Carrickfergus is, in my humble opinion anyway, one of the most beautiful ballads I've heard. If you look closely at the words, you might argue that it seems to be composed of fragments of other songs, but to me that doesn't matter. There are obviously themes of exile, loss and love, and these, combined with the pathos of the tune, are what get to me.
The song's recent history is an interesting one. In the 1960s, the Irish actor, Peter O'Toole, introduced it to Dominic Behan (it was O'Toole's favourite song, apparently). Behan added what is now he middle verse, and recorded the song. Carrickfergus subsequently grew in popularity and has been recorded by luninaries including The Dubliners and Van Morrison. The Youtube version on this page is by Joan Baez, who sings the song beautifully.
The song's history before O'Toole brought it to light is much more enigmatic. It may have been based on an earlier gaelic language song called "Do bhí bean uasal" ("There Was a Noblewoman"), and there is an obvious similarity to "The Water is Wide". But beyond that, not much is known for certain. This mudcat thread is well worth reading.
What I can tell you is that Carrickfergus is in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, and that Ballygrant (the Ballygran of the first verse) is on the island of Islay, in Scotland's Inner Hebrides. There is about 70 miles of Irish sea between the two places. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was a successful stone quarry close to Ballygrant, in a place called Kilmeny. Work there attracted Irish immigrants, and the local churchyard apparently holds their graves, some of which have black marble memorial stones. This may well form part of the song's context.
Capo at 6th Fret
C Dm7 G7 Am
I wish I was in Carrickfergus
Only for nights in Ballygran
I would swim over the deepest ocean,
The deepest ocean to be by your side.
But the sea is wide; I can't swim over;
Neither have I wings to fly.
I wish I could find me a handy boatman
To ferry me over to my love and I.
These childhood places bring sad reflection
Of happy days spent so long ago
My girlhood friends and my own relations
Have all passed on like the melting snow
But I'll spend my days in endless roving
Soft as the grass and my bed is free;
Oh to be home now in Carrickfergus
On the long road down to the salty sea.
And in Kilkenny it is reported
On marble stone as black as ink
With gold and silver he did support me
But I'll sing no more now till I've had a drink
And I'm drunk today and rarely sober
As I roll on from town to town
Ah but I'm sick now and my days are numbered
Come all you young lads and lay me down,
Come all you young lads and lay me down.