The Ferryman, sometimes known as The Strawberry Beds, is one of many great songs by Dublin songwriter Pete St John which have become standards in Irish folk circles.
Others include The Fields of Athenry and The Rare Ould Times.
St John spent many years abroad in the 1950s and 60s. When he came back to Dublin in the 1970s, he was appalled at the way the city was being changed by developers and at how people were being made redundant as their trades became obsolete.
For 320 years there had been a ferry service across the River Liffey based at the North Wall in Dublin. The increasing use of cars and the improved road network meant it was falling into disuse and so the decision was taken to close it.
The Liffey Ferry, commonly known to Dubliners as the Workers’ Ferry, made its last crossing from the Grand Canal basin to Spencer Dock in October 1984.
St John was there to witness the sad occasion. He heard one of the ferry workers say: “Here I am redundant and I’m only 42, after 20 years befriending the machine.” This gave him the idea to write a song. The result was The Ferryman which laments the closure of the ferry service, the loss of jobs and the end of a proud tradition.
The phrase Anna Liffey is a colloquial Dublin term for the River Liffey. The use of the word “breast” combined with the woman’s name Anna gives the sense that the river was like a mother providing for the people.
Despite the sadness and regret expressed in The Ferryman, the song ends on a positive note.
Molly we’re still living and darling we’re still young
And that river never owned me heart and soul
St John was paying tribute to the resilience of the Dublin people and acknowledging that life goes on, despite whatever setbacks may occur.
The Ferryman has been recorded by numerous artists, most notably perhaps by The Dublin City Ramblers and by The Dubliners.
Watch a video featuring Pete St John provide a poetic introduction to The Ferryman on Irish television in 1988.