The Holy Ground is an unusual song – one minute sounding like a raucous drinking song, the next minute surprising us with the sensitivity of its lyrics.
It comes from the sea shanty tradition and is thought to have been used by sailors to keep up their spirits and help them work in unison as they performed various tasks around the ship such as hauling up the anchor or the raising the sail.
The Holy Ground, in its broadest sense, refers to Ireland and more specifically, the town of Cobh in County Cork. The song is sometimes referred to as the Cobh Sea Shanty.
Cobh was a thriving sea port in the 18th and 19th centuries when the song first became widely known and popular with sailors. The Titanic sailed into Cobh before setting off on its ill-fated maiden voyage.
Cobh was also the port used by hundreds of thousands of Irish people who fled famine, poverty and political oppression in Ireland to seek a better life in America.
Annie Moore and her brothers left Cobh in December 1891. On 1st January 1892, they became the first people to be admitted into the United States via the new immigration centre at Ellis Island, New York.
There is now a statue in their honour in front of Cobh harbour, and there is also one on Ellis Island, New York.
The Holy Ground is the name of the song that became popular in Ireland and which has since been made popular all over the world thanks to recordings by groups like The Clancy Brothers and The Dubliners.
However, there are other versions of the song from other countries, particularly Wales where there are two similar songs called The Lass of Swansea Town, and Old Swansea Town Once More.
The author of the song is unknown. Whether the Welsh or the Irish versions can claim to be the original is one of those mysteries so often found in folk music and will probably never be answered with any certainty.
There is a school of thought that says the Holy Ground is really an ironic title because the place it refers to is the red light district in Cobh.
This may be true but there is no conclusive evidence or known contemporary references to confirm that there was ever such an area in the town known as the Holy Ground.
It’s just as likely that the theory arose out of the references to girls in the song and the fact that sailors are involved. In that sense it may be little more than stereotyping.
We’ll probably never know for sure.
The Holy Ground is a fascinating song because it’s difficult to be sure of the exact tone of the lyrics.
The song is usually performed as a raucous singalong and it certainly lends itself well to this approach.
There are references to drinking and the shout of ‘Fine Girl You Are’ make it appear as a typical male drinking song, ideally suited to a rowdy night in the pub.
However, there’s more to the Holy Ground than just a rousing singalong. Some of the lyrics seem much deeper and may reflect the thoughts of men who aren’t thinking of red light districts at all but are longing to be with the women they loved.
Take these lines, for example:
Now when we’re out a-sailing and you are far behind,
Fine letters will I write to you with the secrets of my mind.
That suggests men who want to maintain a loving relationship, and to communicate and connect at a deep level.
It’s quite possible that the song works on different levels with lines that reflect the different states of mind a sailor might experience when away from home.
There is the raucous, of course, but there is also the sensitive.
There are numerous excellent versions of the song by performers like the Clancys and the Dubliners that show the song’s lively, infectious spirit. But it’s interesting to see how the song can be interpreted in a totally different way by performers like Mary Black, who bring a totally different perspective.