“Song for the Mira” has become the anthem of Cape Breton in Canada, but Ireland loved it too, sending two versions of the song to the top of the charts in the 80s.

In the summer of 1973, Allister MacGillivray, a young Irish Canadian, was feeling homesick for Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. He was working for the summer and staying in a friend's cottage on Prince Edward Island 300 miles away from home.

On a rainy night, alone and homesick, he sat down and composed “A Song for the Mira” about the river that traverses that Cape Breton area and the people who lived along its banks.

It was a folk song redolent of homesickness and loneliness and it struck an incredible chord.

Canadian songstress Anne Murray, whose albums sold over 55 million copies worldwide, rendered her own version of the song, sending the Celtic ballad into the stratosphere.

Ireland adopted the song by the young Irish Canadian as their own. In 1983, two different versions of the song - one by Brendan Grace and another by Brendan Shine - landed on the Irish Top Ten charts at the same time.

The song, which has been translated into 300 languages, has been covered countless times, including by notable Irish acts Celtic Thunder, Phil Coulter, Foster & Allen, Daniel O’Donnell, Celtic Thunder, Tommy Makem, Mary O'Hara, and Frank Patterson.

Choral recordings have been made by the British Columbia Boys Choir, Canadian Orpheus Male Choir, Cantabile Chorale, Centennial Choir of Cornwall, Chor Leoni Men's Chorus, Gerald Fagan Singers, Men of the Deeps, Men of Note, and the Toronto Children's Chorus.

In 2018, the song and its writer were inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame

How did MacGillivray, a young, unknown writer, create such a classic?

"I was able to crystallize all the things I'd been missing at the end of August on a rainy night playing the classical guitar in this little cottage," he recalled in 2018.

"It was a completely selfish, autobiographical song."

MacGillivray did not know what he had done until he played it for some musicians back in Cape Breton. There was a unanimous sense that something powerful had just happened.

It had indeed - the simple scenes from an Irish Canadian childhood captivated and entranced listeners. He did not know how huge a hit it was about to become until the day a car drove onto the pier where the fishing boat he had been working on was just docked. The driver had a tape with orchestral backing of the song to play for him. It was the big time.

According to MacGillivray, the song basically wrote itself. He said in 2018: “I was sitting, practicing the classical guitar when my song came to me in a rush and I just got the sensation I was going to write something.

"I must have been playing a guitar pattern and got the melody in my head so I grabbed a piece of this doctor’s appointment book and I flipped it over because the songs come quickly and I started scribbling and in about 15 minutes I had completed the song."

He added: “And I still have that manuscript.

"It’s very neat to look at it because there would be very few changes in the words over that whole sheet. It comes out rhymed and rhythmed and all the nuances are in there so I then just practiced it over a few days there and never thought it was anything particularly spectacular — little bit concerned right off the bat I had Marion Bridge and Mira in the words because sometimes that limits the international interest in a song — that’s what songwriters are always telling me — but I didn’t care.

“This was a song I was writing for myself and some of my buddies back home.”

All for a song so simple in its lyrics it is accessible to everyone and also, captured the loneliness of exile from the home place.

* Originally published in 2018, updated in Aug 2023.