Nautical but nice: Jimmy Crowley and others explore the Irish origins of sea shanties 

The may be the internet's latest music craze, but sea shanties have a long and fascinating history that often leads back to Ireland 
Nautical but nice: Jimmy Crowley and others explore the Irish origins of sea shanties 

One of the best-known sea shanties, The Drunken Sailor, uses the melody of Oró Sé do Bheatha Bhaile. Picture: iStock

If you haven’t heard by now, the Wellerman is coming and he’s bringing us sugar and tea and rum. You’d have to have been hiding under a landlubberly, technophobic rock for the past two weeks not to have noticed that sea shanties, popularised by the video-sharing platform TikTok, are having a moment.

One song sparked the craze: a New Zealand whaling song called The Wellerman dating to the 1860s. When 26-year-old postman Nathan Evans posted his rendition of the earworm to social media network TikTok, it went viral and the rest is history; a very internet kind of history, where even Kermit the Frog has recorded a version and all sorts of humour and spin-offs have emerged, including a Wellerman cocktail recipe.

A sea shanty isn’t any old nautical number: shanties are a specific type of work song dating to the 19th century merchant navy, divided by rhythm into groups, depending on the type of work being done. And there’s good reason to believe they are heavily influenced by Irish musical tradition.

After all, The Drunken Sailor, probably one of the best-known shanties, uses the melody of Oró Sé do Bheatha Bhaile, which dates back to the mid-18th century, predating the shanty era.

But while the Irish influence is clear, because of the internationalism of sea-faring folk, it’s a little harder to pick out specifically Irish shanties, Corkonian folk singer Jimmy Crowley explains.

“Sailors looked at the world from the sea,” Crowley says. “There wasn’t much difference to them between pulling into Queenstown, or pulling into Liverpool or Rio. I’m sure they changed the words depending on the port.” 

Crowley, who has collected and popularised folk songs since the 1960s, once released an entire album of maritime tunes called The Coast of Malabar, and devoted a chapter of his 2014 book, Songs from the Beautiful City: The Cork Urban Ballads to Cork Harbour and the sea.

Most, like John Fitzgerald’s The Cork Regatta, which was written in the 1880s, are nautically themed, but aren’t true shanties.

But one song recorded by Crowley on the recent album derived from his book may indeed fit the bill.

“An English folk singer called Cyril Tawney, a former submariner, told me about this song called The Girls of Ballytrapeen,” Crowley says. “He said, ‘as a Cork man, you have to include that.’ I had just moved to Cobh so I called to the oldest man in the Holy Ground, a man called Willie Carr. I introduced myself as a blow-in and asked him where Ballytrapeen was: it was the old name for Whitegate. He knew the song and sang a bit of it for me. That’s probably the only real Cork shanty.”

 Crowley moved to the harbour town of Cobh 12 years ago. In the sea shanty era, Cobh was called Queenstown; a major transatlantic port and British naval base, its red-light district was known, with irony, as the Holy Ground.

The Holy Ground is also the name of a seafaring song about Cobh that some argue fits the definition of a shanty, a song which Crowley helped to reimagine. Performed by preceding acts like The Clancy Brothers and The Dubliners, The Holy Ground had a suitably rollicking nautical rhythm.

“One day I was fooling around with the song and I slowed it down,” Crowley says. “I started singing it as a slow ballad. Mary Black heard it and recorded it.” Black liked the song so much that she named her 1993 album for it.

Left, Willie Murphy of the Shanty Festival; right, Jimmy Crowley.
Left, Willie Murphy of the Shanty Festival; right, Jimmy Crowley.

Crowley’s adopted hometown is home to shanty singing group The Molgoggers. Other coastal counties have their own: Waterford’s Hooks and Crookes, Wexford’s Wexford’s South End Sea Shanty group.

But Rosses Point in Co Sligo is home to more than its fair share of shanty groups, as well as Ireland’s longest-running shanty Festival.

The area is home to no less than four singing groups, Ashore for a Loaf, The Buoys of Ballisodare, The Mutineers and Ireland’s only all-female shanty group, Eight Belles.

Willie Murphy, co-founder of the shanty festival, singer with Ashore for a Loaf, and Operations Manager in the RNLI station based in Rosses Point, says the town’s history as a hub for the merchant navy explains the popularity of shanty singing there.

“When we were kids, a lot of the old guys’ party piece in the pub would be a sea shanty because in Rosses Point, a lot of them were in the merchant navy,” Murphy says.

Military navies didn’t sing shanties, which were considered both unnecessary on heavily crewed vessels, and a possible source of sedition.

“A merchant ship might have a crew of 30, but a military ship it might have a crew of 300,” Murphy explains. “If you only have five fellas pulling on a rope trying to get a heavy thing up, it’s more important to keep time. In the military navy, they didn’t need to pull in time, and they were worried about the impacts on discipline.” As well as their distinctive rhythms, shanties are defined by their call-and-response element. Each merchant ship had its “shantyman” – a sailor who kept the pace by calling out the songs.

It’s this unifying element that makes them an enduringly popular folk music today, Murphy believes: “They’re great singalong songs if you’re not into solo singing. Like all good folk music, the songs tell a good story and that’s really why they should be preserved, because they talk about the life of sailors at sea in the 19th century.” Shanties are very popular in all EU maritime countries, and Murphy says the Rosses Point festival is attended by groups from Germany, The Netherlands, Poland and France.

Shanties are a cultural melting pot, but the Irish influence is clear: Murphy cites the work of the late Stan Hugill, Britain’s last shantyman, who spent his latter years documenting shanties.

Hugill traced the Irish input to the founding of Liverpool’s Black Ball line, which began a regular monthly trade sailing between Liverpool and New York in 1816. The mass exodus of Irish people from the Great Hunger 30 years later meant that, for a period, sailors on the line were predominantly Irish, Liverpool Irish or New York Irish.

So heavy was the Irish influence that sailors working between Liverpool and the Eastern US sang in what Stan Hugill described as an “imitative Irish brogue.” But, Murphy points out, shanties, like the sailors that sang them, belonged to maritime tradition rather than to a specific nation.

“In Rosses Point years ago, I knew old men who had never been 20 miles inland, but they’d been around the world by sea many times over,” he says. “There’s that international outward looking flavour, and the songs are the same.” The latest TikTok craze is not the first time new media has caused an uptick in interest in the nautical folk genre. In 2013, Ubisoft’s video game Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag used sea shanties in its soundtrack.

As far as Murphy is concerned, the more young people learning the songs and keeping the tradition alive, the better.

“Lots of the English groups have younger people in them now and they sing very close harmonies, which you’d never hear on a ship,” he says. “It’s fabulous to have more people listening to them and to see young people getting involved, because the traditional thing was aul fellas with beards and their finger in their ear.

“We’ve always tried to not be purist about the thing and to just get as many people involved as possible. The real important thing is to keep the stories of that era alive.”

  • Jimmy Crowley’s double album, Songs from the Beautiful City, available to buy here
  • Rosses Point Shanty Festival is held each June but disruptions to the 2021 festival are anticipated due to Covid-19 restrictions. Info here

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