Saturday, April 20, 2024





A folk song that I quite like.


I love this version by Donal Clancy, my favourite, and some great guitar work in accompanying himself:

This version by Trip McCool is also good, plus interesting photographs:

1891 recording, sound not great but interesting for the historical context:

1950’s recording by Cisco Houston:
Cisco Houston, a renowned American folk singer and songwriter, popularised the song again with a version in the 1950s. However, his voice, a smooth baritone, has been considered too polished for folk music. His voice has been categorised as too professional and lacking in authenticity. Fully agree.


Every morning at seven o'clock
There's twenty tarriers a workin’ at the rock
The boss comes along and he says, "Keep still
And come down heavy on the cast iron drill."

So drill, ye tarriers, drill
And drill, ye tarriers, drill
Oh it's work all day for the sugar in your tay
Down beyond the railway
So drill, ye tarriers, drill.

Our new foreman is Dan McCann
By God he was a blamed mean man
Last week a premature blast went off
And a mile in the air went big Jim Goff.

Next time payday comes around
Jim Goff a dollar short was found
"When he asked “What for?” came this reply
"You was docked for the time you was up in the sky."

The boss was a fine man down to the ground
And he married a lady six foot round,
She baked good bread and she baked it well
But she baked it harder than the hobs of Hell.

Tarriers live on work and sweat
There ain't no tarrier got rich yet
Sleep and work, then work some more
And we'll drill right through to the devil's door.

About the song:

"Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill" is an American folk song first published in 1888 and attributed to Thomas Casey (words) and later Charles Connolly (music). It was the Number 1 song in 1891.

The song is a work song about the construction of the American railroads in the mid-19th century. The title refers to Irish workers, drilling holes in rock to blast out railroad tunnels.

“Tarrier” has a double meaning: one who tarries or delays; and an auger or instrument for boring holes. In the context of the song, the tarriers are those who operated the steel drills used to bore holes to place dynamite charges.

Tarriers used the steam drills that the legendary hammer-man John Henry battled to drill holes to place dynamite charges.

“Tay” means tea.

“Hobs of Hell” - Hobs are big stones on either side of an open Irish fireplace. They kept the heat in a smaller area but they got very hot.

This song serves as a tribute to the workers who tirelessly toiled away, often in dangerous conditions, to dig tunnels and construct railways. The title itself, “Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill,” is a call to action, urging the workers to press on and continue their labor with unwavering determination. The song captures the relentless nature of such work, highlighting the physical and mental stamina required to overcome obstacles and achieve monumental feats.

Labor issues were often addressed in nineteenth-century songs. At times they took the form of an individual caught in a tragic situation (fired by a cruel boss, for example) in the typical sentimental tone of the era. Other times, however, such situations acquired vivid comic dimensions, as in this song when a blast blows Jim Goff sky high, and then finds his pay docked for the time he was away from the drill.

The work of the tarriers was inherently dangerous. Working with explosives and tunnelling through rock and earth posed numerous risks. The threat of collapsing tunnels, cave-ins, and explosions was constant. The song portrays the bravery of these workers who faced these perils daily, underscoring their courage and sacrifice in accomplishing their tasks.

Some pics and further comments:

Irish workers, Union Pacific Railroad construction, 1860s

The Union Pacific Railroad company employed mainly Irish immigrants who were unmarried veterans of the Civil War, both Confederate and Union, who sought opportunity and work. The work was challenging and it consisted of digging, grading, and track laying across the Great Plains for long hours at a time through challenging conditions. The style of labor was very military like with project managers cursing and barking out orders which workers were expected to obey like soldiers. Workers were paid three dollars a day with food and lodging provided. They worked from sun up to sundown with only three breaks a day for meals, which included large breakfast and lunch portions and smaller dinner portions. Harsh winter storms, Indian raids on worker camps and lack of supplies such as firewood made track laying difficult and slow. The Irish workers also suffered dysentery which was a constant problem because they frequently drank impure water from springs or lakes. They were expected to lay two to three miles of track a day.

The railroad companies also used Asian labour.

"It took four men to hold a big iron bar to manually drill a hole into the granite," according to Hus, director of research for Stanford's Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project. "A fifth man would pound it with a sledgehammer. Then they would rotate the bar a quarter turn and pound it again, and so on. This was how they drilled the hole to then pack the black powder, light it and run. There were no hydraulics."

In early 1865 the Central Pacific had work enough for 4,000 men. Yet contractor Charles Crocker barely managed to hold onto 800 laborers at any given time. Most of the early workers were Irish immigrants. Railroad work was hard, and management was chaotic, leading to a high attrition rate. The Central Pacific management puzzled over how it could attract and retain a work force up to the enormous task. In keeping with prejudices of the day, some Central Pacific officials believed that Irishmen were inclined to spend their wages on liquor, and that the Chinese were also unreliable. Yet, due to the critical shortage, Crocker suggested that reconsideration be given to hiring Chinese. He encountered strong prejudice from foreman James Harvey Strobridge.

Strobridge's attitude changed when a group of Irish laborers agitated over wages. Crocker told Strobridge to recruit some Chinese in their place. Instantly, the Irishmen abandoned their dispute. Sensing at least that fear of competition might motivate his men, Strobridge grudgingly agreed to hire 50 Chinese men as wagon-fillers. Their work ethic impressed him, and he hired more Chinese workers for more difficult tasks. Soon, labor recruiters were scouring California, and Crocker hired companies to advertise the work in China.

The number of Chinese workers rose to a high of 12,000 in 1868, comprising at least 80% of the Central Pacific workforce.

The Chinese workers were punctual, willing, and well-behaved -- sometimes referred to as "Celestials" in reflection of their spiritual beliefs. They were quite unlike their Caucasian counterparts, who quickly resented the growing competition and harassed the foreigners. Crocker and Strobridge made clear to the Irishmen that they could work alongside the Chinese crews or be replaced by them. The ultimatum may not have cured the anger of the white crews, but it sufficed to quell rebellion.

Workers lived in canvas camps alongside the grade. In the mountains, wooden bunkhouses protected them from the drifting snow, although these were often compromised by the elements. Each gang had a cook who purchased dried food from the Chinese districts of Sacramento and San Francisco to prepare on site. While Irish crews stuck to an unvarying menu of boiled food — beef & potatoes — the Chinese ate vegetables and seafood, and kept live pigs and chickens for weekend meals. To the dull palates of the Irishmen, the Chinese menu was a full-blown sensory assault. The newcomers seemed alien in other ways: they bathed themselves, washed their clothes, stayed away from whiskey. Instead of water they drank lukewarm tea, boiled in the mornings and dispensed to them throughout the day. In such a manner they avoided the dysentery that ravaged white crews.

Strobridge continued to doubt the suitability of Chinese to certain tasks. When a group of Irish masons struck for higher wages, Crocker suggested using Chinese men in their place. The foreman objected. Famously, Crocker replied, "Did they not build the Chinese Wall, the biggest piece of masonry in the world?" Strobridge acquiesced, and Chinese crews were soon laying stone.

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