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Sailor’s holy ground in sea shanty

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No, I’m not talking about Jerusalem and the sea song “Holy ground” is less closer to the psalms than the title suggests! It is a sea shanty of uncertain origins spread in many variations a bit for all Britain and Ireland as well as America on the whalers’ routes that once sailed the seas starting from Ireland and Great Britain; for a sailor, in fact, “the promised land” is nothing more than an area of the harbour or a street full of inns, pubs and taverns where to have fun with drinks, women and songs!
The subject with different titles and the same tune, is repeated with very similar verses from Scotland to Ireland, and yet there is a double point of view: on the one hand it’s the typical and cheerful sea shanty, sometimes rough and with a lot of drink, and on the other it becomes a more intimate and fragile vein, which reflects on the solitude and danger of the sea.

Cove Harbour: The scenery and antiquities of Ireland (Volume I) by N.P. Willis, J.S. Coyne and W.H. Bartlett. London: George Virtue, ca. 1841.


Also titled “Fine Girl You Are” or “The Cobh Sea Shanty” the song is named after a district of Cobh, a port town once known as Queenstown, a well-known harbour of Irish emigration in Cork County: a sailor is bound to cross the ocean, leaving his sweetheart at Cobh, but he hopes of returning soon to them (the girl and the city). The arrangement of this version “by Clancy Brothers” in the 60s is clearly light-hearted and many of the most recent groups in the Irish scene are paying their homage even wearing the irish traditional sweaters!

Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem

The High Kings

The Kilkennys

Fare thee well my lovely Dinah,
a thousand times adieu
For we’re going away
from the Holy Ground(1)
and the girls we all loved true
And we’ll sail the salt sea over,
but we’ll return for sure
To greet(2) again the girls we loved,
on the Holy Ground once more
(fine girl you are)
You’re the girl I do adore
and still I live in hopes to see
The Holy Ground once more
(fine girl you are)
And now the storm is raging
and we are far from shore
And the good old ship is tossing about and the rigging is all tore
And the secret of my mind,
I think you’re the girl I do adore
For soon we live in hopes(3)
to see the Holy Ground once more
(fine girl you are)
And now the storm is over
and we are safe and well
We’ll go into a public house
and we’ll sit and drink like hell
We’ll drink strong ale and porter(4) and we’ll make the rafters roar(5)
And when our money is all spent,
we’ll go to sea once more
(fine girl you are)

1) perhaps a red light district of the city or the port area full of clubs to entertain the sailors, in the dictionaries is reported as the slang of the eighteenth century, in the context of the song is however more ideally his own city
2) The High King: to see
3) The High King : And still I live in hopes
4) porter is the eighteenth-century term used by the Irish to identify dark beer; today we say stout
5) make a lot of noise

And yet the original version of the melody was more meditative and melancholic, see the Welsh version “Old Swansea Town Once More”
Mary Black from The Holy Ground 1993 for example, she reports it from a female point of view

Farewell my lovely Johnny,
a thousand times adieu
You are going away
from the holy ground
And the ones that love you true
You will sail the salt seas over
And then return for sure
To see again the ones you love
And the holy ground once more
You’re on the salt sea sailing
And I am safe behind
Fond letters I will write to you
The secrets of my mind
And the secrets of my mind, my love
You’re the one that I adore
Still I live in hopes you’ll see
The holy ground once more
I see the storm a risin’
And it’s coming quick and soon
And the night’s so dark and cloudy
You can scarcely see the moon
And the secrets of my mind, my love
You’re the one that I adore
And still I live in hopes you’ll see
The holy ground once more
But now the storms are over
And you are safe and well
We will go into a public house
And we’ll sit and drink our fill
We will drink strong ale and porter
And we’ll make the rafters roar
And when our money it is all spent
You’ll go to sea once more
You’re the one that I adore
And still I live in hopes that you’ll see
The holy ground once more
Swansea Harbour


“Old Swansea Town Once More” or more briefly “Swansea Town” is the widespread version in Wales of the sea shanty “Fine Girl You Are”, and was collected in Hampshire in 1905 by George Gardiner (sung by William Randall of Hursley) ; even if there are many variations of the text, here is the version similar to the Irish one: the protagonist probably embarks on a whaler and thinks with nostalgia to the girl left behind. A very hard life that of the whale fishermen who were a lots of months in the open sea at the mercy of the weather.
Storm Weather Shanty Choir from Cheer Up Me Lads! 2002, that return it more slowly and heartily, veined by nostalgia.

Oh farewell to you sweet Nancy,
ten thousand times adieu;
I’m bound to cross the ocean, girl,
once more to part from you.
Once more to part from you,
fine girl
You’re the girl that I do adore.
But still I live in hopes to see
old Swansea(2) town once more.

Oh it’s now that I am out at sea,
and you are far behind;
Kind letters I will write to you
of the secrets of my mind.
Oh now the storm is rising,
I can see it coming on;
The night as dark as anything,
we cannot see the moon.
Oh, it’s now the storm is over
and we are safe on shore,
We’ll drink strong drinks and brandies too, to the girls that we adore.
V (chorus)
To the girls that we adore, fine girls,
we’ll make this tavern roae,
And when our money is all gone,
we’ll go to sea for more.

1) or
Oh the Lord, made the bees,
An’ the bees did make the honey,
But the Devil sent the woman for to rob us of our money.
An around Cape Horn we’ll go!
An when me money’s all spent ol’ gal,
We’ll round Cape Horn for more ol’ gal, ol’ gal!
(gal= girl)
2) Swansea is a coastal town in South Wales 



Pubblicato da Cattia Salto

folklorista delle Terre Celtiche

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