Published under various titles—“Paddy Works on the Erie,” “Poor Paddy Works on the Railway,” etc.—the song appeared in Carl Sandburg’s 1927 collection, American Songbag, and is the seventh song in Alan and John Lomax’s 1934 work, American Ballads and Folk Songs. In How the Irish Invented Slang, Cassidy pointed out that “the song’s lyrics varied widely, with local versions scattered all across the mid-19th century diaspora, New York, Liverpool, San Francisco, Melbourne, wherever Paddy bent his back and laid a track.”
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.
The more he pondered, the clearer he heard what had gone unheard for a very long time. “Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay” wasn’t rhythmic filler. It was the soul of the song: the English phonetic spelling of the Irish phrase “filleadh mé uair éirithe (pron. fill’ah mæ úr í-ríh), meaning “time to get up, I go back.”
In Cassidy’s words: “I saw with amazement that ‘Paddy Works the Railway,’ with its rousing tune and 6/8 jig time, wasn’t just another widely known American folk song. It was also a sanas-laoi (pron. sanas læ, a secret song) of the crossroads, a key to understanding how this ancient language—the oldest written language in Europe next to Latin and Greek, the beating heart of Irish culture for over a millennium—made a place for itself in a brave and often brutal New World. Slang, that most pliable and subversive of linguistic tools, the language of laborers, itinerants, touts, chorus girls, barmen—the country’s working stiffs—became the instrument of its survival.”
(Note: in How the Irish Invented Slang, Cassidy posits that our word stiff, meaning common working man or woman, a “regular Joe” or “Jane,” a migratory worker, a hobo and also a dead person, is derived from the Irish word staf, staif, pl. n., a burly person, a strong, husky, muscular person, a broad-shouldered person, a “big lug.” Also, staf an bais (pron. staf n bash), the stiffness caused by death, fig. “a stiff.”