The emigrant songs sung by the Irish men who built Britain
Homesickness is set against the gritty background of labouring life in 1960s London
Full house at the modern dancing hall at The Galtymore Ballroom in Cricklewood
The poet Brendan Kennelly once told me that, as a young man in Kerry in the 1950s, he was occasionally approached by local lads about to emigrate, requesting a short poem referencing their “home place”, a salve to help heal the bouts of homesickness which awaited them in England or America.
The majority of those who left however sought solace in the many songs attempting to articulate the emigrant experience. Such songs resonated on an emotional level, thereby providing a release for powerful feelings of loneliness and loss, even where the sentiments expressed were sometimes trite and over-simplified. Few in fact were actually written by emigrants, some notable examples even being penned by non-Irish authors.
I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen, widely believed to be an Irish ballad, was actually written in Indiana by a German-American , Thomas P. Westendorf, for his wife (she was, in fact, named Jennie). Its perennial appeal for Irish emigrants pining for home can be readily appreciated.
Another popular ballad, The Mountains of Mourne, was written by Percy French, a songwriter and civil servant who, although Irish, certainly never experienced the trauma of emigration. Nonetheless it remains a shrewd and witty commentary on the values and experience of the rural Irish labourer in London.
Ralph McTell, author of the hugely popular 1970s hit From Clare to Here, is actually an English folk singer. The recurring theme of homesickness again dictates the sentiment but it is set against the authentically gritty background of labouring life on 1960s London building sites, and references the real-life experience of Irish male migrant labourers in ways the previous examples do not. As such it could arguably be called a “work song” of sorts.
The most famous “work song” associated with the Irish in British construction, McAlpine’s Fusiliers, is often fashionably denigrated as a mere pub ballad, and has been done to death in that environment. But this is the one song, featuring Irish navvies in Britain, with the most unimpeachable labour credentials.
Adapted and copyrighted in the 1960s, by Dominic Behan, it originated with a third-generation spailpín from the Mayo-Roscommon border. Ironically it was actually Sir William McAlpine, of the eponymous construction company Sir Robert McAlpine, who first alerted me to this. On a research mission in the company’s Hemel Hempstead headquarters, Sir William (“Bill” to his friends) invited me after a rather well-oiled lunch to join him in a verse or two of the famous anthem.
He interrupted our session to insist that the classic Behan/Dubliners’ version, which I was happily singing, was actually a derivation of a much earlier song, and quoted other verses in support of his argument. At that time I didn’t know enough to dispute this assertion but some years later, researching work songs of Irish migrant labour, I met the musician and collector Joe Byrne of Aghamore in East Mayo, who knew the true facts.
Apparently McAlpine’s Fusiliers was written by Martin Henry of Rooskey, near Doocastle in East Mayo, sometime in the late 50s. Martin, like other labouring men over several generations in that part of Mayo, had for many years been a spailpín or seasonal harvester in England and again, like many others, had gravitated into construction in search of better-paid employment.
It was common for such men to write doggerel verse about their experiences and sometimes set this to traditional airs (as in many other manual occupations, such as mining and fishing), and there are many similar but more obscure songs known to Irish collectors. One which became very well-known is the stirring spailpín saga, The Rocky Road to Dublin – again, often sung with little understanding of its true context.
Two significant facts which support Joe Byrne’s assertion about McAlpine’s Fusiliers are contained in the line: “I stripped to the skin with the Darky Finn way down upon the Isle of Grain”. The Darky Finn was a neighbour of Martin Henry’s who lived in Cloontia, near Doocastle, and his original home still stands. The Isle of Grain, as readers of my book The Men Who Built Britain will know, witnessed the construction over almost a decade of an oil terminal, refinery, and power station between the late 50s and early 60s.
We close our show with The Tunnel Tigers, written by Ewan MacColl. MacColl is arguably the greatest 20th century celebrant of the working class, but in this song, like Percy French and others before him, he takes liberties with the facts - lyrically evoking an unlikely litany of counties whence young men have gone “driving a tunnel through the London clay”. In fact, Donegal is the dominant producer of Irish tunnellers, with a sprinkling of other counties - mostly on the western seaboard, contributing.
This great song reminds audiences of the legacy of the Irish Navvy – not alone tunnels, dams, motorways and metro systems around the globe, but also the homes and holdings held together, and siblings schooled and clothed, in hard times here, by those thousands who left reluctantly with little but made their way against all odds and sent their money home.
How many left with this blunt message, from another old emigration ballad, ringing in their ears? “Goodbye, Johnny dear, and send me all ye can...”
Ultan Cowley is an Irish historian, a former emigrant, and author of The Men Who Built Britain, Paddy and the Big Ditch, and McAlpine’s Men.
Along with musician Joe Giltrap, he will explore the legacy of the Irish navvy in post-war Britain through stories and song at Epic The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin on February 8th at 5.30pm. Tickets cost €5 and are available at eventbrite.com.