The legacy of Danny Cassidy
'A Fervent Melody Struggling to Be Heard'
The song is thought to have first become popular in the Albany area, which was both a railroad hub and the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal. The city filled up rapidly with Irish laborers, many of whom moved on to help meet the manpower needs of the boom in railroad construction preceding the Civil War. In the scene from Quinn’s Book, William Kennedy captures the confused, disoriented situation these immigrants often found themselves in as they moved from the tradition-bound confines of rural Irish society to the wide-open spaces of America and the free-for-all of its capitalist economy.
It’s not hard to picture—or to hear—Kennedy’s Gaelic-speaking “minstrel,” in tattered shirt, half-consumed chicken leg in hand, as he turns his “plaintive voice” from traditional Irish laments to the immediate concerns of his fellow Paddies as they confront the requirements of work and survival:
“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,
To work upon the railway.”
On the most obvious level, the song is a hymn to the Irish immigrant’s belief in work as the First Commandment. Work came before honesty, truth-telling, the law, because it had to. Everything else depended on work and the ability to feed oneself and one’s family. If you couldn’t fulfill this most basic requirement, as millions had learned during the Famine, then the abyss could/would swallow you whole, and all the prayers to the Almighty, whether in heaven or the Great House, would be of no avail.
No matter how dull, taxing or backbreaking, work was at the center of it all. Weary or not, you swung a pick, wielded a shovel, pushed your wheelbarrow, laid track, leveled hills, filled vales, carried bricks. The song itself echoed the repetitive nature of that work: “Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay/Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay/Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay.”
In almost every version of the song, the verses chronicle the hard years Paddy and his kind endured after they left Famine-ravaged Ireland and began the work of making their way in America:
“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 railway.”
Cassidy, however, wasn’t interested in “Paddy Works the Railway” merely as a musical Baedeker to the travails of Famine immigrants. He pondered what was between the lines—literally—the punctuating chorus of supposedly meaningless nonsense syllables to which no one gave much thought or attention.
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