Nautical but nice: Jimmy Crowley and others explore the Irish origins of sea shanties  (2023)

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.”

(Video) A Collection of Sea Shanties (vocal only)

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.

(Video) Copy of 35 Sea Shanties (57-36 full track) - AC4 Black Flag In Game Soundtrack

“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.

Nautical but nice: Jimmy Crowley and others explore the Irish origins of sea shanties (1)

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.

(Video) Drunken Sailer - Irish Rovers

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.

(Video) Traditional Irish singing - 980466

“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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What is the origin of sea shanties? ›

Shanties had antecedents in the working chants of British and other national maritime traditions, such as those sung while manually loading vessels with cotton in ports of the southern United States.

What are Irish sea shanties? ›

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.

What influence did the Irish have on sea shanties? ›

Many shanties had Irish tunes – dance, folk, and march – and not only were the words and phrases of many of the shanties of Irish origin but in some cases it was customary for the shantyman to sing the shanties with an imitative Irish brogue.

What are the 4 types of sea shanties? ›

First are the work shanties: the short drag, short haul, halyard, windlass, or capstan.

Who made sea shanty famous? ›

In early 2021, a cover by British singer Nathan Evans became a viral hit on the social media site TikTok, leading to a "social media craze" around sea shanties and maritime songs.
Nathan Evans version.
"Wellerman (Sea Shanty)"
Nathan Evans singles chronology
9 more rows

Who brought Irish music to Ireland? ›

The Origins of Irish Music

Over 2,000 years ago, during the Iron Age Era, Celtic people settled in Ireland and started creating their own music in about 500 BC. Because they were immigrants from Austria, Switzerland, France, and Spain, they added an Eastern flair to their new musical tradition.

What influenced Irish music? ›

The traditional music played by the Irish came to Ireland with the Celts 2,000 years ago. The Celts were influenced by music from the East and, it is believed, the traditional Irish harp originated in Egypt.

What is the Irish Sea known for? ›

The Irish Sea is of significant economic importance to regional trade, shipping and transport, as well as fishing and power generation in the form of wind power and nuclear power plants.

What do you call someone who sings sea shanties? ›

But sea shanties traditionally take a very particular form: They are generally 'call and response' songs, with one singer (known as a 'shantyman') leading and everyone else replying with the chorus. They have a regular, heavy rhythm.

Do sailors still sing shanties? ›

Still loved by modern sailors, the sea shanties are now rarely used as work songs since contemporary vessels do not require a large group of people to complete a task aboard.

Are all sea shanties Irish? ›

Shanties are an integral part of traditional music from all over the English speaking world. Specifically Ireland, England & Scotland. They are different in the sense that they are work songs and have a large influence from various African music traditions, especially the call and response type.

Is the Irish Sea a thing? ›

The Irish Sea region extends from the Mull of Kintyre in the north to St George's Channel in the south and includes the Firth of Clyde. The Irish Sea connects to the Atlantic Ocean through the North Channel at the northern end and the Celtic Sea through the St George's Channel at the southern end.

What are old sailors songs called? ›

Properly speaking, shanties are work songs sung aboard ships and boats. The word shanty, referring to this kind of song, turns up in the 1850s in the context of shipboard singing.

What is the best sea shanty ever? ›

The Very Best Sea Shanties
  • What Shall We Do with the Drunken SailorRobert Shaw Chorale.
  • Blow the Man DownRobert Shaw Chorale.
  • Stormalong, JohnRobert Shaw Chorale.
  • ShenandoahRobert Shaw Chorale.
  • Spanish LadiesRobert Shaw Chorale.
  • The Drummer and the CookRobert Shaw Chorale.
  • A-RovingRobert Shaw Chorale.

What is the most common sea shanty? ›

30 Popular Shanties, Work Songs & Sea Songs
  • Blood Red Roses.
  • Blow The Man Down.
  • The Bonnie Ship The Diamond.
  • Bound For South Australia.
  • The Coasts Of High Barbary.
  • Don't Forget Your Old Shipmate.
  • The Drunken Sailor.
  • Eliza Lee.

What is the most famous shanty town? ›

A "Hooverville" was a shanty town built during the Great Depression by the homeless in the United States. They were named after Herbert Hoover, who was President of the United States during the onset of the Depression and was widely blamed for it. The term was coined by Charles Michelson.

When was the first sea shanty sung? ›

The origins of the traditional Sailors' Sea Shanty have been lost in the midst of time. Traceable from at least the mid-1400s, the shanty hails from the days of the old merchant 'tall' sailing ships.

Who owns the sea shanty? ›

Any sea shanty written in the 19th century is therefore likely to be in the public domain, meaning that it is no longer protected by copyright and the exclusive rights which previously vested in the copyright owner (such as the right to reproduce the work or to perform the work) can now be exercised by anyone.

Why is the Wellerman shanty so popular? ›

Wellerman has a call-and-response structure, with a soloist singing the verses, and the rest of the group joining in for the chorus – which comes around plenty of times in the song. A listener can join in with the chorus easily enough after only a few verses.

What is the oldest known Irish song? ›

The oldest Irish song is the Dinnseanchas.

While somewhat fantastical in nature, this recounting of music, primarily sung but also including as many as nine musical instruments, including a harp, represents the oldest descriptions we have of the specific songs sung by the Celtic ancestors in the monarch of Ireland.

What was spoken in Ireland before Irish? ›

Around 1200 BC, the Celts came to Ireland and their arrival has had a lasting impact on Ireland's culture today. The Celts spoke Q-Celtic and over the centuries, mixing with the earlier Irish inhabitants, this evolved into Irish Gaelic.

Where did the Irish come from originally? ›

From as far back as the 16th century, historians taught that the Irish are the descendants of the Celts, an Iron Age people who originated in the middle of Europe and invaded Ireland somewhere between 1000 B.C. and 500 B.C. That story has inspired innumerable references linking the Irish with Celtic culture.

What is Irish style music called? ›

Irish traditional music (also known as Irish trad, Irish folk music, and other variants) is a genre of folk music that developed in Ireland.

How did Irish culture influence American culture? ›

They became teachers, firefighters, police officers, labor leaders, farmers, business owners, and more. Along the way, Irish Americans contributed enormously to the American labor movement — championing safe working conditions, advocating for children's rights, and fighting racism, prejudice, and income inequality.

What music did the Irish bring to America? ›

Scottish and Irish immigrants brought fiddles with them to North America and successive generations in the South morphed their Celtic jigs and reels into tunes of their own. Many of the founding fathers of country music, such as Fiddlin' John Carson, mentioned above, and Eck Robertson, were solo fiddlers.

What do the Irish call the Irish Sea? ›

Irish Sea, Irish Muir Éireann, arm of the North Atlantic Ocean that separates Ireland from Great Britain.

What are 4 interesting facts about the Irish Sea? ›

Economically, the Irish Sea is worth approximately £6 billion per year. There are 17 active oil and gas drilling platforms in the Irish Sea. 742 wind turbines are currently either operational or under construction in the Irish Sea. Leatherback turtles visit the Irish Sea every summer.

Who is the Irish Sea god? ›

Manannan – God of Sea

Manannan or Manannan Mac Lir was a popular deity in Celtic mythology, belonging to an Irish mystical race known as the Tuatha De Danann. Son of Lir, the Irish God of the sea, Manannan's title was Lord of the Sea until his Father's death whereupon he took the title.

Why are sea shanties so calming? ›

The strong rhythmic element is one reason sea shanties are so compelling to our brains — it's also why sea shanties exist in the first place. Shanties are work songs that combine English, Scottish, and Irish folk music with the call and response traditions of African music.

Does the US Navy have sea shanties? ›

The Navy Band Sea Chanters are the United States Navy's official chorus. The ensemble performs a variety of music including traditional choral music, sea chanteys, patriotic fare, opera, Broadway and contemporary music.

Did slaves sing sea shanties? ›

In Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands, Blacks working on plantations sang work songs called “shanties or chanteys.” These areas were near passable rivers and were heard in Georgia as early as the 1880s.

Is Drunken sailor an Irish song? ›

One of the most popular sea shanties of all time is that which we've come to know as “What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?” The original music reportedly comes from an Irish tune called 'Oró Sé do Bheatha 'Bhaile,' which means “Óró, you are welcome home.”

Is Song of the Sea Irish or Scottish? ›

Song of the Sea is the latest film from Tomm Moore ( The Secret of Kells ) and is based on the Irish legend of the selkie—creatures that live as seals in the sea but become human on land. The film opens with young Ben's most powerful memories of his mother: her stories about various Irish legends and her music.

Did pirates come from Ireland? ›

We typically associate pirates with the Caribbean and other warm locations, but over the centuries Ireland has been both a birthplace of piracy and a victim of pirate raids.

Were there any Irish pirates? ›

As far back as 400AD, Irish pirates regularly carried out slave raids on Britain – their most famous captive was St Patrick – and nearly 1,400 years later, in 1780, privateers like Luke Ryan were still ravaging British shipping in aid of America's War of Independence.

Are sea shanties American? ›

They evolved with British and northern European sailors during the 16th century. Shanties sung by American sailors include older European and American songs, adaptations of these songs, and original creations. The 1820s through the 1860s were the peak years for American shantying.

Is the sea shanty from Pirates of the Caribbean? ›

Hoist the Colours, sometimes written as Hoist the Colors, was a sea shanty known by all pirates across the Seven Seas. The song was related to the action of hoisting of a pirate's flag, though it was mainly used as a call to arms for the members of the Brethren Court.

What song did the slaves sing? ›

One of the songs of the Underground Railroad was “Wade in the Water”. While it hasn't been proven, it is believed that Harriett Tubman used this traditional Negro Spiritual as a way to warn slaves to get into the water to hide their scent from the slavecatching dogs on their trail.

What music did slaves sing? ›

Slave music took diverse forms. Although the Negro spirituals are the best known form of slave music, in fact secular music was as common as sacred music. There were field hollers, sung by individuals, work songs, sung by groups of laborers, and satirical songs.

What songs did slaves sing while working? ›

Songs associated with the Underground Railroad
  • "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd"
  • "Go Down Moses"
  • "Let Us Break Bread Together"
  • "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"
  • "Steal Away (To Jesus)"
  • "Wade in the Water"
  • "Song of the Free"
  • John Coltrane has a song titled "Song of the Underground Railroad" on his album Africa/Brass.

What shanty opens pirates? ›

Legends can approach the Mysterious Stranger to assess their reputation. He will teach the Shanty of Legends(We Shall Sail Together), which can be played with Instruments only by the ground in the middle of the Tavern, near the stairs, opening up a passage to the Hideout.

What kind of music did pirates listen to? ›

Early shanties were sometimes adapted from older, bawdy songs, such as the “Maid of Amsterdam,” but the earliest shanties designed for specific work on a ship arose aboard the Black Ball Line. Sea shanties were work songs, so they were rarely sung when seamen had free time.

What Caribbean islands did pirates go to? ›

In the late 16th and 17th centuries, there were many pirates inhabiting islands across the Caribbean, particularly Jamaica and The Bahamas. The region was lucrative and convenient and served as the perfect hideaway thanks to the many islands and bays.

Why do sea shanties sound so good? ›

“They're very, very repetitive and fairly upbeat, uplifting tunes and melodies that people can very quickly join and sing together,” says Loveday. “The melody and the rhythm are designed to match the activities that are going on.”

What is the purpose of a sea shanty? ›

The shanty was quite simply a working song that ensured sailors involved in heavy manual tasks, such as tramping round the capstan or hoisting the sails for departure, synchronised individual efforts to efficiently execute their collective task, i.e. simply making sure that each sailor pushed or pulled, at precisely ...


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