By John J. O’Connor
In the 2017 summer special edition of Ireland’s Own there was an interesting article on Dominic Behan (pictured right) and the song, McAlpine’s Fusiliers. In the article, it is mentioned that Dominic wasn’t too enamoured with Bob Dylan, and implied that he was a plagiarist. Also that, in 1974 he was on the verge of bringing legal action against Paul McCartney.
The threat was withdrawn when the ex-Beatle removed his name from the record label of the song Liverpool Lou which credited McCartney with writing the words.
Dominic had written and released it as a single ten years previously and it was being re-released by Paul McCartney’s brother’s group, Scaffold. Reading this, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of irony.
For many years it has been an open secret among Irishmen who toiled in the construction trade in England that Dominic Behan did not write the words to McAlpine’s Fusiliers.
When the song was released by the Dubliners in 1965, Dominic was given credit for writing the words, and Essex Music International got the copyright.
But the reality according to many people who were around that environment in that era is that what Dominic did was to use his undoubted writing skills to tidy up and make presentable the rhymes that had been passed around construction sites all over Britain since the start of the second World War.
Even his own brother Brian accused him on a national television talk show of stealing the words and then went on to say that the nearest that Dominic had ever came to working on a building site was when he posed as a hod-carrier with a straw hat on his head.
So who did write McAlpine’s Fusiliers? Well according to numerous sources the originator of most of the words was a labourer by the name of Martin Henry from Rooskey, on the East Mayo/ South Sligo border.
He was the youngest member of the well-known Henry family who were famed for their fiddle playing.
As often happens, Henry’s words would have been passed around from job to job on scraps of paper, where aspiring site poets would add a line here and there and pub laureates would recite verses of it when sufficient ale was taken on a Saturday night.
It seems likely that by the mid-1950’s the words were fairly well known among Irish navvies.
There’s other evidence that back up the case for Martin Henry. He wrote a poem, The Men of 39, which is very similar to the monologue that Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners uses to introduce McAlpine’s Fusiliers.
Also, Martin Henry was a near neighbour and good friend of the legendary ‘Darkie Finn’ who was from Cloonlarin, just inside the Mayo border and they worked together in Kent, England, on the massive Isle of Grain, Power Station that was being built by McAlpine’s in the 1950s.
This project hired thousands of Irish workers and was also the scene of some violent incidents between Connemara men and Dublin men that stemmed from a card game and carried on sporadically for years.
The second verse of the song attributed to Behan starts, “I stripped to the skin with the Darkie Finn down by the Isle of Grain.”
Pat ‘the Darkie’ Finn’, was regarded as a highly skilled and sought after shuttering carpenter who is also mentioned in a verse of a different song.
“I watched the frame take the strain, but the concrete all caved in
And George Wimpey searched all Manchester ‘til he found the Darkie Finn.”
Now if we look at the beginning dialogue that Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners recites before starting the song and then look at the words of the Men of 39 you can see the similarities. Here is Dominic Behan’s penned poem which introduces McAlpine’s Fusiliers before the rest of the band start playing,
The year was 39 and the sky was filled with lead
Hitler was invading Poland and Paddy, Holyhead.
Come all you Pincher Laddies and long distance men
Never work for McAlpine, George Wimpey or John Laing
For he’ll stick you behind the mixer ‘til your skin is turned to tan
And shout come on you Paddy with your passport in your hand.
The craic was good in Cricklewood but they wouldn’t leave The Crown
There was bottles flying, Biddy’s crying, heads were cracking
And barmen jacking, Paddy had hit the town.
Oh mother dear I’m over here and I’m never going back
What keeps me here is the rake of beer the women and the craic.
Now here is the words of the poem The Men O’ 39 which many people credit with being the penmanship and poetry of Martin Henry. It was quite a lengthy poem so I’ll just show five verses of it but I think you will be able to see the similarities.
THE MEN O’ ‘39
Come all you Pincher Kiddies and all long distance men,
You may be over in this land, nine years or maybe ten,
You may have tramped this country o’er from Plymouth to the Tyne,
But there’s not a word about the boys sir came in ‘39.
There’s not a word about the lads from old Kinsale,
And took the road to Dublin; from Dun Laoghaire they did sail.
The man up in the Globe Hotel, he gave them the ‘o’grand’,
Saying, good luck upon you Paddy, with the passport in your hand.
Some of those Pincher Kiddies came when England needed men,
His catchword was to catch for the famous Darky Finn.
To slave behind a mixer until your skin turned tanned,
And to say, good on you Paddy, with the passport in your hand.
Now all of you who stayed at home and never crossed the pond,
And didn’t work for Wimpey, McAlpine or John Laing,
Or slave behind a mixer until your skin is tanned,
And to say goodbye to you Paddy, with your passport in your hand.
We’ll let the jury decide that one…
There was also another verse in the McAlpine’s Fusiliers song that wasn’t used as part of the release. Old timers have said that they often used this verse as the second one to last.
It refers to the common practice on big jobs of bringing in a Catholic priest on a Sunday to say mass for the men who had to work.
As this verse shows the Foremen and ganger men were not always too pleased with this practice.
And it came to pass, we should go to mass
On the Immaculate Conception
The foreman met us at the gate
And gave us a terrible reception
“Get down the sewers, ye Kerry hoors
And never mind your prayers
For the only God is a well filled hod
With McAlpine’s Fusiliers
So it seems that Dominic Behan had a huge amount of material to work with and in fairness to him he was a prolific songwriter and he did rearrange the words, tidy things up and compose a very good, rousing song. The melody he used was a speeded up version of the haunting tune that accompanied the song The Foggy Dew.
Ronnie Drew, Dominic Behan, Martin Henry and very few of those men who worked on those huge construction projects are still alive, so the question will probably always remain a mystery regarding who wrote the words to ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers?’
But if any of you readers ever venture around the south Sligo-east Mayo border and pop into towns with names like Rooskey, Cloontia or Sheskeen and ask the locals who wrote the words to McAlpine’s Fusileers the answer will be a resounding – Martin Henry.
If you mention the name Dominic Behan, they will say, “The man from Dublin popularised it, but our own Martin Henry wrote it!” n