Tune of the Day: Lilliburlero
Also known as “Lillibullero” or “Lilliburilero”, this is one of the best-known Irish tunes of all time. It started life as a jig with Irish roots, whose first appearance seems to be in a collection published in London in 1661, where it is set to the words “There was an old man of Waltham Cross”. It was arranged for polite society by the English composer Henry Purcell in 1689, and has been published in his keyboard work Musick's Handmaid. It is probable that Purcell hijacked the tune as his own, a common practice in the musical world of the time.
In 1687, however, the tune was set to different words, at a time when the Roman Catholic King James II was becoming increasingly unpopular. In this guise, the song was subsequently adopted by William of Orange as a marching tune for his Protestant troops. A French version of the tune is also known as the “Marche du Prince d'Orange”, attributed to Louis XIV's court composers Philidor the Elder and Jean-Baptiste Lully.
The song's title and the words of the refrain have been interpreted as a garbled version of the Irish words Lile ba léir é, ba linn an lá, “Lilly was clear and ours was the day”. The lily may be a reference to the symbol of France, or to a popular interpreter of prophecies named William Lilly, who had prophesied in the late 16th century that a Catholic would come to the throne of England. Alternatively, the lyrics could mean, “Lilly is clear [about this], the day will be ours”. It is also thought that “Lilli” is a familiar form of William, and that “bullero” comes from the Irish Buaill Léir ó, which gives: “William defeated all that remained”
Lilliburlero's military association was rekindled in the Second World War, when it was played on the BBC Home Service programme Into Battle in 1943, and as a result was chosen as the regimental march for the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME).