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Slanguage

Paddy Works on the Erie

by DANIEL CASSIDY

Paddy Works on the Erie” is one of the most popular and widely known American work songs.

In eighteen hundred and forty-wan
I put me cord’roy breeches on,
I put me cord’roy breeches on,
To work upon the railway

Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay
Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay
Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay

To work upon the railway.

But, “Paddy Works on the Erie” is also a sanas-laoi, a secret song, of the crossroads.

In eighteen hundred and forty-two,
I left the old world for the new,
Bad cess to the luck that brought me through,
To work upon the railway.

Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay
Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay
Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay
To work upon the railway.

The poet Carl Sandburg claimed he discovered “Paddy Works on the Erie” on sheet music published in 1850; but no copy has ever been found. The earliest printed version of the song is dated 1864.

When we left Ireland to come here,
And spend out latter days in cheer,
Our bosses they did drink strong beer,
And Pat worked on the railway.

The lyrics vary widely, with versions scattered all across the mid-19th century Irish diaspora, from New York to Melbourne, wherever Paddy bent his back and laid a track. In Pennsylvania in the 19th century, it was said that every mile of railroad was an Irish grave. At Duffy’s Cut in Malvern, archeologists recently uncovered the site of a mass burial of fifty seven Irish railroad workers, victims of typhus, cholera, and violence that plagued poor Paddy, working on the railway. (http://www.duffyscutproject.com/)

Our contractor’s name it was Tom King,
He kept a store to rob the men,
A Yankee clerk with ink and pen,
To cheat Pat on the railroad.

Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay
Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay
Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay
To work upon the railway.

From the 17th century to the 1920s, seven million Irish people immigrated to North America and built the canals (canálacha), railroads (bóithre iarainn), and highways (bóithre mór) of the industrial revolution that transformed the United States.   In other words, Paddy was a “woikin’ stiff.”   

Staf, staif, pl. n., a burly person; a husky, muscular person, fig. a manual laborer. 

The writer Jim Tully described his Irish Famine immigrant father in his 1928 memoir Shanty Irish.

“My father was a gorilla-built man… The ends of a carrot-red mustache touched his shoulder blades. It gave his mouth an appearance of ferocity not in the heart… His shoulders were early stooped, as from carrying the inherited burdens of a thousand dead Irish peasants… A man of some imagination, he loved the tingle of warm liquor in his blood. He was for fifty years a ditch digger.”

Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay
To work upon the railway

The song “Paddy Works on the Erie” journeys year by year through the 1840s, when more than a million Irish people died of hunger in four years and another million, half of them women and girls, scattered to the crossroads of America. 

In eighteen hundred and forty-three,
‘Twas then I met sweet Biddy Magee,
And an illygant wife she’s been to me,
While workin’ on the railway.

Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay
Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay

Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay
To work upon the railway.

During the famine period 500,000 Irishspeakers immigrated to the United States,  Yet, despite the immigration of millions of Irish speaking people to America over three centuries, scholars have ignored the influence of the Irish language on American culture and vernacular. The English dictionary dudes (dúid, n., pl. dúideanna, foolish-looking fellows, numbskulls) have rendered Irish-Americans balbh (mute) in their empire of words.

In eighteen hundred and forty-seven
Sweet Biddy Magee, she went to heaven,
If she left one child, she left eleven,
To work upon the railroad.

“Paddy Works on the Erie” is an Irish secret song of immigrant spalpeens (spailpíní,laborers, migratory workers) and colleens (cailíní, girls, maids) who came to America searching for work and freedom.

Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay
Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay

Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay
To work upon the railway.

The lilting chorus of “fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay” has always been characterized as macaronic or nonsense syllables.  In fact, “fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay” is the hidden litany of labor sung in Paddy’s other tongue, — Irish.

Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay is the English phonetic spelling of the Irish phrase “fillfidh mé uair éirithe” (pron. fill’ih may oo-er í-ríheh), meaning “I’ll go back, time to get up.”  

Fillfidh, (pron. fill’ih), v. (future), will return, will go back.  , (pron. may), pers. pron., I, me. Uair, (pron. oo-er), n., hour, time, occasion. Éirithe, (pron. í-ríheh) adj., rising, ascending, getting up.  (Ó Dónaill, 492, 489, Dineen, 403, 404)

Fillfidh mé uair éirithe, (pron. fill’ih may oo-er í-ríheh, I’ll go back, time to get up), is the hidden refrain of working and rising, rising and working, that is the sanas-laoi (secret song) of Paddy and Colleen and all immigrant workin’ stiffs to America. 

Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay,
Fillfidh mé uair éirithe,   (pron. fill’ih may oo-er í-ríheh)
I’ll go back, time to get up
To work….

DANIEL CASSIDY is the author of How the Irish Invented Slang: the Secret Language of the Crossroads, CounterPunch/AK Press., 2007.
In a lecture sponsored by the N.Y. Public Library, on April 19, 2008, “Twenty Books Every Irish American Should Read,” the author and critic Tom Deignan designated  How the Irish Invented Slang number #1 on the list. This column first appeared in the Irish Echo newspaper: http://www.irishecho.com/index.cfm. Dan Cassidy can be reached at DanCas1@aol.com