The Irish Rover - a Song About a Dog (and 23 Masts)

A tall ship's mast
© Bernd Biege

The Irish Rover, a well-known Irish song, and a stalwart for every pub sing-song when the spirits are high and the odd pint of Guinness has flown. And it is a song about a dog. Or a ship. Or something ... maybe they just made the words up as they went along? Possible, as there are several versions of the lyrics of The Irish Rover, none of them quite canonical. Here is one version. And you'll find a few remarks on the song below the lyrics.

The Irish Rover - the Lyrics

In the year of our Lord
Eighteen hundred and six
We set sail from the fair Cobh of Cork,
We were bound far away
With a cargo of bricks
For the fair City Hall of New York.

We'd a beautiful craft,
She was rigged fore and aft,
And Lord how the trade winds drove her,
As she stood to the blast,
She had twenty-three masts
And we called her the Irish Rover.

Chorus:
Fare thee well, my own true one,
I'm going far from you
And I will swear by the stars above,
Forever I'll be true;
But as I part it will break my heart,
And when the trip is over,
I'll roam again in true Irish style
Aboard the Irish Rover.

Donoghue and Mac Hugh
Came from Red Waterloo.
And O'Neill and Mac Flail from the Rhine.
There was Ludd and Mac Gludd
From the land of the flood
Pat Malone, Mike Mac Gowan and O'Brien,

There was Barney McGee
From the banks of the Lee,
There was Hogan from County Tyrone.
And a chap called McGurk
Who was scared stiff of work
And a chap from Westmeath called Mellone.

Chorus

There was Slugger O'Toole
Who was drunk as a rule
And fighting Bill Casey from Dover.
There was Dooley from Clare
Who was strong as a bear
And was skipper of the Irish Rover.

Bould Mac Gee, Mac Entee
And big Neill from Tigree
And Michael O'Dowd from Dover
And a man from Turkestan
Sure his name was Kid Mac Cann
Was the cook on the Irish Rover.

Chorus

We had one million bags
Of the best Sligo rags,
We had two million barrels of bones,
We had three million sides
From old blind horse hides
We had four million bags full of stones.

We had five million dogs
And six million hogs,
And seven million bundles of clover.
We had eight million bales
Of old billy goats tails,
In the hold of the Irish Rover.

Chorus

O we sailed seven years
And the measles broke out,
And the ship lost her way in a fog.
And the whole of the crew
Was reduced unto two
Just meself and the skipper's old dog.

And we struck on a rock
With a terrible shock
And Lord, she rolled right over.
She turned nine times around;
And the old dog got drowned
I'm the last of the Irish Rover.

Chorus

The Irish Rover - What's It All About?

Well, obviously, it is about a historical event - a terrible maritime tragedy. But the teller of the tale might have improved the plot here and there. Or gotten confused.

First things first - despite the repeated mention of canines in the song, and Rover being a favourite name for a dog over here, "The Irish Rover" is actually the name of a ship. Which sailed with bricks for New York, the cargo being earmarked for the construction of City Hall. Which, in the given year (1806) was actually being in the long process of being planned, but construction proper only started in 1810.

Thus we have a case of premature bricks ... and it is questionable whether they would have been imported anyway.

Having said said, the later list of cargo renders any speculation useless, as eight million bales of old billy-goat tails would not have been a very profitable venture. And be hard to fit into a cargo ship of the time.

Then again, The Irish Rover had 23 masts, didn't it? Another tall tale, me hearties, there never were ships with 23 masts in all of Western seamanship, and even the fabled treasure ships of Chinese Admiral Zheng He "only" had nine masts. Small wonder that the crew included a fellow called Kid Mac Cann from Turkestan. As the student said when the teacher pointed out that a double positive does not make a negative: "Yeah, right ..."

Who Wrote The Irish Rover?

That is highly debatable ...

the lyrics are, however, occasionally attributed to a J.M. Crofts, about whom nothing else is known.

The Irish Rover - Recommended Recordings

If there is a seminal recording of The Irish Rover, it must be the one made by The Dubliners in collaboration with The Pogues. This was released on The Dubliners' 1987 album "25 Years Celebration".