Yet another I learned from Cisco Houston, recalling the waves of Irish laborers who immigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century and built most of the eastern rail system — while the western rail lines were built mostly by Chinese immigrants.
The stereotype of the harried but cheerful Irish workingman was already an English theatrical staple in Shakespeare’s time, and this song wanders the permeable boundary between folk and pop music. In Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong, Norm and David Cohen write that “it is not certain whether it originated among Irish laborers or among Irish professional entertainers.” Nor is it certain what “it” means, since the song is vaguely dated to the 1850s and already existed in numerous variants by the late 1800s.
The earliest documented version seems to have been a sea chantey, which didn’t have the pseudo-Gaelic “fillamee-ooree-airee-ay” chorus. The version that is currently best known in Ireland — due largely to the Dubliners — has yet another chorus about “wearing corduroy britches, digging ditches.” Some folklorists have rejected all versions as minstrel show confections, and I’d bet aces to oranges that the Dubliners’ version is stage-Irish, but I’d guess Cisco’s had made its way into oral tradition by the time he got it.
The song is often titled “Paddy” rather than “Pat,” and both were generic names for Irish characters back in the days when comic Irish minstrelsy was almost as common as comic blackface minstrelsy — some recent scholars have proposed the term “greenface.” The overlaps between Irish and black stereotypes are well worth exploring, but can easily be overstated, since most stage Irishmen were in fact Irish, while most stage Negros were white (frequently Irish) performers in blackface make-up. (There were plenty of fake Irish as well, including Harpo Marx, whose red wig was a survival of his original stage character, an Irish Patsy Brannigan.)
I guess that’s my excuse for digging this one out — along with the fact that these songs survived in oral tradition among Irish singers, often as expressions of working-class pride. Another song Cisco recorded, “Drill, Ye Tarriers,” has a great pair of verses about an Irish laborer facing particularly harsh labor conditions:
Our new foreman was Jim McGann,
By golly, he was a blame mean man.
One day a premature blast went off
And a mile in the sky went Big Jim Goff.
Drill, ye tarriers, drill.
When next payday come around,
Jim Goff a dollar short was found,
When he asked the reason, got this reply:
“You were docked for the time you were up in the sky.”
Drill, ye tarriers, drill.