The polka “Breeches Full of Stitches” is a great tune for beginners, or those first learning Irish polkas. Some people play this in G, but Kevin Burke plays it in A Ionian. So, here it’s in A Ionian. Martin Hayes plays this in his typical slow, deeply emotional way on his first album Martin Hayes (2006), and just calls it “The Britches.” So we can conclude from that his were apparently NOT full of stitches. It has been around a long while, and retained its popularity. For instance, in Charles Kickham’s novel Knocknagow, or the Homes of Tipperary (1879), we read that “Mr. Lloyd was stretched on a sofa playing two jews-harps” and noting that his friend had torn britches, he “put both jews-harps to his mouth, and played a tune, always keeping his eyes fixed on Richard’s leg, as if there were some extraordinary fascination about the cap of the knee.” He asks his listener whether he knows the name of the tune he’s playing, and then plays it twice. The listener replies “Well, I don’t. But it seems a pleasing little air.” And then “Mr. Lloyd extended one hand, and swinging it gracefully in time to the air, sang:
Oh, my breeches full of stitches, Oh, my breeches buckled on, Oh, my breeches full of stitches, Oh, my breeches buckled on."
Now Charles Kickham’s novel was not a best-seller in other English-speaking parts of the world, but was the most popular of Irish novels in its day. Kickham was a leading nationalist, and was later imprisoned for his views. This novel, a prayerbook, and Old Moore’s Almanac (1764-present) would have been the three books you’d be most likely to find in any in the late nineteenth century Irish home. The popularity of the novel seems due principally to its polemical political message. It directly attacks the injustice of then reigning landlord system in Ireland, and so is an indirect criticism of English rule. It often mentions Irish tunes of various kinds being played. Given his aim, we can assume that he’d want to mention widely known tunes already well embedded in public consciousness. So this tune must have been known to young and old alike in 1879. As a popular political novel Kickham’s belongs on a short list of influential literary works, along with Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists (1914), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977).
Now, getting back to “Breeches Full of Stiches,” it is in Francis Roche’s The Roche Collection of Traditional Irish Music (1928), which contains tunes Roche collected between 1891 and 1927. It is also in almost every published contemporary tune book. Also, you can hear it played online here by the the popular Foinn Seisiún (2007).
If you want the ABC, then click Breeches Full of Stitches
Breeches Full of Stitches, slow tempo (flute)
Breeches Full of Stitches, med tempo (flute)
Breeches Full of Stitches, med tempo (fiddle, Glen Pekin)
Breeches Full of Stitches, the dots