McAlpine’s Fusiliers (expanded)

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

 McAlpine’s Fusilier’s/Instrumental– Over the years this has proved to be one of the most popular items in our repertoire. Obviously, we enjoy playing whatever song or instrumental we happen to be performing. We play for enjoyment and not for pay. All we ask is a reasonable sound system. While we won’t make money doing this, we will make craic- and isn’t that all that matters. Dominic Behan wrote this song [see notes below for an update on this assertion.] (among many other fine examples from the genre) and it captures the essence of the Irish navvies who, in their thousands and tens of thousands built the rail, the roads the tunnels and canals and a lot more of the infrastructure in Britain and farther afield. (Listen to our version, from which these notes are taken, at Song 57- a field recording of almost a decade past) For a deep dive into the origins of the song, read on. If this is not to your taste, just go to the song itself, which you will discover has an extra verse. The reason? Ah, if you really want to know that, then you’ll just have to read on!

McAlpine’s Fusiliers is an Irish ballad set to a traditional air, popularised in the early 1960s by Dominic Behan.

The song relates to the migration of Irish labourers from Ireland to Britain during the 20th century. The ballad’s title refers to the eponymous construction company of Sir Robert McAlpine, a major employer of Irish workmen at the time. John Laing and Wimpey (also referred to in the opening monologue; an integral part of the ballad although not included in some cover versions of the song) were other major construction companies employing Irish ‘navvies’ (a British term referring to building labourers and originally coined for the labourers who built the British canals or ‘navigations’)

The colloquial and local terms in the song’s monologue and lyrics include references to a ‘spike’ (a hostel or ‘reception centre’ sometimes used by Irish navvies who could not find or afford lodgings) and to ‘shuttering’ (a rapidly constructed wooden casing made to hold concrete while it sets). Holyhead, also referred to in the monologue, is a port on Anglesey (Ynys Môn) in Wales where the main ferry service across the Irish Sea from Dún Laoghaire used to dock. 

Cricklewood is a district of North West London which had a relatively large Irish population. The Isle of Grain is an area in Kent where the River Medway joins the Thames Estuary east of London which was a large construction site for several years while a large power station was built there The song offers a satirical view of the life and work of the Irish labourers of the times and as such proved popular.

While some sources suggest that the words of the song were derived from an earlier poem or poems, the song’s arrangement was attributed to Dominic Behan. Along with a number of other songs, Behan provided the song to The Dubliners for use in a new set-structure In its original form, the song was performed in two parts, a spoken monologue (originally spoken by Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners self-accompanied by his flamenco guitar) followed by the sung verses supported by the full band. [Below is the spoken monologue]

Twas in the year of 39 and the sky was filled with lead
Hitler was heading for Poland and Paddy for Holyhead.
Come all you Pincher Laddies and you long distance men
Never work for McAlpine, or Wimpey or John Laing
For he’ll stick you behind the mixer ‘til your skin is turned to tan
And shout come on you Paddy with your passport in your hand.
The craic was good in Cricklewood but they wouldn’t leave The Crown
There was bottles flying and Biddy’s crying, sure, Paddy was going to town.
Oh mother dear I’m over here and I’m never going back
What keeps me here is the rake of beer the women and the craic.

[Source above, adapted from Wikipedia]

For many years it has been an open secret among Irishmen who toiled in the construction trade in England that Dominic Behan did not write the words to McAlpine’s Fusiliers.

When the song was released by the Dubliners in 1965, Dominic was given credit for writing the words, and Essex Music International got the copyright.

But the reality according to many people who were around that environment in that era is that what Dominic did was to use his undoubted writing skills to tidy up and make presentable the rhymes that had been passed around construction sites all over Britain since the start of the second World War.

Even his own brother Brian accused him on a national television talk show of stealing the words and then went on to say that the nearest that Dominic had ever came to working on a building site was when he posed as a hod-carrier with a straw hat on his head.

So, who did write McAlpine’s Fusiliers? Well according to numerous sources the originator of most of the words was a labourer by the name of Martin Henry from Rooskey, on the East Mayo/ South Sligo border.

He was the youngest member of the well-known Henry family who were famed for their fiddle playing.

As often happens, Henry’s words would have been passed around from job to job on scraps of paper, where aspiring site poets would add a line here and there and pub laureates would recite verses of it when sufficient ale was taken on a Saturday night. It seems likely that by the mid-1950’s the words were fairly well known among Irish navvies.

There’s other evidence that back up the case for Martin Henry. He wrote a poem, The Men of 39, which is like the monologue that Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners uses to introduce McAlpine’s Fusiliers. Also, Martin Henry was a near neighbour and good friend of the legendary ‘Darkie Finn’ who was from Cloonlarin, just inside the Mayo border and they worked together in Kent, England, on the massive Isle of Grain, Power Station that was being built by McAlpine’s in the 1950s.

This project hired thousands of Irish workers and was also the scene of some violent incidents between Connemara men and Dublin men that stemmed from a card game and carried on sporadically for years.

The second verse of the song attributed to Behan starts, “I stripped to the skin with the Darkie Finn down by the Isle of Grain.”Pat ‘the Darkie’ Finn’, was regarded as a highly skilled and sought-after shuttering carpenter who is also mentioned in a verse of a different song.

“I watched the frame take the strain, but the concrete all caved in
And George Wimpey searched all Manchester ‘til he found the Darkie Finn.”

Now here are the words of the poem The Men O’ 39 which many people credit with being the penmanship and poetry of Martin Henry. It was quite a lengthy poem so I’ll just show [lines below from it] but I think you will be able to see the similarities.

Come all you Pincher Kiddies and all long distance men,
You may be over in this land, nine years or maybe ten,
You may have tramped this country o’er from Plymouth to the Tyne,
But there’s not a word about the boys sir came in ‘39.
There’s not a word about the lads from old Kinsale,
And took the road to Dublin; from Dun Laoghaire they did sail.
The man up in the Globe Hotel, he gave them the ‘o’grand’,
Saying, good luck upon you Paddy, with the passport in your hand.
Some of those Pincher Kiddies came when England needed men,
His catchword was to catch for the famous Darky Finn.
To slave behind a mixer until your skin turned tanned,
And to say, good on you Paddy, with the passport in your hand.
Now all of you who stayed at home and never crossed the pond,
And didn’t work for Wimpey, McAlpine or John Laing,
Or slave behind a mixer until your skin is tanned,
And to say goodbye to you Paddy, with your passport in your hand.

[We’ll let the jury decide that one…]

There was also another verse in the McAlpine’s Fusiliers song that wasn’t used as part of the release. Old-timers have said that they often used this verse as the second one to last. It refers to the common practice on big jobs of bringing in a Catholic priest on a Sunday to say mass for the men who had to work. As this verse shows the foremen and ganger men were not always too pleased with this practice.

And it came to pass, we should go to mass
On the Immaculate Conception
The foreman met us at the gate
And gave us a terrible reception
“Get down the sewers, ye Kerry hoors
And never mind your prayers
For the only God is a well filled hod
With McAlpine’s Fusiliers

So, it seems that Dominic Behan had a huge amount of material to work with and in fairness to him he was a prolific songwriter and he did rearrange the words, tidy things up and compose a very good, rousing song. The melody he used was a speeded-up version of the haunting tune that accompanied the song The Foggy Dew.

Ronnie Drew, Dominic Behan, Martin Henry and very few of those men who worked on those huge construction projects are still alive, so the question will probably always remain a mystery regarding who wrote the words to ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers?’ But does it really matter? It’s a great song. My wife, Bridie, (a traditionalist if ever there was one!) is opposed to the extended version I have cobbled together (that is, the inclusion of the extra verse) saying that it is not in keeping with the rest of the song

But if any of you readers ever venture around the south Sligo-east Mayo border and pop into towns with names like Rooskey, Cloontia or Sheskeen and ask the locals who wrote the words to McAlpine’s Fusiliers the answer will be a resounding – Martin Henry. If you mention the name Dominic Behan, they will say, “The man from Dublin popularised it, but our own Martin Henry wrote it!” (source above, irelandsown.ie)

So, now that we have explored the disputed origins of McAlpine’s Fusiliers, where does that leave this  version of the song? I will forego the spoken intro to the song, but, I’m going to adapt and incorporate the old-timers’ penultimate verse which is italicised and underlined above-  I guess because, now, as a septuagenarian, I’m an old-timer, too.

And, because I have incorporated the penultimate verse that, almost undeniably, Martin Henry wrote, which expands the song from four to five verses, I will be so bold as to credit the song lyrics jointly to Martin Henry and Dominic Behan. It seems only fair, after reviewing the evidence above. After all, it’s been fifty-five years since The Dubliners record credited Dominic Behan alone…

McAlpine’s Fusiliers (expanded)
McAlpine’s Fusiliers (Expanded version)