Morrissey and the Russian Sailor

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  • Teideal (Title): Morrissey and the Russian Sailor.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 831301.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): 2159.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): H18.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): none.
  • Cnuasach (Collection): Joe Heaney Collection, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Teanga na Croímhíre (Core-Item Language): English.
  • Catagóir (Category): song.
  • Ainm an té a thug (Name of Informant): Joe Heaney.
  • Ainm an té a thóg (Name of Collector): unavailable.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 08/04/1983.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): University of Washington, United States of America.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): afternoon tea.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): unavailable.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

What I’ll do tonight, I’ll start off with this great, renowned boxing match. It’s a boxing match that took place in Tierra del Fuego long, long ago – maybe 1863 or something – between a fellow from Tipperary called Johnny Morrissey and a ‘Roosian’ sailor. Now the people said ‘Roosian’ – they never said ‘Russian.’ ‘Roosian.’ Now, there’s a story told about Morrissey and his father when they were leaving Ireland. They went in for a drink – Johnny Morrissey was only twelve years of age – and his father went in for a drink in Queenstown – that’s what the Cobh of Cork was called that time. And he met a couple from Kerry, north Kerry, who was going to America. Morrissey was going to Canada. And they vowed they’d meet again some day. The couple from Kerry were the James family, who went out to Missouri, who was the father and mother of Jesse and Frank James. That is true! Morrissey went to Canada with his son, and Johnny Morrissey ‘eloped’ or – that’s the way they used to call it that time, when you came in someplace without being asked to come in – he ‘eloped’ into America, and he became champion boxer of New York, and he fought the Buffalo Boy, the Shepherd Boy, and Morrissey (sic) and the Roosian. And he ended up in Congress. Whether that was a good or a bad ending, nobody knows! Well, this is the song, round by round:

Come all you gallant Irishmen, wherever you may be
And I hope you’ll pay attention and listen unto me
While I sing about a battle that took place the other day
Between a Russian sailor and Johnny Morrissey.

‘Twas in Tierra Del Fuego in South Americay
The Russian challenged Morrissey, those words to him did say
‘I hear you are a fighting man, and you wear a belt, I see;
Oh, indeed I wish you would consent to have a round with me.’

And out spoke brave Morrissey with a heart both brave and true
‘I am a gallant Irishman that never was subdued
For I can whale the Yankee, the Saxon bull and bear,
In honour of old Paddy’s land the laurel I’ll maintain.’

And those words enraged the Russian all on the Yankee land
To think that he’d be beaten by any Irish man
He said, ‘You are too light of frame – and this without mistake:
I’ll have you to resign the belt, or else your life I’ll take!’

To fight upon the tenth of March those heroes did agree
And thousands came from every place this battle for to see
Oh, sixty thousand dollars as you may plainly see
Was to be the champion’s prize who’d gain the victory.

[And those heroes stepped into the ring most glorious to be seen
And Morrissey in his dressing gown bound round with shamrock green
The Saxons and the Russians, their hearts were filled with glee
For they swore the Russian Sailor would kill brave Morrissey.]1

They shook hands and walked around the ring, commencing then to fight
And it filled each Irish heart with pride for to behold the sight
The Russian he floored Morrissey, and to the eleventh round
With the Yankee, Saxon, Russian cheers the valley did resound.

And the Irish offered four-to-one that day upon the grass
No sooner done than taken up, and it’s down they brought the cash
They parried away without delay to the twenty-second round
When Morrissey received a blow that brought him to the ground.

For a minute-and-a-half our hero lay before that he could rise
The word went right around the ring: ‘He’s dead!’ were all their cries
But Morrissey proved manfully, and rising from the ground
From then unto the thirtieth round the Russian he put down.

Up to the thirty-seventh round ’twas fall and fall about
And it made the foreign tyrants to keep a sharp lookout
When the Russian called his second to have a glass of wine,
Our Irish hero smiled and said, ‘This battle is surely mine!’

The thirty-eighth round decided on, the Russian felt a smart
And Morrissey with a terrible blow struck the Russian on the heart
The doctor he was called upon to open up a vein
He said, ‘It is quite useless – she’ll never fight again!’2

And our hero conquered Thompson, and the Yankee Clipper, too;
The Buffalo Boy and Shepherd he nobly did subdue;
So raise you up a flowing glass, and here is health go leor
To noble Johnny Morrissey who came from Templemore.3


1. This additional verse occurs in a performance recorded from Joe in Ireland by Liam Clancy; date unknown.

2. The question of who first used the pronoun ‘she’ in this line, obviously for comic effect, cannot be answered. Johnny Joe Phaitsín ‘ac Dhonncha uses it in an uproarious performance he recorded for Alan Lomax in 1951 – but notably on that occasion, when the line would surely have provoked a lively response if it were new to the audience, it is greeted with no catcalls or whoops at all. It seems that the attribution of female gender to the Russian pugilist had become a standing joke even by that time. Joe confirms this when he tells Ken Goldstein on one occasion, ‘That was no mistake – ‘she’ll never fight again’ – that’s how the old people used to do it… They compared the Roosian to somebody who was easy to get rid of. Something like that. I’ve never found out the reason. But that was the emphasis they put on that. No disrespect to women, now!’ (UW90-39.01).

3. In about half of his performances, Joe’s last line in this song goes, ‘To noble Johnny Morrissey and Paddy evermore’.

John Morissey (1831-1878) was an Irish bare-knuckle prizefighter, about whom there are a number of stories told about his prowess in the ring. This song was first printed as a broadside by P. Brereton (Dublin) in around 1860. Joe told Ewan Mac Coll in 1963 that he learned this song and another, ‘Captain Coulston,’ from an old man in Carna called Peadar Pheaits (Joe did not give his surname).

This is one of the songs for which Joe Heaney became most famous, and it appears on four commercial recordings, Come all you Gallant Irish Men (Philo PH 2004), Irish Music in London Pubs (Folkways FG 3575), Morrissey and the Russian Sailor and Other Irish Songs (Collector Records JEI 5), and Topic’s The Voice of the People, vol. 8 (TSCD 658).