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While listening to the Irish Rovers version of the traditional Irish song "Star of the County Down", I noticed an apparent discrepancy in her name:

Near Banbridge town, in the County Down
One morning in last July
Down a boreen green came a sweet Colleen
And she smiled as she passed me by.

[...]

As she onward sped, sure I scratched me head
And I looked with a feeling rare.
And I said, says I, to a passerby
"Who's the maid with the nut brown hair?"

Well, he looked at me, and he said to me,
"That's the gem of Ireland's crown.
Young Rosie McCann from the banks of the Bann
She's the star of the County Down."

If her name is Rosie McCann, then why does he keep calling her Colleen (including in the chorus of the song)? For that matter, why does he call her Colleen before even knowing who she is, as he needs to ask a passerby? Was Colleen in Ireland just a "placeholder" name, to be used for someone if you don't know their actual name, like Jimmy in Glasgow or Charlie in Ghana?

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    Like Sheila in Australia? – user14111 Aug 17 at 12:29
15

Colleen is the Anglicised version of the Irish Gaelic cailín, meaning young woman or maid.

Derivation: caile (“maid”) +‎ -ín (diminutive suffix)

Although girls are sometimes named Colleen, in the context of the lyric it shouldn't have a capital C.

The New English-Irish dictionary has other usages.

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  • 1
    Great find. This also fits with boreen, another Anglicised Gaelic word in the same line. And looking online for the lyrics of this song, I see that "colleen" is often not capitalised even though it was in the Youtube video linked in the OP. – Rand al'Thor Aug 16 at 15:10
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    @Rand al'Thor Yes, and potcheen from poitín. I hadn't realised how popular Colleen was as a name in the US. Maybe that's why it got capitalized on YouTube. Wikipedia's 'Colleen' entry lists many famous women but there's not a Brit in sight, though I've certainly heard the name here. – Old Brixtonian Aug 16 at 15:33
  • For a modern usage of cailín to mean young woman, see Maith an cailín, Malala, where 'Maith an cailín' may be translated as 'well done, young woman' – tomd Aug 17 at 16:39
  • IMO 'Colleen' is a misprint, and what is meant is 'cailín' An accepted version of the lyrics is given here. To use 'colleen' (no capital C) also irks: the song is 'borrowing' the word 'cailín' from Gaeilge (note the fada on the final 'i'), at one time spoken throughout Ireland, and still taught at school in Ireland – tomd Aug 18 at 6:53
2

From the Wikipedia entry for Colleen:

Colleen is a common English language name of Irish-American origin and a generic term for Irish women or girls, from the Irish cailín 'unmarried girl/woman', the diminutive of caile 'woman, countrywoman'.

(My emphasis)

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