The Navvy's Wife

by The Navvy's Wife Cast

A musical drama written by Mick Ryan which gives voice to those whose lives were shaped by the great drive to carve out Britain’s canals, railways and roads.

Thousands were caught up in the migration of able-bodied men to the vast scars of construction that have now softened into our landscape. Bonds forged by kinship, friendship, love and economic necessity helped them all survive the brutal realities of the hard life the men were drawn to. This itinerant way of life conferred hardship and uncertainty on the women caught up in it but of these mothers, lovers, wives and widows the newspapers had very little to say; of their longings, sorrows, hopes and joys they said nothing, nothing at all …

Mick Ryan (vocals)
Heather Bradford (vocals)
Paul Downes (vocals, harmony vocals, guitar, mando-cello, mandoline, banjo)
Judy Dunlop (vocals)
Jackie Oates (vocals, harmony vocals, five string fiddle-viola, shruti)
Roger Watson (vocals, harmony vocals, melodeon, concertina)

CD One

1. Men From Limerick (Mick) - Words Mick Ryan, Music Trad.
2. The Women's Song (Jackie, Judy, Heather)
3. My Paddy (Jackie)
4. Don't Forget (Mick)
5. Mammy’s Poem (Heather)
6. Farewell My Son (Heather)
7. My Paddy (part 2) (Jackie)
8. The Right Thing (Mick and Jackie)
9. Don't Forget (part 2) (Mick)
10. I Miss Him (Jackie)
11. The Railway Age poem (Roger)
12. Brassey (Roger)
13. The Navvy's Wife (Judy) - Words Mick Ryan, Music Trad., adapted Mick Ryan
14. Women Not Their Wives (Judy, Jackie, Heather)
15. They All Hate (The Cast)
16. The Eyes Have It (Paul, Judy)
17. Farewell (Judy)
18. Dangerous Enough poem (Roger)
19. So Many Ways To Die (Roger)


1. Poppies (Mick, Judy)
2. The Journey (Mick)
3. What Brought Paddy Over poem (Mick)
4. We Get All Sorts (Heather)
5. Here Comes Mick (Paul)
6. Just Like You (Roger)
7. Something To Show (Mick)
8. The Journey (part 2) (Mick)
9. Wasn't He the Lucky One (Heather) - Words Mick Ryan, Music Trad.
10. Aren't We the Lucky Ones (Jackie, Judy, Heather)
11. The Land Around You (Mick, Roger)

Men from Limerick
See the Song Notes for the full track list
Sample not available
The Women's Song
Song by Jackie
Dangerous Enough
Poem read by Roger
Sample not available
So Many Ways to Die
Song by Roger
Sample not available
The Journey
Song by Mick
Sample not available
The Land Around You
Poem by Paul followed by a song
Sample not available

Folkscene - Radio Merseyside

Geoff Speed

I woke up earlier than usual this morning. Ah!,I thought, I could have a listen to those new albums from Wildgoose. Well, I did and what a delight the "navvy's wife" is. Splendid it is, with some fine and memorable songs in there. I note the gratitude to the Chester Folk Festival for their commission and in particular to Mal Waite. I will be telephoning her today in order to arrange an interview. This will become the basis of programme to be transmitted in a few weeks time.

Thank you for a splendid album.


David Kidman

This musical drama is the latest of Mick Ryan's folk-operas, and arguably the finest, for in this instance Mick has a special, and profound, degree of empathy with his subject. Several of the songs were originally written to accompany Ultan Cowley's lecture The Men Who Built Britain, later forming the basis of a show on that theme commissioned for 2006's Chester Folk Festival.

For the present revival, and this recording, Mick has gathered together a superb little Company comprising Heather Bradford, Judy Dunlop and Jackie Oates (to portray the all-important women's roles), together with Paul Downes and Roger Watson (for instrumental backing and supporting male roles). Mick is in commanding and glorious voice as Paddy himself, but though his is a key role he doesn't hog centre stage, and the show's most poignant moments are (entirely fittingly) the province of the women, for whom Mick writes with true compassion, understanding and dignity. The songs' timeless styling enables the creative interweaving of a linking commentary and poems; it's all Mick's own work, although a few of the songs are set to traditional melodies.

The show takes a loosely historical-chronological approach (the role of the navvy through the industrial ages), through which runs the common thread of the navvy's life, emotions, work and loves, with the tragedies in both the workplace and the personal arena leavened by episodes of broader comedy. The impact on the women in the navvies' lives occupies the sharpest focus however, powerfully examining issues such as poverty, rootlessness, racism and attitudes to death. The ladies' idealism and realism are brilliantly conveyed in The Women's Song and Judy's matchless performance of the show's title-song, while particularly tender moments of personal heartbreak come with Heather's Farewell My Son and Jackie's I Miss Him. Some archetypal lilting-patter is cleverly built into Don't Forget, while the convincing individual character-portraits include Roger's railway contractor (Brassey) and retired navvy Old Tim (Just Like You), and Paul's priest.

Great virtue is made of the small instrumental complement by means of the excellent musicianship, with Paul's expert, nifty guitar (occasionally augmented with banjo or mandolin) providing the principal undercurrent, subtly enhanced by Roger's melodeon or concertina and Jackie's five-string fiddle-viola.

Mick's supreme achievement in this compelling new show is to give a voice to the men and women whose lives were shaped by the drive to build through the ages; it's a triumph, and proves the worthiest of companions to Mick's previous works in this format. You can catch the semi-staged show at several folk festivals this summer.


David Warwick

The origins of folk opera go a long way back, well before Peter Bellamy's The Transports (the definitive one in many minds) or the 1950s radio ballads of MacColl, Seeger and Parker; to at least John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, wherein that writer took popular melodies of the time and put his own lyrics to them. Where Mick Ryan steals a pace on John Gay, in this eagerly awaited and pleasantly surprising work, is that much of the music is newly written, yet maintains the feel of being raditional. I'd swear I'd heard some of those tunes before � yet apparently not.

The navvy (short for navigator, and the source of the sweated labour which built our canal and rail systems) is stereotypically Irish in the public imagination, but it's far from the truth. According to the sleeve notes of this album, which derives from and accompanies a stage version (watch out for it on the festival circuit this year), most navvies were English. Now there's a myth exploded. Ryan's forebears were involved in the industry, which gives him empathy for the subject and makes this very much a labour of love; and he has obviously inspired and infected with his enthusiasm the cast of five musicians and singers.

The CD takes its inspiration from a learned tome by the exotically-named Ultan Cowley (there's a name to conjure with). The live version owes its genesis to a commission from the 2006 Chester Folk Festival; and all congratulations to them for doing so, Ryan gives a voice to the forgotten womenfolk: wives, mothers, lovers, widows; who they were, their emotional life, the hardships suffered, why they stayed and put up with intolerable conditions. This however is not some nineteenth century version of 'Stand by your Man'. The songs are lyrical, tuneful, evocative; and the programme is punctuated by freely-adapted prose readings from The Men Who Built Britain by the aforementioned Cowley, The Railway Navvies by Terry Freeman, and some wonderful verse by Mick Ryan himself ... no mean poet.

Ryan's previous record of dramatised musical work is an honourable one: Tolpuddle Man, A Day's Work, The Voyage, and even the appallingly punnish Tanks for the Memory (maybe someone should have been punished for that title). This is a worthy addition to the canon and I look forward to seeing it on tour during the summer. So should you.

The Living Tradition

Geordie McIntyre

This double CD is the soundtrack of the show The Navvy's Wife. It provides an insightful, incisive and highly entertaining tribute to the Kilroys of the pick and shovel. These were 'The Men Who Built Britain' to quote the title of the excellent book by Ultan Cowley (Wolfhound Press, Dublin, 2001) which was the springboard for this creation by Mick Ryan. The focus here on the Irish Navvy mirrors the book and reflects their mighty contribution as a large minority within this itinerant workforce. The title might suggest a narrow perspective, however, it is a fully rounded sound picture of the trials and tribulations, dreams and aspirations of these men as well as the wives, mothers and sweethearts who were left behind and not forgetting those women who campfollowed...

Mick Ryan is an outstanding singer, songsmith and musical playwright. He has assembled an impressive cast of singer/musicians to deliver this important piece of work. The cast consists of: Mick, Judy Dunlop, Roger Watson, Jackie Oates, Heather Bradford and Paul Downes. They all do justice to the themes and facets covered. There are 19 tracks on CD1, ie ACT 1, and 11 tracks on CD2, ACT2. The songs are linked sparingly with appropriate commentary and poetry creating an exciting and coherent whole.

Given the sheer volume of eminently singable songs, exemplary accompaniments and memorable tunes, regretfully, I can only give a sample here. The CD opens and closes with the robust and apposite 'The Land Around You' from Mick. Then there is the poignant 'Navvy's Wife' from Judy which highlights the relentless grind and dangers of the job ?'Same Old Labour For the Same Old Pay'. Songs of wit and humour, black and otherwise, abound. Some are done in rollicking musichall style, which fits the bill both musically and emotionally eg 'We get Allsorts' sung by Heather which gives a landladies viewpoint. Then again 'Here Comes Mick' from Paul which bowls along with this chorus `And it's lift it and shift it Here comes Mick and here comes Paddy Here comes Sean and here comes Tim They're the boys to move your mountains They're the boys who won't give in'.

Highlights include Roger Watson singing 'Just Like You' where an old navvy reflects on his working life. Mick's haunting 'Something to show' is another cracker illustrating loneliness and longing. This production stands up well as a vivid listening experience and I have no doubt that as a visual performance its qualities can only be compounded.

The show was commissioned by and first performed at Chester Folk Festival 2006 and later with the present cast at Topsham Folk Club and Chippenham Folk Festival in 2008. For future performances see www.


Roy Harris

MICK Ryan has one of the best singing voices to be heard: a virile baritone with a wide range and an enviable note?holding ability. He also has a flair for musical dramas that stick in the memory, with songs that can step out of the score and live elsewhere. Past efforts like The Tolpuddle Man illustrate this. Now we have another one, telling the story of the canal?digging navvies and their women.

The focus is on the female viewpoint, reflecting on their men's tough and difficult life, absences from home, fidelity or otherwise and performed by a stellar cast doing full justice to his work.

Judy Dunlop, Heather Bradford and Jackie Oates handle their songs beautifully. Each has a voice of quality. The males play and sing in fine style too: Ryan, Paul Downes and Roger Watson live up to their reputations triumphantly.


Jill Hill

This double CD of Mick Ryan's musical drama, like most soundtracks, will best be appreciated by those who have seen the show. However, the brilliance of Mick's writing, his wonderful voice and the musicianship of Paul Downes, Roger Watson and Jackie Oates combine with the rest of the current cast to produce a very enjoyable listen.

Preceded by an overture of The Land Around Us, the opening track is the upbeat Men of Limerick to the tune of I'll Tell Me Ma. This is followed by one of the two tracks that I didn't like (there are thirty?nine in all so that's not bad going.) I'm not a fan of rose tinted views of the past and The Women's Song appears to be just that. Fortunately as the story progressed the balance was restored, most notably by track 14 Women Not Their Wives Sung by Jackie Oates, Judy Dunlop and Heather Bradford, it tells of the attitude of society to 'camp followers', increasing the hardship of these women who already cope with impossibly difficult lives. Almost to the end of Act 1, my desert island disc appears. Farewell sung in rich full tones by Judy Dunlop almost had me in tears. The closing track on the first CD is my other dislike, The pseudo music hall song So May Ways To Die, although it probably works well on stage.

The second CD is shorter and opens with another favourite, the beautiful and haunting Poppies sung by Mick and Judy. By track 6, just Like You, sung by Roger Watson, the songs are summing up an essentially lonely way of life in a very poignant but not maudlin manner . The second act closes with The Land Around You.

Several of the tracks are prose or spoken verse and remind you that you are listening to piece of theatre.

This CD has made me want to see the show; give it a listen and I think you will as well.

R2 (Rock n Reel)

Dai jeffries

Mick Ryan has the gift for writing songs that feel traditional even when expounding modern ideas. He's used that skill to produce a number of musical shows, folk operas if you will, performed by his company, Fieldwork Productions. The Navvy's Wife, which tours festivals this summer, is, as far as I know, the first to be committed to record (note from Doug Bailey � no all of them have been). The present cast consists of Ryan himself, Jackie Oates, Roger Watson, Judy Dunlop, Paul Downes and Heather Bradford, and this show, telling the story of the navvies who built the canals and railways from the viewpoint of their womenfolk, was originally commissioned by Chester Folk Festival.

ReviewerReview DateSo much for history. Having not seen the show, I'm unable to say if any linking narrative has been cut yet it doesn't matter. Mick's songs and poetry are augmented by contemporary testimonies and the story flows easily, from the introductory 'Men From Limerick' through stories of mothers who saw their sons leave for a supposedly better life, the girls they left behind, the long?suffering wives and the 'Women Not Their Wives' the men took up with on their travels.

There is danger and tragedy but also comedy. 'They All Hate' and 'The Eyes Have It' tell of the antipathy between the Scots and the Irish and the hatred of the English navvies for everyone. It's a harsh story dressed in black humour.

The Navvy's Wife is an excellent double?CD at a bargain price. Hear the record and you'll want to see the show.

Whats Afoot

Ken Hinchliffe.

I have always maintained the opinion that Mick Ryan's musical outpourings are of the highest quality and reliability. The Navvy's Wife has unquestionably endorsed that belief. The Navvy's Wife is a mammoth work. An outstanding piece of musical creation.

Quite clearly Mick Ryan, through the writings of Ultan Cowley and Terry Coleman, has thoroughly acquainted himself with the subject matter. Some years ago, I too read 'The Railway Navvies' by Coleman and can seriously recommend reading the book in conjunction with The Navvy's Wife. The Irish navvies (navigators) came to England for many reasons. Not least of which was to escape the Irish potato famine (1845-51). Or they were simply encouraged to make the journey, purely as a source of cheap and expendable labour. Whatever their reasons, I'm sure that they all hoped for a better life. The hardships, misery and uncertainty experienced by them are well documented but we know relatively little about their womenfolk; the misery and unimaginable indignities which they suffered.

To give life to his considerable creative talent, Mick Ryan has assembled for the making of this double CD, a company of musicians and singers all highly respected on the Folk circuit. The company being; Jackie Oates, Paul Downes, Judy Dunlop, Heather Bradford and Roger Watson. The entire recording of two CDs, comprises 30 tracks, some of them spoken word but mostly of song. Every track brilliantly written and perfectly performed!

I found the songs and spoken word, very emotive and meaningful. But because of and thanks to each artist's quality performance, never morose. After all, it is supposed to be a musical drama not a melodrama. It is so obvious from the vibrant performance of entire company, that they all felt a personal affinity with the song lyrics and the spoken word. We must at the same time be mindful of Mick Ryan perceptive casting of the company. Typecasting is an often an unacknowledged skill. And certainly for The Navvy's Wife, his casting is intuitively correct. It would be quite inappropriate for me to talk in terms of my favourite song, poem, artist etc. The performance, the presentation of The Navvy's Wife is a whole. It is whole because, from the first note to the last, the story of this period of our social history flows with perfect continuity.

The Navvy's Wife is the benchmark against which all other Folk musical dramas will be measured.

Cheltenham Festival - Gloucester Echo

Eric Worrall

The folk tradition of these isles has helped to keep our social history alive at the personal level with stories that have passed down the generations in song, prose and in poetry. The Navvy's Wife is singer-songwriter Mick Ryan's memorably well crafted contribution to this tradition. It charts the history of those who provided the muscle to build the canals, railways and roads of this nation, the navvies, through personal stories told and sung by a truly excellent ensemble of singers and musicians.

Ryan, taking the role of Paddy, kicked off the show with the rousing Men from Limerick, Men from Clare. The song told of how the first navvies were drawn across the Irish Sea by their need for work and pay, Ryan's imposing stage presence and powerful voice bringing dignity to the role.

Jackie Oates, on My Paddy, was completely convincing as the navvy's new young English wife, her soft vulnerable voice conveying deep apprehension at the life ahead, while Heather Bradfield's beautifully clear voice on Farewell My Son expressed the deep sadness of the mother left behind in Ireland.  Judy Dunlop used her more lived-in tones on the title song The Navvy's Wife to portray the wife as an older woman weary of ten years' hard and mean existence.

Multi-instrumentalist Paul Downes also took his turn to get into character, and with Dunlop provided the most dramatic moment of the show with The Eyes Have It graphically describing the endemic violence in the camps between the English, Scots and Irish workers.

Two hours of rich narrative and outstanding music ended to great acclaim with a rousing ensemble song The Land Around You. The Navvy's Wife is a profound addition to the nations' folk tradition and deserves to reach the widest audience.