The Very Irish Roots Of Sea Shanties (2023)

In what has already been a strange and unpredictable year, the emerging trend that has most taken me by surprise is the sudden surge in the popularity of sea shanties.

For reasons this auld fella may never understand, there’s been a resurgence of these nautical working songs.

How did this resurgence begin? Climb aboard and we’ll go on a quick adventure…

The Wellerman

It all started when a young Scottish man’s rendition of the 19th century whaling song, Soon May the Wellerman Come – or The Wellerman as it’s become more popularly known – caught the attention of, well, everyone.

The Wellerman became a global sensation almost overnight and has even led to a record deal for the young folk singer, Nathan Evans:

The seashanty craze may be short-lived or maybe it’s here to stay. Who knows?

Either way, I’m hopeful that it will lead a brand new audience on a musical journey of discovery and exploration that introduces them to the exciting world of Irish folk music.

Of course, folk music enthusiasts the world over already know the appeal of this genre. It’s a staple of many folk music traditions.

(Video) Vol. 5 - Compilation of Traditional Folk & Sea Songs - (ft. Kick Up the Dust, Pyrates! & more)

Such is its popularity in traditional Irish music that a Sea Shanty Festival takes place in Rosses Point, Co. Sligo each year:

But what is it that makes these folk songs so popular? The catchy melodies? The collaborative storytelling? The endless potential for close harmony?

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.
– Willie Murphy

Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome opportunity to re-explore some of my favourite folk songs and to introduce you to some of the best Irish sea shanties.

What is a Sea Shanty?

First things first. A sea shanty is not just any old nautically themed song. The term most commonly refers to 19th century working songs sung on board the ships of the transatlantic merchant navy.

These songs served a purpose – maintaining morale and synchronising the onboard labour. The coordinated shanties, with their call and response style, created a unified rhythm for the small crews to perform tasks.

Different songs were used to coordinate different tasks:

  • The capstan shanty was used to crank the windlass – lower or raise the anchor – though it was also sung while doing other jobs.
  • The halyard shanty was used for hoisting sails, with the song’s form varying according to which sail was being hoisted.

For pumping, any old sea song or popular song would do, as long as it had a rousing chorus that everyone could sing along with. This is where much of the confusion relating to classifying songs as shanties originates.

Many of these sea shanties served multiple purposes, with the structure of the song changing to suit the needs of the crew at the time.

The shantyman, or foreman, was responsible for leading the sing and coordinating his crew. It was up to him to set the pace. Apparently a good singing voice could earn you a few extra bob on the job!

Irish Sea Shanties

Sea shanties are a hybridised form of music. Ships, as you can imagine, werecultural melting pots. There is no denying however, a distinct Irish influence on the genre.

What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailorfor example – possibly the best known sea shanty in the world – shares its melody with the Irish folk song Óró Sé Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile.

(Video) Vol. 3 - Compilation of Sea Songs & Folk Music - (The Captain's Beard, The Skullduggers & more)

How did this Irish influence emerge?

One of the most popular trade routes of the 19th century was Liverpool to New York – two cities famous for their large Irish immigrant communities.

It’s hardly surprising that a shipping route betweentwo cities with such large Irish populations would be dominated by Irish crew members:

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.

The Packet Rats of the Western Ocean Packets were almost one hundred per cent Irish… and as these seamen were responsible for many of our finest shanties it was only natural for them to choose tunes and words from Irish sources when they made up these songs.
– Stan Hugill

And as we Irish are prone to doing, everywhere we went, we brought our musical tradition with us. The high seas were no exception!

Leave Her Johnny Leave Her

Leave Her Johnny Leave Heris one of the best known sea shanties and one that is frequently sung in traditional Irish music circles.

It originally served as a capstan, halyard and pump shanty, depending on which format it was sung in.

It was most often sung at the end of the voyage however, during the last round of pumping, as an opportunity for the crew tovent any frustrations accumulated while at sea:

Leave her, Johnny, leave her!
Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her!
For the voyage is done and the winds don’t blow,
And it’s time for us to leave her.

The ‘her’ in question was the ship, but there’s no denying it was a good idea to leave one’s grievances behind too before disembarking, tied up in the port with the ship.

This shanty is thought to have originated around the time of the Great Irish Famine.

One of my favourite versions is sung here by the iconic duo that is Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy. Though, it is perhaps a bit more sentimental than the original would have been:

(Video) Home Free - Sea Shanty Medley

Clear the Track, Let the Bulgine Run

Clear the Track, also known as Eliza Lee,began its life, believe it or not, as an Irish love song. This popular sea shanty shares the melody of the famous traditional Irish folk song,Siúl a Ghrá.

It travelled to America where it was sung by workers on the railroad network. Hence the reference to the Bulgine which was a slang term for a railway engine:

Hey rig a jig in a low back car,
A he, a ho, are you most done?
Eliza Lee all on my knee,

Clear away the track and let the bulgine run.

From there, it found its way back to the ports where it was picked up by ship workers and sung as a capstan shanty.

By this stage it had picked up a number of musical influences along the way however, most notably an African American influence from its time on the railways.

So while its roots are firmly Irish, the song itself should today be considered transatlantic:

We’re All Bound to Go

We’re All Bound to Go – also known as The Irish Emigrant Song or Heave Away My Johnny – is a song that served as an outward-bound brake-windlass shanty.

Sung to melody of a jig, the original version of the shanty, collected by Stan Hugill, tells the tale of a sailor’s misadventure on board a ship.

As with most shanties and folk songs however, several versions exist.

Some focus on the tough life of the crew member on board the packet ships, others, like the version below, focus less on the details of the trip and more on the act of leaving itself:

(Video) Vol. 1 - Compilation of Sea Shanties & Folk Music - (Vocal-Only & with Instruments)

Fall Down Billy O’Shea

Fall Down Billy O’Shea is one of my favourite sea shanties of all time. I have a slight confession to make however. It’s not technically an ‘authentic’ sea shanty…

While it’s frequently used as an example of an Irish sea shanty, this iconic folk song was actually written in the 1960s by Dublin musician Iain McCarthy.

Written in the style of a sea shanty, it tells the tale of a sorry group of men who got drunk in Dublin city and woke up to find themselves bound for America as crew members:

Fall down, fall down, fall down me
We’re bound away for Americay,

Fall down Billy O’Shea

Here it is, performed back in 2014 (before it was cool) by the brilliant Dublin folk group, Lankum:

To be fair, it doesn’t require a great stretch of the imagination to imagine this being sung by a hardworking crew onboard a ship bound for America.

Sea Shanty Performance

The modern style of sea shanty performance that has emerged in recent years, most notably groups singing together in close harmony, isn’t really an accurate reflection of how these songs would have originally been sung.

There’s no denying that sea shanties lend themselves well to this particular style of musical performance however! And it’s definitely far more pleasant to listen to than some collective out of tune grunting aboard a ship.

If you’re lacking someone to sing harmony with however, there’s always instrumental accompaniment.

While the unique modal sound of the Irish bouzouki lends itself well to accompanying these songs, for a more authentic performance you could consider opting for the fiddle or concertina.

The English concertina in particular is strongly associated with the sea shanty tradition and offers the ability to play either chords or melody.

(Video) The best sea shanties - Compilation

So if, like the rest of the world, sea shanties have stolen your heart, why not fully embrace the trend and help to keep this fine folk tradition alive.

[Featured Image: Famine Ship by Michelle O’Riordan, CC BY 2.0]


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 is the oldest 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.

Where did Irish music come from? ›

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 were the three types of sea shanty? ›

There were three principal types of shanties: short-haul, or short-drag, shanties, which were simple songs sung when only a few pulls were needed; halyard shanties, for jobs such as hoisting sail, in which a pull-and-relax rhythm was required (e.g., “Blow the Man Down”); and windlass, or capstan, shanties, which ...

Why are so many sea shanties Irish? ›

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 is the most famous sea shanty? ›

Blow the Man Down – Fisherman's Friends

Arguably the most famous sea shanty ever recited, Fisherman's Friends covers 'Blow the Man Down' as many other maritime-themed groups have done in the past. The song's title dates back to antiquity and deals with the type of ship prominent on the seas during the tune's creation.

Is Gaelic music Irish or Scottish? ›

Gaelic music (Irish: Ceol Gaelach, Scottish Gaelic: Ceòl Gàidhealach) is an umbrella term for any music written in the Gaelic languages of Irish and Scottish Gaelic.

What is the oldest Irish language? ›

The earliest written form of the Irish language is known to linguists as Primitive Irish. Primitive Irish is known only from fragments, mostly personal names, inscribed on stone in the Ogham alphabet. The earliest of such inscriptions probably date from the 3rd or 4th century.

What is the most common Irish song? ›

The Fields of Athenry is often regarded to be Ireland's unofficial national anthem as it is one of the most popular and most famous Irish songs ever composed.

Where did the Irish descend from? ›

According to the genetic research, the Irish are at the extreme end of a genetic wave that washed across Europe, a wave of migrants that swept westward from above the Black Sea across Europe about 2,500 B.C.

Why is Irish music so unique? ›

Irish music is distinct from any other culture or genre, for a variety of reasons. It features specific instruments such as the fiddle, harp, flute, whistle, pipes, accordion, banjo, mandolin, bodhrán, and more.

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 does haul away Joe mean? ›

DESCRIPTION: Shanty, characterized by, "Away, haul away, haul away, Joe" (or "...haul away, pull"). Some versions tell a story: the sailor has trouble with his Irish girl and goes to sea, or suffers grief from a Yankee girl, or otherwise suffers at women's hands.

What is a capstan chantey? ›

What is a capstan shanty? Capstan songs are associated with 'heaving' activities. They are named after the 'capstan' on a vessel, which is a revolving cylinder with a vertical axis that is pushed around by the crew in order to move heavy weights.

Does the Navy still sing sea 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.

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.

Why is the Irish Sea now called the Celtic Sea? ›

The Celtic Sea receives its name from the Celtic heritage of the bounding lands to the north and east.

What's the difference between the Irish Sea and the Celtic Sea? ›

The Celtic Sea is that section of the Atlantic off the south Irish Coast. The Irish Sea is the sea between Ireland and the UK.

Who started the sea shanty trend? ›

It all started when Scottish musician Nathan Evans recorded a video performing a remarkably catchy rendition of “Wellerman,” a 19th century shanty of New Zealand origin. It blew up online, garnering over four million views on TikTok alone.

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.

What does tonguing mean whales? ›

'Tonguing' refers to the tonguers, men who would cut up the whales on shore; they also often acted as intepreters with Māori communities, who also worked as part of the whaling crews.

Why is Irish not Gaelic? ›

Why Gaelic Isn't Irish. This is where things get a little complicated: specifically, Gaelic is an adjective that describes the people and culture of Ireland. The Irish language is sometimes referred to as “Gaeilge” (pronounced Gwal-gah), but it is not Gaelic; Gaelige is the name of the Irish language in Irish.

Are Irish people Gaelic or Celtic? ›

Irish is a Celtic language (as English is a Germanic language, French a Romance language, and so on). This means that it is a member of the Celtic family of languages. Its “sister” languages are Scottish, Gaelic, and Manx (Isle of Man); its more distant “cousins” are Welsh, Breton, and Cornish.

Are Gaelic Celts? ›

Gaelic refers to one of the Celtic languages and cultures, specifically from ancient Ireland, and to the languages developed from it such as modern Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx.

Why did Ireland stop speaking Irish? ›

The decline of the Irish language was the result of two factors: the Great Irish Potato Famine and the repeal of Penal Laws. The Potato Famine led to a decline in the Irish-speaking population. The repeal of Penal Law made Catholics interested in learning English as a way to get ahead in life.

Were the Celts Irish or Scottish? ›

The ancient Celts weren't Irish. They weren't Scottish, either. In fact, they were a collection of people/clans from Europe that are identified by their language and cultural similarities.

What language did Irish evolve from? ›

Irish is a Celtic language which is closely related to Scottish and Manx Gaelic. It is also related to Welsh, Cornish and Breton. The first speakers of Irish probably arrived on these shores from mainland Europe over 2,500 years ago.

What is the greatest Irish hit of all time? ›

RTÉ 2FM listeners have named The Cranberries' 'Zombie' as the greatest Irish hit of all time. The news comes as the station aims to compile a list of hits for the Ultimate Irish Playlist.

What is the Irish song played at funerals? ›

Fields of Gold – a simply stunning Irish funeral song

The Eva Cassidy rendition of 'Fields of Gold', has been sung at many Irish funerals. It is one of the most moving of Irish funeral songs.

Who is the most famous Irish person? ›

Top 40
1John Hume1937
2Michael Collins1890
3Mary Robinson1944
4James Connolly1868
36 more rows

Who are the Irish most genetically related to? ›

They were also found to have most similarity to two main ancestral sources: a 'French' component (mostly northwestern French) which reached highest levels in the Irish and other Celtic populations (Welsh, Highland Scots and Cornish) and showing a possible link to the Bretons; and a 'West Norwegian' component related to ...

What is the oldest Irish surname? ›

The earliest known Irish surname is O'Clery (O Cleirigh); it's the earliest known because it was written that the lord of Aidhne, Tigherneach Ua Cleirigh, died in County Galway back in the year 916 A.D. In fact, that Irish name may actually be the earliest surname recorded in all of Europe.

Which country has the most Irish ancestry? ›

The United Kingdom, which includes Northern Ireland, has the greatest share of Irish migrants – meaning Irish citizens or those born in Ireland, according to the United Nations. The U.K has about 500,000 Irish migrants within its borders.

What are the three types of Irish music? ›

There are three main subcategories of dancing music; jigs, reels, and hornpipes. The reel is the most common form of irish dance tune, said to be brought to Ireland from Scotland in the 18th century.

Why is Irish dancing like that? ›

The Celts were sun worshippers who practiced a pagan dance within a circular formation of stones which has some commonality to the circular formation of Irish set dancing. Celts were also said to have danced clockwise in circles on happy occasions and anti-clockwise when mourning.

What characterizes Irish music? ›

Instrumental Irish music tends to be fast, isometric music that accompanies dances such as jigs, reels and hornpipes (ITMA, 1991). Steady tempo and clarity are emphasized for this reason (Williams, 2009). Slow instrumental pieces for listening (song airs or composed pieces) are less common.

What religion did the Irish bring to America? ›

Roman Catholics

The religion of Irish immigrants was Roman Catholicism, although there were some Protestants. The Irish faced hardship and discrimination because they made up a small population of Roman Catholics in a sea of Protestant Americans.

Why did so many Irish come to America? ›

Between 1845 and 1855 more than 1.5 million adults and children left Ireland to seek refuge in America. Most were desperately poor, and many were suffering from starvation and disease. They left because disease had devastated Ireland's potato crops, leaving millions without food.

What pushed the Irish to America? ›

Pushed out of Ireland by religious conflicts, lack of political autonomy and dire economic conditions, these immigrants, who were often called "Scotch-Irish," were pulled to America by the promise of land ownership and greater religious freedom.

Is Matthew McConaughey a Walkaway Joe? ›

All the way back in 1992, an unknown Matthew McConaughey starred in Trisha Yearwood's 1992 “Walkaway Joe” (ft. Don Henley) video. The 23-year-old McConaughey was just starting out as an actor when he was cast for the video.

What does just a joe mean? ›

countable noun. An average Joe is an average or ordinary man. [mainly US, informal] I'm just an average Joe.

Where did Haul Away Joe come from? ›

From the book “Folk Songs of Old New England” we learn that this chantey was “sung by Capt. Charlton L. Smith, master mariner and yacht master since 1889, who remembers the chantey as it was sung in deep water ships, aboard which he sailed as 'chips,' or ship's carpenter.

What is the difference between a windlass and a capstan? ›

Today, you hear the terms windlass and capstan interchangeably. The difference: typically a windlass has a horizontal axis (drum on the side, axis pointing to the horizon) whereas a capstan has a vertical axis. Essentially both a capstan and windlass achieve the same purpose, and the terms today are interchangeable.

What sea shanties are in 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 is the difference between winch and capstan? ›

The main difference between a winch and a capstan is that the winch has a drum onto which a rope or steel cable is wound, while a capstan is a powered drum-shaped device used to assist in pulling a rope, steel cable or chain, but which does not actually roll it onto a drum.

What is the oldest known sea shanty? ›

One of the earliest references to shanty-like songs that has been discovered was made by an anonymous "steerage passenger" in a log of a voyage of an East India Company ship, entitled The Quid (1832).

Are sea shanties Irish or Scottish? ›

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

What is the black history of sea shanties? ›

Sea shanties were one way sailors could keep themselves entertained while performing communal labor. Black sailors performed different tasks than white sailors, and for each activity, there was a different shanty. One prominent song among Black sailors was called “The Ward Line.”

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.

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

Are sea shanties British? ›

Sea shanties have long been an important part of British musical and maritime culture, and even if that seafaring heyday is now over, groups around the country still preserve the tradition, albeit safe on dry land.

Is Sea of thieves Jack Sparrow? ›

Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean sails into Sea of Thieves for an all-new adventure! Captain Jack Sparrow and his infamous crew have sailed in from beyond the horizon to spark an epic original story. Join forces with Jack and venture across, below and beyond the waves as you battle to save the Sea of Thieves.

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 I like sea shanties so much? ›

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 rhythm are sea shanties? ›

Most shanties come in 4/4 time, an easy beat to keep track of, or sometimes the more typically Irish-Scottish folk song time of 6/8, which lends itself well to storytelling and seems to mirror the up-and-down movement of waves.


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(Captain Halyard)
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