The story of Andrew Weatherall’s ‘Fail we may, sail we must’ track title, tattoo and beloved fan mantra has become the stuff of legend over the past decade. Now, on the anniversary of the Guv’nor’s death, an Irish radio DJ has uncovered more details of the fabled tale.
In a 2010 interview with Dummy Magazine, Weatherall, who died on 17th February 2020, described his first encounter with the phrase, “Fail we may, sail we must”. While being driven to a gig in county Cork by a young fisherman, Weatherall asked him about his life and work. "He wanted to know about the glamourous world of DJing, to which I said, It’s bollocks, it’s disco’s, tell me about tales of the sea,” Weatherall remarked at the time.
“He told me about being 18 in a force nine gale, his father, the captain, broke his leg so he had to captain the ship,” he continued. “I was thinking, I couldn’t even look after myself at that age let alone a trawler boat in a force 9 gale. I asked him, Are there times when you get up in the morning and you can’t be arsed? And he said, fail we may, sail we must. Which led to me spending hundreds of pounds and a lot of pain having it tattooed up the sides of my arms.”
On Monday (15th February) Irish DJ Cian Ó Cíobháin, who knew Weatherall and hosted parties with him in Galway in the ‘00s, set about tracking down the fisherman. He remarked on Twitter: “I’m intrigued by how one seemingly throwaway remark has become so iconic. To all intents and purposes, it practically kickstarted a mini-cult…”
With the help of some fellow fans, Irish Examiner journalist Des O’Driscoll and fishing publication The Skipper, Ó Cíobháin was put in touch with the fisherman on Tuesday, and spoke to him that night. In a lengthy Facebook post, Ó Cíobháin explains how the man, named Gerard Sheehy, came to pass the now iconic phrase onto Weatherall back in 2008.
“It turns out that Gerard had no idea who Andrew Weatherall was at the time he picked him up,” the post reads. “His friends would later fill him in over the years on WhatsApp groups about Andrew’s subsequent work. He picked him up from Cork Airport and dropped him off at Casey’s Hotel in Baltimore [Cork].”
The post continues: “Gerard did indeed tell Andrew the story about his father breaking his leg in a storm and both himself and his companion having to skipper the boat in his stead. At one stage he uttered the words ‘Fail she may, but go she must’, which is a variation of what Weatherall would come to tattoo on both his arms, use as a song title and which his legion of admirers would subsequently come to adopt as a kind of mantra. Over the course of the trip to west Cork and again the next day, when Gerard drove him back to the airport Andrew enquired about the phrase. In fact, it was the very last thing Andrew asked him about as Gerard dropped him off at the airport.”
Ó Cíobháin’s post goes on to describe the fact that Sheehy himself had the phrase tattooed on himself two years before meeting Weatherall, and speculates on Weatherall’s slight altering of the phrase – “Poetic license. Or, a different rhythm he warmed to. He may have misheard the phrase slightly. Or perhaps he didn’t want to go through the pain of having extra words stencilled on his skin.”.
Before his call with Ó Cíobháin, Sheehy did not know about the significance and legacy left by the phrase he had uttered to Weatherall almost 13 years before. “Just before Gerard chatted to me, he had gone online and was staggered to discover how often Andrew had mentioned their chance meeting in interviews online and was completely bowled over by how the phrase had taken on its own lease of life, independent of their encounter, rippling through the worlds of music and art and beyond,” Ó Cíobháin writes.
You can read Ó Cíobháin’s post in full below.
This is Gerard Sheehy from Baltimore in west Cork, who drove Andrew Weatherall to a festival in Skibbereen back in the summer of 2008 & told him some tales of the sea.#failwemaysailwemusthttps://t.co/klo1p0QiR3 pic.twitter.com/zjJU81uEv7
— Cian Ó Cíobháin (@COCiobh) February 16, 2021
Ó Cíobháin, who hosts a nightly show An Taobh Tuathail on Radio na Gaeltachta, will be playing a tribute to Andrew Weatherall tonight (17th February) in honour of his anniversary. You can tune in here.
Ó Cíobháin also wrote a touching tribute to Weatherall over the weekend for Irish broadcaster RTÉ, which you can read here.
Revisit DJ Mag editor Carl Loben’s tribute to Andrew Weatherall here.