Theresa O’Connor

Big Strong Man — Irish History in Song

Many pub songs, though popularized and spread by Irish artists, are from all over the world. For instance, the origin of “The Wild Rover”—a quintessential Irish pub song, is hotly contested. Here’s a fun song, most likely of American origin, which you often hear played by Irish bands. It’s a great example of the cross-polination of folk music in the English-speaking world, a historical process that’s gone on for some time, rooted in our common cultural background & shared experiences.

While it doesn’t address Ireland specifically, it refers to some events in American and world history. The Jeffries-Johnson fight was in 1910, and the Lusitania sank in 1915. Jack Dempsey was world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926. Given all that, dating this song to the 1920s is a pretty reasonable conjecture. It spread the world via Allied soldiers of various countries (notably, Canadian forces1) during WWII.

As with many other pub songs, the audience has lines of its own, to be inserted in all the right places. (I’ve indicated audience lines in parentheses.)

Have you heard about the big strong man
He lives in a caravan
Did you hear about the Jeffries-Johnson fight
Oh, what a hell of a fight!
You can take all the heavyweights you got
We got a lad who could beat the whole lot
He used to ring the bells in the belfrey
Now he’s gonna fight Jack Dempsy

He was me brother, Sylveste (What’s he got?)
A row of 40 medals on his chest (a big chest)
He killed 50 bad men in the West
He knows no rest
Think of the man, Hell’s fire!
Don’t push, just shove
Plenty of room for you and me
He’s got an arm (he’s got an arm)
Like a leg (a lady’s leg!)
And a punch that would sink a battleship (big ship)
It’d take all the Army and the Navy
To put the wind up Sylveste

Well, he thought he’d take a trip to Italy
He thought that he’d go by sea
He jumped off the harbor in New York
And he swam like a man made of cork
He saw the Lusitania in distress (So what’d he do?)
He put the Lusitania on his chest (a big chest!)
He drank all the water in the sea
And he walked all the way to Italy

Well he thought he’d take a trip to old Japan
They turned out the whole brass band
He played every instrument they got
Like a lad, sure he played the whole lot
Now the old church bells will ring (Hell’s bells!)
And the whole church choir will sing (Hell’s fire!)
They all turned out to say farewell
To my big brother Sylveste


  1. See Hopkins, Songs from the Front and the Rear (1979).