The Irish Rover tells the story of a magnificent sailing ship that makes Noah’s Ark seem like a little paddle boat on a local park lake.
Its clever lyrics and its infectious, driving melody make it another Irish song that has become popular across the world.
The story of the Irish Rover is told by its only surviving crew member. As he’s the only survivor, he has the freedom to say whatever he wants with no one to contradict him… and oh how he enjoys that freedom.
The song is a feast of wild exaggeration. The only elements that have the sense of mundane reality are dates and locations. The Irish Rover set sail in 1806 from Cork.
After that, things start to get a little strange.
This is no ordinary ship. The singer creates a delightful, anarchic flight of fancy filled with colourful characters and irresistibly wild claims.
For example, the ship has 27 masts. To accommodate that much sail power, a ship would have to be something like 200 yards long, putting it on a par with modern day oil tankers.
Perhaps the Irish Rover was ahead of its time and pioneered new ship building technology!
The crew of the Irish Rover are a colourful bunch with “Johnny McGurk who was scared stiff of work” and “Slugger O’Toole who was drunk as a rule and fighting Ben Tracy from Dover”.
There was also Mickey Coote, who was cock of the walk and who could charm the ladies with his witty talk and skilful flute playing.
The most impressive part of the Irish Rover has to be the cargo. It has everything from “one million bags of the best Sligo rags” together with “three million sides of old blind horses’ hides and four million barrels of bones”.
It’s the livestock that is really impressive. Even Noah’s Ark could not compare with the Irish Rover, which had “five million hogs and six million dogs”.
The Irish Rover is a sailor’s song and it’s not afraid to be explicit in reflecting the sailor’s thoughts and lifestyle, even when they go against the moral standards of Victorian times.
For example, “he longs for the shore and a charming young whore” would have scandalised many listeners in the nineteenth century, and may well raise a few eyebrows today.
Most popular versions of the song refer to measles breaking out which leads to the sinking of the ship. This is based on a mishearing of the original lyrics which refers to “the mizzens breaking out”.
The mizzen was a third mast, the smaller one placed just behind the main mast on sailing ships of the early nineteenth century.
If it broke then the ship may well have “lost its way in the fog”.
The Irish Rover has a beautifully surreal character that is unusual in the nineteenth century folk tradition.
The writer is unknown but the mention of the mizzens suggests a good knowledge of ships and so the original song was probably composed by a sailor.
Given the surreal nature, it’s possible that the size of the ship and its cargo became exaggerated as it was performed over the years until it reached the outlandish proportions which eventually become part of its charm.