Paddy Works on the Railway: About the Song

Paddy Works on the Railway
Union Pacific railroad workers

Historical Background

When the first steam locomotive arrived from England on May 13, 1829, many Americans were skeptical that the "iron horse" was anything more than a novelty. On May 10, 1869 the first transcontinental railroad line was completed in Promontory, Utah. For the first time, people and freight could move swiftly and inexpensively across nearly 2,000 miles of western mountains, deserts, and plains. At the end of the nineteenth century, five major transcontinental railroads connected the East and West coasts, and thousands of miles of tracks criss-crossed the country. Much of the work laying those tracks was done by African-American, Chinese, and Irish laborers.

Song History

Many of the principal singers in labor forces, from the lumber camps to the canals and railroads, were Irish. Few records exist of the many songs they sang to accompany their work. Some were beloved songs from Ireland, some were adaptations of those songs, and some were new songs born of Irish singing traditions. "Paddy Works on the Railway," sometimes known as "Paddy Works on the Erie," is an occupational song that belongs in one of the latter two categories


To work upon the railway

In eighteen hundred and forty-one
I put me cord'roy breeches on
I put me cord'roy breeches on
To work upon the railway

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 railroad

When we left Ireland to come here
And spend our latter days in cheer
Our bosses, they did drink strong beer
And Pat worked on the railway

Our boss's name, it was Tom King
He kept a store to rob the men
A Yankee clerk with ink and pen
To cheat Pat on the railroad

It's "Pat do this" and "Pat do that"
Without a stocking or cravat
And nothing but an old straw hat
While Pat works on the railroad

One Monday morning to our surprise
Just a half an hour before sunrise
The dirty divil went to the skies
And Pat worked on the railroad

And when Pat lays him down to sleep
The wirey bugs around him creep
And divil a bit can poor Pat sleep
While he works on the railroad

In eighteen hundred and forty-three
'Twas then I met Miss Biddy MacGhee
And an illygant wife she's been to me
While workin' on the railway

In eighteen hundred and forty seven
Sweet Biddy MacGhee, she went to heaven
If she left one child, she left seven
To work upon the railway

In eighteen hundred and forty eight
I learned to take my whiskey straight
'Tis an illygant wife and can't be bate
For working on the railway

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