Brian O' Lynn


Brian O’ Lynn is a character that appears in an old traditional song that was sung in Leitrim and throughout Ireland many years ago but can also be traced back as far as the 1500s and can be found (or versions of it) in Scotland, England, Wales, Newfoundland…to name but a few places

There are many different versions of this song, but its story basically involves a comical but resourceful man who gets himself into situations but always finds a quick solution. There are also many different airs of the song to be found.

Tom o’ the Linn was a Scotsman born.” 

There are versions of this song beginning “Tom o’ the Linn was a Scotsman born.” This may have been the ballad that was referred to in the famous Scottish book, ”The Complaynt of Scotland” printed in 1549 whilst relations between Scotland and England were fraught



The first definite reference to a version of the song, to be found, comes from the sixteenth century, English proverb-play, “The Longer Thou Livest, the More Foole Thou Art” by William Wager from 1569. In it, the following verse appears;

Tom a lin and his wife, and his wives mother
They went ouer a bridge all three together,
The bridge was broken, and they fell in,
The Deuil go with all quoth Tom a lin.


The “Tom a Lin” name began to be replaced by “Brian O’Linn” in the eighteenth century. The more well-known form of the song seems to come from nineteenth-century broadsides. To judge from printed references, it seems to have been exceptionally popular in Britain, Ireland, and America.




The name “O’Lynn” itself has much history attached to it. There were Lords in Antrim who bore the surname. Their name O’ Fhloinn with a silent “fh” led to the eventual phonetic spelling. However, the name also arose in other parts of Ireland, being derived from O’ Flin, Flynn or O’ Floinn. There were two ruling “O’Floinn” families in Cork and also a prominent family of that name in Roscommon. The O’ Lynn surname appears more often now in Ulster, whilst there are many Flynns and O’ Flynns in North Connacht and in the Cork/Waterford area.

As well as the usual verses which note Brian’s ability to get himself out of tricky situations, there are numerous bawdy versions and parodies of the song to be found. Furthermore, singers were known to “localise” songs by adding placenames or events from their locality to appeal to their audience.

Fionnuala has been known to add the verse;

  Brian O’ Lynn, he once came to Drumsna.

 He sailed down the Shannon, the night of the Fleadh.

 He kissed all the women, shook hands with the men.

 “Sure there’s no place like Leitrim” says Brian O’ Lynn.

And sometimes Brian is crossing the “Liffey” or it could well be the “Thames” depending on the singer. In fact, in one version found in an 18th century chapbook, the song opens with the line; “ Brian O’ Lin was a Connaught man born”.

    In most printed versions, the song appears to have no chorus, although Fionnuala learnt it with a lilting chorus. It is also interesting to note that the jig tune “Brian O’ Linn” seems to have never been associated with the song. In Fraser’s magazine from February 1842, there appears a version of the song with a bit of a tongue-twisting chorus, which is similar to the chorus to be heard from Thomas Moran, Mohill, Co. Leitrim when he was recorded by Séamus Ennis in 1954.

Oh Brian O Lynn had an auld grey mare

Her legs, they were long and her sides, they were bare

He’d jaunt away through thick and through thin.

“I’m a wonderful beauty” says Brian O’ Lynn



With my rantin’, roarin’, borin’, wedgin’, sledgin’, three-handled iron gaugin’ pin

“I’m a wonderful beauty” says Brian O’ Lynn


Oh Brian O’ Lynn had no coat to put on

He bought a big buck-skin to make him a one

He clamped the two horns right under his chin

“They’ll answer for pistols” says Brian O’ Lynn



Oh Brian O’ Lynn had no trousers to wear

He bought a big sheepskin to make him a pair

With the woolly side out and the fleshy side in

“It’s pleasant and cool” says Brian O’ Lynn.



Oh Brian O’ Lynn had no watch for to wear

He got a big turnip and scooped it out square

He put a live cricket within to it then

“They’ll think it is tickin’” says Brian O’ Lynn.



Brian O’ Lynn and his wife and wife’s mother

was crossing the bridge

The bridge broke down and them all tumbled in

“We’ll find ground at the bottom” says Brian O’ Lynn.



Whichever version you’re familiar with or you are drawn to, there’s one thing that’s clear; Brian O’ Lynn, the song and the character have been entertaining people for generations and we hope that he continues to be a source of entertainment and inspiration for generations to come.

Kate Murtagh Sheridan


Fionnuala Maxwell