On the Princess’s CD of French songs for children (never did I think I would know so many French songs for children) there are a range of classic numbers including the one about selling liver “oh ma foi, c’est la dernière fois que je vends du foie dans la ville de Foix”. The hilarity here is that, in French, foi, fois, foie and Foix are all pronounced identically, oh how we laugh. There’s the one about the woman whose husband was so small that the cat mistook him for a mouse. It appears to have been an arranged marriage.
“Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre” is another popular number. It is sung to the tune of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” but the words work better and it is, apparently, the original. The song is about General John Churchill (yes, same Churchills), First Duke of Marlborough who enjoyed regular victories against the French in the War of the Spanish Succession 1701-14 (no, please, stop me, if I’m boring you); this account of the battle of Oudenarde will give you an idea of why Malborough was so deeply unpopular with the French. Apparently the battle of Malplaquet was what actually inspired the songwriter to get writing but that seems to have gone less well for the Duke; I digress, to summarise, he was not well liked by the French forces.
So this song runs to 18 verses (yes, that’s right, 18) and we often listen to it on long drives; it drowns out the howling. I have trawled the internet for an English translation for you but could only find it in the original and German for some odd reason. It’s all quite tame compared to the Irish offerings. It recounts how Marlborough’s wife is waiting for news of him and hears he’s dead “mort et enterré”. The funeral is described as being very proper with officer pall bearers, a rossignol (which I think is a swallow) singing and rosemary (why?) planted round the grave. It doesn’t seem to me that offensive to the Duke, particularly when you reflect that he actually died of old age in his bed at 72 (look, it was a lot older then that it is now) but it must have seemed so to them, I gather Napoleon liked to hum it.