Folk song favourites: the Ellan Vannin Tragedy

My wife doesn’t much care for my taste in music. Only last week she berated my choice of lunchtime listening, asking why we couldn’t have “something normal, instead of that weird, wailing rubbish you like so much.” I protested, putting up a spirited defence of my preferred genre, only to be told that as well as its questionable musicality, folk has an image problem, being dominated by “screeching women in swirly, diaphanous dresses and bearded men in sandals.”

Huh, methinks the lady doth protest too much! Mrs P has accompanied me to – and enjoyed – various folk gigs in recent years, and at no point have we seen a sandal or anything even remotely diaphanous. Plenty of beards, though.

For me, one of the attractions of folk songs is their powerful narrative drive. Folk songs tell stories. Before the oral tradition was supplanted by near-universal literacy, song was one of the main ways in which ordinary people communicated with one another over space and time about their hopes, fears and beliefs, about the challenges of their daily lives, about major events that helped shape their existence, and about the endless cycle of the seasons. Although illiteracy is largely a thing of the past in the UK, contemporary folk music maintains the storytelling tradition.

File:RMS Ellan Vannin pictured entering Ramsey Harbour..JPG

IMAGE CREDIT: Via Wikimedia Commons – Unknown author / Public domain

I first came across the Ellan Vannin Tragedy in the late 1960s, sung on television by The Spinners – a popular Liverpool folk band of the day – and rediscovered it during our 2018 visit to the Isle of Man.

The song tells the story of the sinking of the S.S. Ellan Vannin in 1909. En route from Ramsey in the Isle of Man to Liverpool, the ship ran into a violent storm as it crossed the Irish Sea, and foundered in Liverpool Bay. All 15 passengers and 21 crew died. Also lost was a consignment of mail and 60 tonnes of cargo, which included approximately 60 sheep.

Writing over half a century later Hughie Jones, one of the Spinners, poignantly captured the details of the tragedy. In this YouTube video you can hear Hughie performing his song in front of a live audience. I suspect the soundtrack’s taken from an old vinyl recording – listen to the clicks and crackles! The video is illustrated by a series of fascinating archive photos assembled by Lexi Duggan, and includes the complete lyrics.

I find the audience’s gentle singing of each chorus particularly moving and love the way this gets louder as the song progresses, reflecting the participants’ growing confidence and engagement as the sad story unfolds. For me, The Ellan Vannin Tragedy is folk at its best, tunefully telling a story which deserves to be remembered, while evoking a strong emotional response in the listener. And not a sandal or a diaphanous dress in sight!

Postscript – Ellan Vannin means “Isle of Man” in the Manx language. The ship was built in Glasgow at a cost of £10,673. She entered service with the Steam Packet Fleet in June 1860, at which point she was known as the Mona’s Isle (Mona is the first known name for the Isle of Man, recorded in Latin by Julius Caesar in 54 BCE). She was substantially rebuilt in 1883, being converted from a paddle steamer to a propeller-driven ship, and to mark her reincarnation she was renamed the Ellan Vannin. Following the tragedy on 3 December 1909, no other ship in the Steam Packet Fleet has borne the name.

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Links to other posts featuring a favourite folk song

12 comments

  1. magarisa · August 5

    “Weird, wailing rubbish”… haha! She sure doesn’t mince words. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  2. tanjabrittonwriter · August 11

    A moving story, and an equally moving song. Is it true that the ship still lies at the bottom of the sea, as is implied in the lyrics?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · August 12

      Yes, no attempt was made to raise the vessel (that would have been worthy of another song!) so I guess what’s left of it still lies rotting in Davy Jones’s Locker. I imagine it’s so broken up as to be unrecognisable.

      Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · August 12

        Maybe someone will finance a diving/underwater photography excursion, similar to what happened to the Titanic?! This surely would be followed by another song.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · August 13

        And maybe, later, a film with DiCaprio in the lead role? 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · August 14

        You suggested it, not I. But maybe I would watch it (even though I never watched the movie you were referring to, believe it or not).

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · August 14

        I’ve not seen it either – it’s never appealed. There’s no sense of mystery or expectation in watching a movie about the Titanic. Why give up 2 hours of my life to be told what I already know. It sinks!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. krikitarts · August 14

    An old folkie myself, I really enjoyed the song. Another YouTube link came up for another song with the same name, performed by the BeeGees, and I was looking forward to hearing it again, but it’s a completely different song. BTW, no weird, wailing rubbish here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · August 15

      Hi, I’m pleased you liked it…we’re a small brotherhood, we ‘old folkies,’ and need to stick together! 🙂
      Yes, I also stumbled across and was totally thrown by the BeeGees song of the same name. It seems the lyrics are from a poem written in 1854, more than half a century before the ship of the same name went down. Wikipedia says that the 1854 song (not necessarily the BeeGees version) is often referred to as “the alternative Manx national anthem”, Apparently the BeeGees version was recorded to raise money for charities on the Isle of Man, but what prompted this act of generosity is unclear.

      Liked by 1 person

      • krikitarts · August 19

        My favorite shipwreck song of all time is this one. I am quite confident that it’s not new to you, but just in case: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQpf0aCj-64. I play it together with my best friend; he uses straight DADGAD and a flat pick, while I play it with a partial capo covering strings 3, 4, and 5 on the 2nd fret and finger picks. BTW, do you play?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · August 21

        It’s a long time since I last heard this one, so thank you for the reprise. Sadly, I don’t play an instrument. In the autumn of my years one of my biggest regrets is that I never learned to play guitar or fiddle or mandolin. Ah well, too late now, so I’ll just need to be content with enjoying the music of people with much more talent than me!

        Liked by 1 person

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