Come, all you sons of Erin, attention now I crave,
While I relate the praises of an Irish hero brave;
Concerning a great fight, me boys, all on the other day,
Between a Russian sailor and bold Jack Morrisy.
It was in Tierra Del Fuego, in South America,
The Russian challenged Morrisy and unto him did say,
“I hear you are a fighting man and wear a belt, I see;
What do you say, will you consent to have a round with me.
Then up spoke bold Jack Morrisy, with a heart so stout and true,
Saying, “I am a gallant Irishman that never was subdued;
Oh, I can whale a Yankee, a Saxon bull or bear,
And in honor of old Paddy’s land I’ll still those laurels wear.
These words enraged the Russian upon that foreign land,
To think that he would be put down by any Irishman;
He says, “You are too light for me, on that make no mistake,
I would have you to resign the belt, or else your life I’ll take.”
To fight upon the tenth of June those heroes did agree,
And thousands came from every part the battle for to see;
The English and the Russians, their hearts were filled with glee,
They swore the Russian sailor boy would kill bold Morrisy.
They both stripped off, stepped in the ring, most glorious to be seen,
And Morrisy put on the belt, ’bound round with shamrocks, green,
Full twenty thousand dollars, as you may plainly see,
That was to be the champion’s prize that gained the victory.
They both shook hands, walked ’round the ring commencing then to fight,
It filled each Irish heart with joy for to behold the sight;
The Russian he floored Morrisy up to the elev,enth round,
With English, Russian and Saxon cheers the valley did resound.
A minute and a half our hero lay before he could rise,
The word went all about the field, “He’s dead!” were all their cries;
But Morrisy worked manfully and, raising from the ground,
From that until the twentieth theRussian he put down.
Up to the thirty-seventh round ’twas fall and fall about,
“Which made the burly sailor to keep a sharp look-out;
The Russian called his second and asked for a glass of wine,
Our Irish hero smiled and said, “This battle will be mine.”
The thirty-eighth decided all, the Russian felt the smart,
When Morrisy, with a fearful blow, he struck him o’er the heart,
A doctor he was called on to open up a vein,
He said it was quite useless, he would never fight again.
Our hero conquered Thompson, the Yankee clipper, too,
The Benicia boy and Sheppard he nobly did subdue;
So let us fill a flowing bowl and drink a health galore
To brave Jack Morrisy and Paddies evermore.
This ballad has been found in Ireland and also in the Canadian Maritime provinces but the version here (like last month’s song) comes from Minnesota’s Mike Dean. It is the only version collected from a singer from the Great Lakes region. Dean’s text was printed in his own song book in 1922. His text and melody were printed in Franz Rickaby’s Ballads and Songs of the Shanty Boy in 1924 and then reprinted in 1927 by the famous poet, author and folk-song enthusiast Carl Sandburg in his enormously popular book the American Songbag.
Sandburg used Dean’s song to illustrate the popularity of Irish songs and Irish singers in the lumber camps. Indeed, the ballad’s hero is the famous Irish-born, bare-knuckle boxer John Morrissey who came to Troy, New York with his parents in 1833 at the age of two and whose colorful life stands as a testament to the wild ups and downs experienced by freewheeling Irish immigrant men of his generation. Morrissey was an Irish gang member in his youth, a prospector in the California gold rush, the champion heavyweight boxer of the world, a casino tycoon and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. However, it seems that his fight with the “Russian Bear” was probably a fictitious creation of a ballad maker.
There is good reason to believe the song struck a chord with Dean and others like him. Many Irish lumbermen were proud of their ability to fight and some contended that it was indeed necessary to success in the environment they lived in. Lumberman John Emmett Nelligan’s 1929 autobiography “A White Pine Empire” is full of references to what he called the “hot headed, fighting disciples of Brian Boru.”[i]
Himself the son of Irish immigrants, Nelligan traces his career from 15-year-old rookie cook in a New Brunswick logging camp to successful logging company owner in Wisconsin, many times using his fists, or at least physical intimidation, to get out of a tough situation with other rough and tumble men. A song from the St. Croix Valley puts the exploits of another Irish-American lumberman, Ed Hart, in verse:
And on the Namekagon drive
With Tom Mackey I have been,
Where I fought the great Tom Haggerty—
While Bill Hanson stood between;
And I fought with big John Mealey—
And might have won the day,
If bould Jake Resser had been there
And seen I had fair play.[ii]
Indeed, Mr. Hart’s ability to hold his own served him beyond his time as a pioneer lumberjack. He later retired to a farm in the town of Bashaw, WI where he maintained a “stopping place” for itinerant shanty boys in the late 1800s. Ed was described by one acquaintance as “soft spoken until angered at which time he became a little hellion on red wheels.” If the boys at his stopping place would get out of hand “Ed would emerge from his house a-bellerin like the ‘Bull of Bashaw’ with his wispy whiskers stickin straight out carrying an axe handle. He was apparently not too particular who got an ‘almighty thunk on the head’ until peace was restored.”
Alan Lomax captured the essence of a “party piece” performance of “Morrissey and the Russian Sailor” on a visit to Ireland when he recorded Seán ‘ac Dhonnchadha singing a version with a similar text but different air (amid wild cheers of encouragement from the “audience”). You can hear that on World Library of Folk & Primitive Music, Vol. 2: Ireland. It’s well worth a listen!
[i] Nelligan, John Emmett. A White Pine Empire: The Life of a Lumberman. St. Cloud: North Star, 1969, p. 12.
[ii] From The Ballad of Mickey Free as printed in Dunn, Kames Taylor. The St. Croix: Midwest Border River. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1965, p. 254-256.