collection at Harvard. However, the tune "To the Hundreds of Drury I write" is in the ballad opera 'The Devil of a Duke', 1732, Air #4. 'Bowman Prig' is mentioned in song #22 of the ballad opera 'The Fashionable Lady', 1730, but this may not be a reference to the song. 'Bowman Prigg' is a cant term for a pick-purse.

The melody and first verse of "To the Hundreds of Drury I write" are in John Barry Talley's 'Secular Music in Colonial Annapolis', 1988. "The Night Before Larry Was Stretched" is just possibly a reworking of, or was at least inspired by, "To the hundreds of Drury".


*The song was recorded by Frank Harte on the album Dublin Street Songs. As in this recording, the last line of each verse is often performed spoken for effect.

*The song provides the narrative basis for the film 'O'Donaghue's Opera' [] which was filmed in 1965 with members of The Dubliners with 'The Night Before Larry was Stretched' performed by Johnny Moynihan.

*Elvis Costello recorded the song on 1996's 'Common Ground — Voices Of Modern Irish Music'.

*Recorded by The Wolfe Tones on 'Irish To The Core' (CD-S-52033).


The song is in 'The Festival of Anacreon' ['The Festival of Anacreon', 7th ed., (Part 2) p. 177, 1789 (and a later undated edition of 1790 or 1791)] , with tune direction "To the hundreds of Drury I write." It is also listed in Colm O'Lochlainn's Street Ballads' and Frank Harte's 'Songs of Dublin'.

Donagh MacDonagh gives the following sleevenote 'On of a group of Execution Songs written in Newgate Cantor Slang Style in the 1780s, others being 'The KilmainhamMinuet', 'Luke Caffrey's Ghost' and 'Larry's Ghost' in which,as promised in the seventh stanza of the present ballad,Larry comes 'in a sheet to sweet Molly'! The Newgate Cantor Slang Style is not unique to Dublin and all the cant andslang is to be found in Partridge's 'A Dictionary of Slang andUnconventional English' (1937). Nubbing cheat or Nubbinchit is cant for the gallows, while Darkmans is cant for night.Joyce, working out of Thomas Dekker's 'The Gul's Hornbookand The Belman of London' (1608), wrote:

White thy fambles, red thy ganAnd thy quarrons dainty is.Couch a hogshead with me then.In the Darkmans clip and kiss. 'Ulysses', p. 59.



The night before Larry was stretched,
The boys they all paid him a visit
A bit in their sacks too they fetched
They sweated their duds [They pawned their clothes] till they riz it
For Larry was always the lad,
When a friend was condemn’d to the squeezer [The Hangman or Gallows] ,
He’d sweat all the togs [pawn all the clothes] that he had
Just to help the poor boy to a sneezer [a drink]
- And moisten his gob ’fore he died.


The boys they came crowding in fast;
They drew their stools close round about him,
Six glims [candles] round his trap-case [coffin] were placed
For he couldn’t be well waked without ’em,
When ax’d if he was fit to die,
Without having duly repented?
Says Larry, ‘That’s all in my eye,
And all by the clargy invented,
- To make a fat bit for themselves.


‘’I'm sorry dear Larry’, says I,
‘For to see you here in such trouble,
And your life’s cheerful noggin run dry,
And yourself going off like its bubble!’
‘Hauld your tongue in that matter,’ says he;
‘For the neckcloth I don’t care a button,
And by this time tomorrow you’ll see
Your Larry will be dead as mutton:
- And all 'cos his courage was good’

(Alternative third verse)
‘’Oh, I'm sorry dear Larry’, says I,
‘For to see you in this situation
And Blister me limbs if I lie
I'd as lief [prefer] it had been me own station’
‘Ochone, It's all over,’ says he;
‘For the neckcloth I don’t care a button,
And by this time tomorrow you’ll see
Your Larry will be dead as mutton:
- And all 'cos his courage was good’


"And then I'll be cut up like a pie,
And me nobhead] from me body be parted."
"You're in the wrong box, then", says I,
"For blast me if they're so hard-hearted.
A chalk on the back of your neck
Is all that Jack Ketch ["Jack Ketch" was the generic name for the hangman, as"Chips" was for a ship's carpenter and so on; the original Jack Ketch was "the commonexecutioner 1663(?)-1686. He became notorious on accountof his barbarity at the executions of William Lord Russelland others."] dares to give you;
So mind not such trifles a feck,
Sure why should the likes of them grieve you?
- And now boys, come tip us the deck [deck of cards] ."


Then the cards being called for, they play’d,
Till Larry found one of them cheated;
A dartblow] at his napper he made
The lad being easily heated,
‘So ye chates me bekase I’m in grief!
O! is that, by the Hokey, the rason?
Soon I’ll give you to know you d—d thief!
That you’re cracking your jokes out of sason,
- And scuttle your nob with my fist’.

(Alternative fifth verse)Then the cards being called for, they play’d,
Till Larry found one of them cheated;
A dart at his napper he made
The lad being easily heated,
Ohoh!, be the hokey ya theif!
I'll scuttle yer knob wit me daddle
You chates me bekase I'm in grief
But soon I'll demolish yer noddle
- And lave ya yer claret [blood] to drink’.


Then the clergy came in with his book
He spoke him so smooth and so civil;
Larry tipp’d him a Kilmainham [An area in Dublin's Liberties] look, [A "Kilmainham look" may be something like a Ringsendtango or a Ringsend uppercut (a kick in the groin) - orperhaps not. Kilmainham was the county jail in former times,and later was the scene of the execution of the leaders of the1916 Rising. Larry may have been confined in Kilmainham orin the Green Street prison, the "new" Newgate which replacedthe old Newgate in the 1770s. Kilmainham is remembered inanother prison ballad called "The Kilmainham Minit", i.e.,"minuet", the dance of the hanged man.]
And pitch’d his big wig to the divil.
Then raising a little his head,
To get a sweet drop of the bottle,
And pitiful sighing he said,
‘O! the hemp will be soon round my throttle [neck] ,
- And choke my poor windpipe to death!’


So mournful these last words he spoke,
We all vented our tears in a shower;
For my part, I thought my heart broke
To see him cut down like a flower!
On his travels we watch’d him next day,
O, the throttler [hangman] I thought I could kill him!
But Larry not one word did say,
Nor chang’d till he came to King William [This was an equestrian statue of King William of Orange,erected in 1701 at College Green in Dublin. Always controversial,it was repeatedly daubed, defaced and blown up; in 1929 it wasblown up for the last time, and later broken up for smelting.Presumably the bold Larry was important enough to be hangedin the large public space of College Green rather than at theprison itself (Maurice Craig's book on Dublin - whence theinformation in this paragraph - included an old photo of Newgate,showing the hanging-apparatus over the main door, "as in mostIrish gaols")] ;
- Then, musha, his colour turned white.


When he came to the nubbing-cheat,
He was tack’d up so neat and so pretty;
The rambler [cart] jugg’d off from his feet,
And he died with his face to the city.
He kick’d too, but that was all pride,
For soon you might see ’twas all over;
And as soon as the noose was untied,
Then at darkey [night time] we waked him in clover,
- And sent him to take a ground-sweat [buried him] .


External links

* [ O'Donaghue's Opera - A film based around the song]

List of Irish ballads

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