The Irish Rovers “Drunken Sailor”

The Irish Rovers, “Drunken Sailor”

Back in the 1960s, I managed a merchant seamans’ bar in Corpus Christi, Texas.  I had the privilege, for a few years, of serving “booze” to men (and a few women) from all over the world who came in on merchant ships.  This was one of the best times of my life.

Fast forward a few years to a time when I had a chance to see The Irish Rovers live in concert – a quartet I had long liked because of their song “The Unicorn”, and which took me to buying two of their cassettes.  They did a good show, and somehow, I got a tin whistle from one of them, which I have to this day.  Unfortunately, as music came in on better sources (like CDs), my tapes got relegated to a box and I forgot about the Rovers for a time.

Now I have a new CD of theirs, titled “Drunken Sailor”, and my enthusiasm for them has come back.

So backtrack with me, in your imagination, to the days when the tall ships sailed the seven seas.  Think about those lusty, gutsy, sailors who went off to sea on trading ships, fighting rough waves and winds, often not knowing if they were going to make it safely back home, or indeed, to any safe port.  Think about those lads eating hardtack and jerky and drinking water (and the occasional beer or “grog”), thinking about the women they left behind, and living with salt in their beards and cuts on their hands, or calluses, if they had been around the hausers for long enough to build the calluses.  And think of the lads making it safely home, or to a harbor, paying off to get their money, and with nothing better to do, hitting the pubs and bars and cantinas, to drink and flirt with the busty, fun-loving ladies.  Now you have a feel for listening to this very good CD.

The Irish Rovers are George Millar and Wilcil McDowell, who with along two other lads, put the Rovers together in Vancouver, Canada, 45 years ago.  They are the only two who have been with them from the beginning.  One of the earlier Rovers was the father of Ian Millar, a cousin to George, and now a member.  John Reynolds has been around for 25 years, and Sean O’Driscoll and Fred Graham are the newest members of this group.  All but Sean are from Northern Ireland, in and around Belfast, and I seem to remember that the reason the older members emigrated to Canada in 1963 did so because of the troubles in Northern Ireland, and a hope to save their families.  According to their website, which I encourage you all to read, especially “Our Story”,  you will learn far more information than I can possibly remember right now.  They have been a staple for Irish/Celtic music in Canada and the US for many years, and have been making their names more widely known in their own country of Ireland for the past few years.

Along with the Rovers, on this CD, guest musicians include Patrick Davey, Morris Crum, Gerry O’Connor, and Billy Antrim.  There are 14 tracks on this CD, and all of them are about those Irish lads that roamed the seas in those tall-rigged ships.  Seven of them are traditional songs arranged by George Millar, one of them is a traditional tune to which George has added words, and six of them are written by George Millar.  The lads have their own music company, Rover Records.

Most of the tunes would be considered to be “adult-rated”, though from reading through the lyrics, I would say most youngsters are not going to understand the lyrics anyway.  Because they use euphemisms that are not immediately recognized as “doing the naughties”.  Each song has a descriptive comment at the beginning which certainly will make you laugh in many cases, or just nod and say “uh-huh”.  At the front of the booklet enclosed, George writes, and I quote:  “Back in the days of the sail, the old-time sailors faced some insurmountable odds as they navigated the oceans of the world.  They were beset by foul weather, foul conditions and worst of all, foul shipmates.  Remember, deodorant and tooth paste hadn’t been invented yet.  Thank God for their rum!  It was a challenging life fraught with peril and heartache, and that was just in port – the trips were even worse!  Here, then, are some nautical songs of yesteryear, that may indeed answer the musical question, ‘What would we do with the drunken sailor?'” (George Millar, Nanoose Bay/Maui, January 2012).

So they start the CD with “The Drunken Sailor”, with a quote that lets you know this is their traditional ending song at their concerts, but which they chose to begin this CD.  If you don’t know this song, you’ve probably been living under a rock.

The next songs are titled

“Whores & Hounds” (enough said).
“Cruising ‘Round Yarmouth” – quoting (“if you’re not sure what these nautical terms mean, try Dial-A-Sailor on your cell phone”).
“Good Luck to the Marleymow” – this is a nine-verse song, which mentions the size of every kind of drink you can imagine, and a salute to four people you would meet in a bar – company, brewer, landlord, daughter, barrel, half-barrel, gallon, half-gallon, pint pot, half a pint, gill, half a gill, quartergill, nipperkin, and a round bowl.
“Sweet Annie” – a pretty song that tells a story about why so many of these sailors did not create lasting relationships when ashore – the young wife who waits patiently day after day, month after month, year after year, for a ship that will never return.
“All For Me Grog” – why the sailors return to the sea year after year.
“Trust In Drink”
“The Jolly Roving Tar” – a song about when the sailors, or “tars”, as they were called, came to shore, how they party, drink, roll their ladies in the hay, and often leave her in the hay “with a daughter or a son”.  Well, the lads and lassies knew there could be consequences of their rollicking nights of love, and what fitter memory of a sailor who might never return.  (This was not considered a sin in those times.)
“The Good Ship Rover” – a salute to the ships the sailors would return to (not all of them were beloved – quite often a sailor would get off a ship and declare he’d never go back to that one – perhaps it was a nasty captain, or simply a ship that was not “yare”).
“Dear Ould Ireland” – quoting “This is a rare breed of Irish sailor song.  Our hero avoids the usual sailor pitfalls, and returns safe and pure to his true love back in Ireland.  A fairy tale you say?  Arrr!!!”.
“Across The Western Sea”
“Pleasant and Delightful” – the promise of a young sailor to return to his love “And if ever I return again I will make you my bride”.
“The Titanic” – this is a beautiful song, written by George in salute to the Titanic, which was built in the Belfast shipyards (“she was alright when she left here!”), Verse 5: “A hundred years have come and gone and still we know her name, When a voyage bound for glory turned to tragedy and shame, It’s a night to be remembered for man’s own frailty, When the mightty ship Titanic sank to the bottom of the sea.”.  The song is introduced with an instrumental, “Nearer My God To Thee”.
And finally,
“The Dublin Pub Crawl” – quoting:  “This is a prequel to the first song Drunken Sailor, and explains how they got in that condition.  All will be revealed……….”
This song has 12 verses, with each verse mentioning a different pub on a crawl through Dublin, and in verse 12, they sing “…..Lannigan’s, Flannigan’s, Milligan’s, Gilligan’s, Rafferty’s, Cafferty’s, Dillon’s, McQuillan’s, McLeary’s, O’Leary’s, O’Hegarty’s, Kitty McGee’s, in Dublin town upon the crawl, a hell of a time was had by all, down where the beer and whiskey flew”.

By the time you have heard the whole CD, you will relinquish your imaginary trip into the past with a sigh, and wish you could have been there.

I particularly like that The Irish Rovers logo on the inside booklet shows a tall-rigged ship, surrounded with a Celtic knot attached to the ship’s superstructure, and the waves under the ship being a Celtic knot surrounding an anchor, and a unicorn as the ship’s figurehead.

Highly recommended, and a great trip back to a group I loved long ago.

Carol Stepp
Austin, TX

About carolstepp

Music is about the most important thing in my life, and I follow a large number of musicians, particularly Irish, Scots, Classical, Crossovers of any of these. I was writing a blog about Celtic Thunder regularly on MySpace, and now I have left them after a year, and will start writing my blogs here. I am 70, retired, living on Social Security, and have a lot of social network fans.
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2 Responses to The Irish Rovers “Drunken Sailor”

  1. Aloha Carol. Hamish Burgess here, artist for the Irish Rovers. Nice review. Glad you like my artwork for their great new CD. More of my work at
    All the best. Cheers, Hamish

    • carolstepp says:

      I do love Celtic patterns and artwork, and I think the Unicorn on the bow of the ship is very clever. I appreciate your sending your website to me, and I will be looking at it. Slainte, Hamish.

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