The Gallagher Boys—The Story of a Great Lakes Ballad

Grade Level
3-5, 6-8, 9-12


Audio file
The Gallagher Boys 

Audio file
Lost on Lake Michigan 

Audio file
Dominick Gallagher’s story about “The Gallagher Boys” 

Recorded: Beaver Island, Michigan, August 1938; East Lansing, Michigan 1993
Performers: Dominick Gallagher (1867-1954); Barry Pischner (b. 1939)

Activity 1: Ballads as Story Songs

  1. Teacher introduces ballads as songs that tell a story. Although people still write ballads, the ballads collected by Lomax pre-date the mass media. Most of the singers learned the ballads they sang for Lomax in the late 1800s or early 1900s. The ballad in this lesson, “The Gallagher Boys,” dates to the 1870s when the singer, Dominick Gallagher, first learned it.
    • Ballads were a popular form of entertainment.
    • Like soap operas today, ballads often told stories about love gone wrong, murder, and, as in the case of the “Gallagher Boys,” disasters.
    • Ballads were performed in informal settings where the singer sang for his or her own amusement or directly to a small audience of family, friends, community members. (See the description below of where Beaver Islanders typically sang the ballad.)
    • Ballads were often sung without any accompaniment. Lyrics (the story) are more important than tune.
    • Many ballads are quite old and use poetic words and language that is not necessarily part of everyday speech.
  2. About the Singer of the “Gallagher Boys”—Dominick Gallagher
    Teacher introduces students to the singer of the ballad they are about to hear.
    • Dominick Gallagher (1867-1954) was in his early 70s when he sang this song for Alan Lomax in 1938.
    • He was born on Beaver Island, the largest island in Lake Michigan, and like many of his generation, was the son of Irish immigrants.
    • Dominick worked as a lumberjack and Great Lakes sailor—both common island occupations for the time--and as a lighthouse keeper.
    • Dominick Gallagher admitted to Lomax that his singing voice was out of practice, but “when I was younger with a drink or two in, I could sing pretty good for a short while.”
    • In his younger days, Gallagher often sang for island house parties, or occasions when folks gathered together to drink, listen to songs, and—while the singer rested—to pull up the rugs on the wood floor and dance to the music of a fiddler or piper. Dominick played fiddle and pipes, and also was a dance caller.
    • Gallagher was no relation to the Gallagher Boys mentioned in the ballad—there were many different Gallagher families living on Beaver Island.


    Dominick Gallagher, third from left, poses with other Beaver Islanders in the 1930s.
     Dominick Gallagher, third from left, poses with other Beaver Islanders in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of Beaver Island Historical Society.
  3. Learning by Oral Transmission

    Teacher explains the process of oral transmission, or face-to-face learning by ear, imitation, and example, as the way “The Gallagher Boys” and many ballads were learned.

    Teacher prompts students to think of songs they have learned by watching and listening to other people in their family, peer group, religious community, work group, etc. **Examples should come from face-to-face learning situations, rather than mass media. These may include school songs, lullabies, camp songs, nursery rhymes, etc.

    Teacher illustrates learning by oral transmission with the experience of Dominick Gallagher. Here is what Gallagher told Alan Lomax:

    “A Lot of the old songs we heard when we were youngsters. The way we’d get to hear them [was from] all those old fellows. They weren’t old men then, you know, middle aged hard-working men, fishing and farming. And once every two or three months they’d all come together in some tavern or somebody’s house with a couple jugs of liquor, and they’d stay all night and do nothing but sing these old songs. And every one of them that appeared around the island here was good singers. There were a lot of songs.”

  4. About the Composer—Dan Malloy

    Teacher explains that, in orally composed songs, we typically do not know who the ballad’s composer was; the songs have been passed down for so many generations that knowledge of the composer is lost. But in case, the composer was from a small, close-knit community of Beaver Islanders who knew and remembered him and his ballad.

    • Daniel Malloy was an Irishman from Arranmore, County Donegal, who came to Beaver Island in 1857.
    • He was said to be a whale fisherman who spent two years among the Eskimos before settling on Beaver Island, where he became a farmer, fisherman, and composer of songs and poems.
    • Malloy reportedly wrote “The Gallagher Boys” shortly after the shipwreck it describes.
    • He based it on an ballad popular with “saltwater sailors” (ocean sailors, as opposed to those who sailed the freshwater Great Lakes) called “The Dreadnaught,” about the most famous of the transatlantic packets of the time, which sailed from Liverpool to New York. Malloy followed a common pattern in borrowing certain phrases, as well as musical and poetic meter from “The Dreadnaught” for use in “The Gallagher Boys.”
  5. Listening to “The Gallagher Boys”--What is the Story?

    Teacher explains that this ballad was written in 1873 and is about a true event. Many people on the small community of Beaver Island were familiar with the story because they had experienced the event themselves or knew someone who had.

    Teacher challenges students to be great listeners: how much they can remember after listening just once to a ballad with nine verses (and some were much longer!)?

    Teacher prompts with the following questions to focus student listening:

    Q—What is the basic story of this ballad? 
    Q--How many times would they need to listen to the song to be able to sing it themselves?

    **Prompt for details if necessary as an aid to careful student listening. Prompts may be used on the first or second listening. For example:

    Q—Where were the Gallaghers sailing to and from? (Beaver Island/Traverse City, Michigan)
    Q—What is the name of the main character? (Johnny Gallagher)
    Q—What refrain is included in the last line of each verse? (“….Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow”)
    Q—What is the name of the boat? (the Lookout)?
    Q—Who had a dream that the men shouldn’t make the voyage? (Johnny Gallagher’s mother)

    Students (individually or in groups) tell/write the basic story of “The Gallagher Boys.” Compare versions.

    Q--What different details do the different story summaries have? 
    Q—What are some of the reasons for these different versions? 
    A—The following are common reasons for variation in orally transmitted stories, songs, etc.:

    • Mishearing
    • Forgetting
    • Lack of understanding of word or word relationships
    • Deliberately change lyrics to make a song more “local” and more meaningful to the audience that hears it.

“Gallagher Boys” by Dan Malloy, sung by Dominick Gallagher, Beaver Island, Michigan, August 1938 [*Note, Alan Lomax called this “The Beaver Island Boys”]

Come all brother sailors I hope you’ll draw nigh
For to hear of the sad news, it will cause you to cry,
Of the noble Johnny Gallagher, who sailed to and fro,
He was lost on Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.

“Oh, Johnny, my dear son, in the dead of the night,
I woke from a dream which gave me a fright,
And to Traverse City I beseech you not to go,
For you’ll never cross Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.”

“Oh, mother, dear mother, those dreams are not true,
I will shortly return and prove it to you,
For the Lord will protect me wherever I go,
And I’ll cross o’er Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.” 

It was in October in’73, 
We left Beaver harbor and had a calm sea,
Bound away, Traverse City was our destination to go,
We were crossing Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.

We left Traverse City at nine the next day
And down to Elk Rapids we then bore away;
We took in our stores and to sea we did go,
For the cross o’er Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.

At nine that same night a light we did spy
That is Beaver Island, we are drawing nigh,
We carried all sails, the Lookout, she did go
We were crossing Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.

Oh Johnny got up and he spoke to his crew,
He says, “Now, brave boys, be steady and true,
Stand by for your halyards, let your main halyards to,
There’s a squall on Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.”

The Lookout she’s a-running before a hard gale,
Upset went her rudder and overboard went her sail;
The billows were foaming like mountains of snow,
We shall ne’er cross Lake Michigan where the stormy winds bow.

Says Owen, “Brother Johnny, it grieves my heart sore, 
To think that we’ll never return to the shore;
God help our poor parents, their tears down will flow,
For we’ll sleep in Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.”

Activity 2: Ballads as Oral Poetry

  1. Teacher discusses role of ballads as oral poetry with the following characteristics:
    • Focus on single episode, compressed action
    • Emotional core to storyline
    • Limited number of characters
    • Repetition
    • Formulaic openings (“Come all brother sailors” is a version of the “Come all ye” opening formula common to many ballads)
  2. Students discuss and provide examples from “The Gallagher Boys” that illustrate these characteristics.

Activity 3: Variation in Oral Tradition—Two Versions of the Gallagher Boys

  1. Students listen to another version of the song, called “Lost on Lake Michigan” and recorded in the 1990s by Barry Pischner, whose parents and extended family were from Beaver Island. Pischner learned the song from his uncle and is the third generation of Beaver Islanders to sing it. **Note, this is a long ballad. Teacher may prefer to have students listen to just part of it while reading the transcript of the entire song. [**Note, Lomax collected a third version of “The Gallagher Boys,” from Beaver Islander Johnny Green, available at the Alan Lomax Collection of Michigan and Wisconsin Recordings.
  2. Students compare two versions of the song. 
    Q—How are the two versions the same?
    A—Essential storyline the same. Phrase “Lost on Lake Michigan” and other elements of repetition are key features of each.
    Q—How are the two versions different?
    A—Order of verses, addition or omission of characters (Nancy, Owen). Gallagher’s sings a shorter, more streamlined version than does Pischner. Pischner’s version has more details. Q--What new details about the story can you learn from Barry Pischner’s version? 
    A—more information about storm, wreck, and journey, introduction of Johnny’s girlfriend (Nancy) and the name of his mother (Mary).
    Q—What do the differences tell you about the characteristics of oral transmission?

    “Lost on Lake Michigan,” by Dan Malloy, as sung by Barry Pischner, 1993
    Come all ye bold seaman, I hope you draw near.
    For I have a sad story I want you to hear.
    ‘Bout the brave Johnny Gallagher, who sailed to and fro,
    And was lost on Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.

    O Johnny, my dear one, in the dead of the night, 
    I woke from a bad dream that gave me a fright.
    And it’s on to Traverse City I forbid you to go.
    Or to cross o’er Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.

    Oh Nancy, my dear one, these dreams are not true.
    I’ll cross o’er the wild waves and prove it to you.
    And in your lovely cottage full bumpers [overflowing glasses or tankards of liquor, as in a toast] shall flow,
    When I return o’er Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.

    So Nancy, lovely Nancy, don’t stop me my dear.
    I’ll surely return now, come dry up your tears.
    For God will protect me, let it blow high or low.
    I must cross o’er Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.

    In the month of October in ’73,
    They left Beaver Harbor all with a calm sea.
    Bound for Traverse City, their destination to go,
    And to cross o’er Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.

    They left Traverse City at nine the next day.
    And down by Elk Rapids they soon bore away.
    They had truck in their stores, and to sea they did go.
    And were crossing Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow. 

    As the day had wore on they were well under way.
    And had taken their last sight of Grand Traverse Bay.
    They had carried all sail, and at speed they did go.
    And were crossing Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow. 

    At ten that same evening a light did appear.
    That’s Beaver Island, we’re now drawing near.
    With the wind from the northwest, oh how it does blow.
    And we’re crossing Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.

    Johnny Gallagher stood up and said to his crew,
    “I hope my brave boys, you’ll be steady and true.
    Stand by our main halyards, let your fore halyards go,
    There’s a squall on Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.”

    The Lookout’s now runnin’ before a hard gale.
    Her rudder is unshipped, overboard are her sails.
    And the billows are foaming like mountains of snow.
    And we’re adrift on Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.

    Oh my dear mother Mary, this grieves my heart sore.
    To think we will never again reach the shore.
    God help our poor father, how his tears down will flow.
    For we’ll never cross Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.

    So come all brother sailors, let us all shake our hands,
    And we know in our hearts that we’ll never see land.
    May the great God of glory unto us mercy show.
    For we’ll sleep in Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.

Activity 4: Dominick Gallagher’s Story about the Story

  1. Teacher explains that Dominick Gallagher, six years old at the time of shipwreck, had a personal connection—not mentioned in the ballad—to the story told in “The Gallagher Boys.”
  2. Students listen to the recording of Gallagher telling the story, or read the following transcript, as told Alan Lomax in 1938:

    “Three men went out of this harbor in a small boat to go to Traverse City for supplies, and they left there in a gale of wind. They only had a twenty-four-foot boat, and she foundered and they were all lost.”

    “That was in [18]73, and I was born in [18]67. The way I remember, my father left home with those boys that was drowned, and when he got to Traverse City [**a distance of about 70 miles] and was ready to come back, old Captain Roddy [another Beaver Islander], who had a little sailing vessel there, coaxed him to stay over and come home with him the next day when it would be comfortable. He knew it wasn’t fit for them to go out in that open boat, that small boat, understand? It was blowin’ a gale of wind, it was blowin’ the tops right off the seas.”

    “My father was goin’ right down in the boat, and Roddy said, ‘Dominick, you aren’t crazy, are you, to go in that boat today?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ll tell you. My wife is sick, and I want to get home.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s better for your wife to be without you for two or three days than to be without you forever.’ And my Uncle Roddy went down into the boat, and he took my father by the shoulder an’ he kept him from goin.’’

    “We heard the next morning that the boat was lost. Well, my mother knew that my father was in the boat, you see, because he had left the harbor and went to Traverse City with them, and she didn’t know of this Roddy bein’ in Traverse City. And when the news came and the report was that all hands was lost, I remember runnin’ and hangin’ around mother. I couldn’t realize what they were all cryin’ about. I had six sisters and they were all home and they were all cryin’, too. That night they had a wake [traditional Irish death custom] and all, just as though he was there, and all the next day the neighbors came around.”

    “Well, when this Captain Roddy came home the next day in his vessel and when they come to St James, the harbor [**and main village on Beaver Island], they heard there that we had held a wake over father that night. My father and this Captain Roddy was great friends, and some of ‘em got a jug of whiskey and they started home rejoicing that he didn’t come in the boat that was lost. When my father come home he started to dance—he was always for singin’ and dancin’ when he had drinks. (He never drank much except occasionally.) I remember he had some toys for me, the first toys I ever had in my life, a little cast-iron shovel and a little pail, and I left the old folks in the house and went out to dig sand with my little shovel and my little pail…But this is the way old Dan Malloy’s song of it goes.”

  3. Students re-write the ballad, using the same AABB rhyme scheme, from the point of view of Dominick Gallagher. Teacher may assign different segments of Dominick’s story to different groups, or students may write a new ballad based on the entire story, either individually or in groups. The class performs the new version.

Activity 5: What Really Happened to the Gallagher Boys—Writing Your Own Version

  1. Teacher explains that the mysterious appearance of the Gallagher’s boat, the Lookout, with gear but no crew, raised questions among the Beaver Islanders. What really happened? Dominick Gallagher spoke of possible foul play to another folksong collector, Ivan Walton (who made a career of collecting songs of Great Lakes sailors on Beaver Island and around the Great Lakes).
  2. Students read the following excerpt from Ivan Walton’s 1938 field notes. Dominick explained that "The Gallagher boys" was about a real accident that happened when he was 6, and he recalls it clearer than some recent incidents. The two Gallagher boys, Johnny and Owen, and Tommy Boyle had gone to the mainland in Traverse City for equipment to use in a camp they were starting on the south end of the island:

    “Their boat came ashore down at 7 Mile Point still right side up, with a camp stove and two sets of double harnesses in it. There was much talk about the island at the time about the circumstances, and many were sure of foul play. The night before the boys left here, they were all in a saloon drinking and Tommy Boyle had a fist fight with the Gallaghers. But the next morning they had a drink together and decided to be friends again. While on mainland they had some words again and also did some drinking. There are those who think that they had a fight on way over and the Gallagher Brothers put him overboard and left him, and that only one of them was actually lost. For a number of years afterward different people from the island reported seeing the other Gallagher boy. He had been living in China a while before this and married, but he and his wife never got along.”

    “Once a few years afterward my father and I were out in one fish boat off Sand Bay [on Beaver Island] out where a dozen or more Chicago schooners were anchored waiting out a blow. The captain of one schooner hailed us and wanted some fish. So the old man threw him up about a dozen and then we both went aboard. I was up forward where its crew was busy in the big anchor with the capstan. And one of the men who kept his down low looked very familiar to me. He began asking me about people on the island, and mentioned a Mrs. Gillespie who was an aunt of the Gallagher Brothers and also some other relatives. He also said he knew every stick of timber about the bay. While my father and I were rowing back I told him about the man and I told him how he looked, a mark below one of his eyes, a squint in one eye and his height. My father said the description fit exactly this one Gallagher boy. The schooner was by that time before a fair wind down the Lake.”

  3. Students assemble pieces of the story from all the sources—stories and songs—and write a new short story, first person monologue, or new song about what really happened to the Gallagher boys. Use your imagination, and don’t be afraid to fill in the blanks!


Activity 6: Relationship of Tune and Text

Transcription of “Gallagher Boys” by Dominick Gallagher, from John A. and Alan Lomax’s Our Singing Country.
Transcription of “Gallagher Boys” by Dominick Gallagher, from John A. and Alan Lomax’s Our Singing Country. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.
  1. Students compare the two tunes in the two versions of Gallagher Boys. **In “Lost on Lake Michigan” Barry Pischner’s daughter, Tammy Pischner McDonough, made up a new tune. 
    Q—How is the melody organized?
    A—Same tune repeated for each stanza of text. This type of musical form is called “strophic.” 
    Q—What is the musical meter for the two songs?
    A—Both can be heard in 3/4 time, as in the above transcription, or 6/8. Pischner’s version takes more liberties with the meter.
    Q—What is the poetic meter of the text?
    A—Dactyllic, where the first syllable is accented and the second and third unaccented, as in ALL bro-ther SAI lors I HOPE you draw NIGH. Notice how the triple musical meter and the triple poetic meter work together.
  2. Teacher points out that there was a third tune sung with this text on Beaver Island: “The Great Titanic.” This tune is in 4/4 time. 

    Q—Does the text fit as well with this tune?
    Q—How would you sing “The Gallagher Boys” to the tune of “The Great Titanic?” **Various recordings are available on the web, such as the Phipps Family’s 1965 recording for Smithsonian Folkways.
    Q—Which of the three tunes do you think works the best with the text, and why?

  3. Students select and perform other familiar tunes that could go with this text. The class votes on its favorite.
  4. Alternatively, students compose a new tune in triple meter and perform it.


Explore other Great Lakes ballads recorded by Lomax. Search for performers Johnny Green, Patrick Bonner, and Asel Trueblood.

Explore more on Great Lakes shipwrecks.

For a more recent Great Lakes ballad, explore Gordon Lightfoot’s classic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which commemorates the sinking of the bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975, in Lake Superior.


John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, compilers. Our Singing Country, Folk Songs and Ballads (1941, 1968)

Laurie Kay Sommers, Beaver Island House Party (East Lansing/Beaver Island: Michigan State University Press, Michigan State University Museum, and Beaver Island Historical Society, 1996).

Ivan Walton and Joe Grimm, Windjammers, Songs of the Great Lakes Sailors (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002).

Ivan Walton Collection, Michigan Historical Collections, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Lesson Plan by Laurie Sommers
With generous support from the NEA