Blow the man (down)

Guest blog by Glenn Quigley

As Jacobim Mugatu might have said but didn’t: “Sea shanties. They’re so hot right now.” At least, they are as I’m writing this but like all internet fancies, this one will probably have passed by the time I get to the end of this sentence. Nonetheless, they’ve been on my mind for a few years now, ever since I started researching my historical novels. I’ve always liked them. There’s something about the power of working men’s voices coming together in harmony that stirs the blood. It speaks of ye olden days like little else.

Shanties were working songs, sung on tall ships to keep the sailors synchronised. From hoisting sails to raising anchor, they ensured everyone pushed or pulled or tied or lifted at precisely the same time. Most shanties started with a single voice —the shantyman —leading the charge with the crew joining in with the chorus. While the songs were practical, there’s a lot more to them than that. They were a chance for the men to be creative and maybe even to show off a bit. Sea voyages were long, and you made your own fun. It was either that or sit around and wait for the rickets to kick in.

For my third novel, We Cry The Sea, I wrote a couple of shanties to add some flavour to the story. The first, Come Home, Henry, is about the longing to return to the safety and comfort of home. Something I expect was, and still is, felt by many a sailor on a cold and stormy night on the high seas. The second is a bawdier song of a man boasting about his sexual prowess, not unheard of in real shanties. They’ve always encompassed a whole gamut of topics, such as meeting pretty damsels, to making plans for meeting pretty damsels while on shore leave. Some, though, set their sights on non-damsel-related themes and some even commemorated real battles, though these were likely exaggerated for effect. Tall ships breed tall tales.

The arrival of steam power brought an end to the days of tall ships and their brand of manual labour. As they went, so did the need for shanties and by the start of the 20th century, shanties had fallen almost completely out of use. Nowadays, they’re more likely to be heard on TikTok than on the high seas. Luckily, there are some, like the Cornish singing group, The Fisherman’s Friends, who are keeping the ancient tradition alive and can be found in little harbours blowing many a man down.

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Glenn Quigley (he/him) Rocketed to Earth as an infant, he crashed into a cornfield and was found by two kindly…wait. No. That’s Superman. Sorry.

Glenn is an author and artist originally from Dublin and now living in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, where he designs for www.themoodybear.com. When not writing or designing, he tries to improve his portraiture skills.

Glenn is the amazing artist who has drawn all the images of Alix Q. Starr, the IQARUS’s own cat mascot.