Irish Eclectic

Songs of the Sea: Shanties Helped in Getting the Job Done!

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Irish EclecticBy Brian McGowan

Who does not love a sea shanty? Pronounced “shan-tee,” it is a rhythmical work song sung by sailors at sea.

While much of the work once performed by hand on sailing vessels has been replaced by machines and computer programs, the sea shanty holds a niche in our consciousness that remains strong to this day.

Typically associated with Irish crews, trans-Atlantic ships often had a mixture of races on board. The shanty often blended in African traditions (“call and response”) and laid a foundation for American folk and blues that is discernible even today.

Consider the life of a sailor in those times. Back-breaking work – hauling up anchors, hoisting mainsails, bringing in whale carcasses, furling sail and a whole host of other tasks that were tedious, never-ending and best performed to a rhythm that the shanty provided.  These nautical work songs hurried the completion of arduous tasks. The shanty governed the pace of all sorts of jobs. Brought back home to Ireland or imported to America, they became staples of traditional Irish music, a place still held to this day.

In researching this article, I came across a name I was already familiar with – Paraic McNeela, a purveyor and manufacturer of Irish musical instruments. But he is far more than that. His website ( is a treasure trove of information on Irish music.

A recent blog there touched on sea shanties, and led off with one of the most well-known shanties of all, “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor.” The melody is closely related to a much earlier Irish Gaelic song, “Óró Sé Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile.” Sing it a few times. You know the tune, now, come on! Every time you tap your foot, as underlined below, picture yourself pulling on a rope, hand over hand, that in turn is raising a sail, or a spar, or an anchor – herculean tasks, each of them!

What shall we do with a drun-ken sail-or,
What shall we do with a drun-ken sail-or,
What shall we do with a drun-ken sail-or,
Ear-ly in the morning?

You get the picture. And the back-breaking job got done.

There are literally hundreds more shanties, and they range from sad to bawdy, from comical to quaint. They would often have a fiddle or a concertina sounding in the background, most ship crews having at least a few of their number proficient on these instruments.

Leaving shanties aside, but sticking with songs of the sea, we next consider a song mentioned in our last article – “Farewell to Tarwathie.” The tune is ancient as well, and the words were written by a Scotsman, George Scroggie, in the mid-19th century. Scroggie lived near Aberdeen, in Scotland, which was a major center of that country’s whaling industry in the early 1800s.

Tarwathie is a small village nearby. The popularity of whaling came in part from its democratization of the riches to be made. Not only were the ship owners and officers rewarded with profits from a successful voyage, every member of the crew, down to the lowest ranking sailor, shared in the wealth. Likewise, an unsuccessful voyage yielded nothing for what might be a two- or three-year voyage halfway around the world, and not a penny to be shown for it. Scroggie’s hymn to the whalers came near the end of their run, and casts a nostalgic look at days gone by.

“Farewell to Tarwathie” was made famous by American singer Judy Collins. A native of Seattle, Collins’ Irish grandfather may have been familiar with the song. She recorded it on her 1970 album, “Whales & Nightingales.” Here is a YouTube clip of her rendition of it,, if you are not familiar with it already. The ethereal “accompaniment” is the sound of a pod of humpback whales.

 Farewell to Tarwathie, adieu Mormond Hill,
And the dear land of Crimond, I bid you farewell.
I am bound now for Greenland and ready to sail,
In hopes to find riches a-hunting the whale…

Longtime Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx, and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the Battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at

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