The Wreck of the Mary Jane is a comical sailor song, in similar vein to the much more famous Irish Rover.
The song begins with the tongue in cheek statement that it’s being sung for “dry-land sailors that never went out in the rain”.
This is a kind of in joke among real sailors who would scoff at landlubbers, who might talk of their adventures at sea as a way of gaining prestige but in reality had probably never even been on board a ship.
Having announced that the song is for dry land sailors, the song proceeds to make fun of them and their ignorance at every opportunity.
Ship ‘sails’ between landlocked towns!
For example, the Mary Jane is said to have been built in Taghmon. This could not be true as Taghmon is several miles inland in Co Wextford in Ireland and nowhere near the coast. The joke seems to be that a ship built on dry land is just what is required by dry land sailors.
The joke continues with reference to their destination being Timbuctoo – a reference to Timbuktu in modern day Mali. It is several hundred miles inland and hardly a destination for a sailing ship.
There are more jibes at landlubber ignorance. When there is no wind to drive the sail, the men have to get into the sea and push! The ship is carrying a cargo of dung – an important commodity for land loving farm labourers but not something transported halfway across the world on a ship.
The word sprong in the fourth verse is Irish for a garden fork, an implement more at home in the hands of land workers than seafarers.
The song was first collected by Colm O’Lochlainn
The Wreck of the Mary Jane was collected by Colm O’Lochlainn, who learnt it from the singer Cathal O Byrne in Belfast in the early 20th century. O’Lochlainn got the full lyrics from 19th century ballad sheets and published the song in full in his collection of Irish Street Ballads in 1939.
It is sung to the tune of another old Irish folk song, The Town of Antrim.
Come all ye dry land sailors bold,
That never went out in the rain
And I will sing in praise of a ship
That was called the Mary Jane,
The Mary Jane was a one-mast ship
She was built in the town of Taghmon,
She carried a crew of a hundred and two
With a cargo of farmer’s dung.
The captain he was a Dutchman
And he hailed from Barrack Lane,
And his wife was the ‘man behind the mast’
On board the Mary Jane,
The mate was a great navigator,
And his nose was as red as a tart;
He belonged to the Wexford Militia
And he knew every pub on the chart.
We had a French cook from Nullinavat,
Pat Murphy was his name;
And he was chief cook for spoiling the soup
On board of the Mary Jane,
The morning that we left Taghmon
Our ship ran short of wind
So the crew had to get right out in the wet
And everyone shove behind.
When going around Long Stone Cross
A terrible storm blew,
So we tightened her sails with a horse’s reins,
And we steered for Timbuctoo.
Next morning our cargo shifted,
So the captain cried, “We’re done.”
But every man took a sprong in his hand
And went down for to turn the dung.
Next day we ran short of tobacco,
We hadn’t a bit in the bag;
So when the captain and crew had ne’er a chew
They started to ‘chaw the rag’,
And now we were short of lime juice
And the herrings they were so salt,
The skipper he told the mate so bold
When he’d come to a pub to halt.
The mate he kept a sharp look-out,
For he was fond of a drop,
When he saw the green light he shouted, “Hold tight,
We’re into a doctor’s shop.”
The Mary Jane took a stitch in her side,
And so did the rest of the crew,
So she went ashore at the doctor’s door,
And she never reached Timbuctoo.