This traditional song has its origins in Scottish and Irish people emigrating to America and Canada. Although popular culture has lumped it into the same bucket, Here’s a Health to the Company is not a shanty. – it wasn’t used as a work song. We’d argue it can be considered a sea song (more on this shortly).
As with most of the songs we cover, there are multiple versions available. We’ll share our favourite version, look at when it was sung, and share some of the best versions. If you fancy singing it, take a peek at our instrumental karaoke version of Here’s a Health to the Company.
History of Here’s a Health to the Company
The song is about saying a final farewell to their friends before they set off to the other side of the world. What makes this count as a sea song? Well, there’s the obvious nautical themes.
More than that, traditionally this song would be sung at the end of a singing session. It’s not unreasonable to think this tradition would continue at sea. When the sailors were in their downtime they would sing songs to relax and unwind. A song about leaving your people behind is going to strike a nostalgic chord in them.
It’s interesting to note that there are versions of this song called ‘The Parting Glass’. This alternate name is rarely used nowadays because there is another hugely popular song that goes by that name. It’s interesting to note that they share a similar theme and are both fitting songs to end a night on.
Our personal theory is that a singer who’d enjoyed one too many drinks got the two confused. They taught it to the next generation of singers and they spread the incorrect name. This isn’t unexpected as several other traditional Irish songs share the same tune.
As we said, it’s a song about emigrating. In Shamrock, Rose and Thistle by Hugh Shields it’s said, “The song is quite well known in the northern counties of Ireland, and with varying text has been noted in Canada and Scotland, where it was perhaps composed.”
Here’s a Health to the Company lyrics
Kind friends and companions, come join me in rhyme
And lift up your voices in chorus with mine
Lift up your voices all grief to refrain
For we may or might never all meet here again
Here’s a health to the company and one to my love
Let’s drink and be merry all out of one glass
Let’s drink and be merry all grief to refrain
For we may or might never all meet here again
And here’s to the wee lass that I love so well
For her style and her beauty, there’s none can excel
There’s a smile on her countenance, she’s perched on my knee
And there’s no one in this wide world as happy as me
Oh, the ship lies in harbour, she’s ready to sail
I wish her safe passage without any gale
And if we should meet again, be it land or on sea
I will always remember your kindness to me
What the lyrics mean
“Let’s drink and be merry all grief to refrain”
‘Refrain’ means to hold back or stop yourself from doing something. This line is saying to ignore the sadness they feel at parting. Instead, they’ll drink and enjoy their remaining time together.
“For we may or might never all meet here again”
This is calling out the fact that they’re going to the opposite side of the world. It’s quite likely this will be a one way trip for the majority of them. Historically speaking, that’s how it played out for many. They settled and made the new land home.
“And here’s to the wee lass that I love so well”
‘Wee’ is a Scottish word for little. ‘Lass’ is the word for girl. This line is acknowledging that many people emigrating had to leave their sweethearts behind.
“There’s a smile on her countenance, she’s perched on my knee”
‘Countenance’ means face or the expression on their face. It was chosen in the lyrics because it fits the melody better. A smiling girl is sitting on the singer’s knee.
“I wish her safe passage without any gale”
It’s a long and potentially dangerous voyage. This is them hoping the ship experiences safe travels and avoids and nasty storms.
Best versions of Here’s a Health to the Company
The Longest Johns
This is a beautiful, melodic, and heartfelt version of the song. You can’t go wrong with this. It’s a 10/10 take on the song.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag
This version is great. Anyone who’s played Black Flag will love this. For those who didn’t hear it in the game, you’ll surely feel the authenticity that Sean Dagher, Richard Irwin, Nelson Carter, Nils Brown, Michiel Shrey, Charlotte Cumberbirch, and David Gossage lend to the song. Definitely worth a listen.
Colm R. McGuinness
This is powerful. Colm has a voice that any singer would be envious of. His range is incredible – the bass is deep and the highs are way up there! He does all the parts himself and edits them together to create this magical version. Check it out.
You’ve learned this song has its origins in Scottish and Irish people emigrating to America and Canada. We’ve explained what the lyrics mean and shared some of our favourite versions – did we miss yours? Share it with us in the comments.
If you’d like to sing it, why not give our acoustic karaoke version a go?
3 thoughts on “Here’s a Health to the Company: what the song means”
Runa plays a fabulous version of this song and they sing a 4th verse but I’m having trouble finding the lyrics from their album. Would love to find the missing last verse.
The Longest Johns version is my favorite! I love them! I recently got into sea songs/shanties. I love Celtic folk music too.
I think in your lyrics it should be “lass” not “love”, because “lass” rhymes with “glass.”
That would work for sure. I think I’ve heard that in a few versions. The beauty of shanties is that there are no ‘right’ lyrics. This is the version we’re most familiar with, but using ‘lass’ sounds great too. If you prefer it, then you should sing it that way!