How the Irish Rover Lyrics Use Exaggeration for Comic Effect
Irish music often uses exaggeration for comic effect but nowhere is it done on such a grand scale as in the song, The Irish Rover. The lyric dates from the early 1800s and tells the story of an impossibly large sailing ship and its even more improbable cargo. In fact, the only thing that seems ordinary and believable about the Irish Rover is that it set sail in 1806 from Cork with a cargo of bricks to be use to help build the Grand City Hall in New York. After that, things start to get out of hand. For example, we’re told that the ship has 27 masts. To accommodate that much sail power, a ship would have to be something like 200 yards long. Remember, this is a song from early 19th century when even large commercial sailing ships would only have 3 masts. Contemporary audiences would immediately be alerted that this was a joke and not meant to be taken seriously.
The audience would then be ready for the even wilder exaggerations that were about to come in relation to the cargo aboard the Irish Rover.
We were told earlier that it had a cargo of bricks but that is then forgotten as we hear that it has everything from “one million bags of the best Sligo rags” together with “three million sides of old blind horses’ hides and four million barrels of bones”. It’s the livestock that is really impressive. The Rover has “five million hogs and six million dogs”. In keeping with the stereotype of the Irish and drinking there are seven million barrels of porter, but at least that is useful.
We’re finally told it has 8 million bales of old nanny goat’s tails!
Most of the cargo is of course pointless and the fact that there is so much of it lends a comic effect that has delighted audiences for the last 200 hundred years. The lyrics build and build getting more and more ridiculous until they reach a climax with the sinking of the ship after a mast breaks. Even then, it can’t go quietly. It has to turn around nine times first before it disappears, leaving the singer as the only survivor to tell the tale. The comedy works because the exaggerations are so outrageous and feature such improbable products that we know they are not to be taken seriously. Instead, we can enjoy the fact that we are a part of an “in joke” as the exaggerations become wilder and wilder.
This is a technique used extensively in Irish music of the 19th century.