The song relates to the migration of Irish labourers from Ireland to Britain during the 20th century. The ballad's title refers to the eponymous construction company of Sir Robert McAlpine, a major employer of Irish workmen at the time. John Laing and Wimpey (also referred to in the opening monologue; an integral part of the ballad although not included in some cover versions of the song) were other major construction companies employing Irish 'navvies' (a British term referring to building labourers and originally coined for the labourers who built the British canals or 'navigations').
The colloquial and local terms in the song's monologue and lyrics include references to a 'spike' (a hostel or 'reception centre' sometimes used by Irish navvies who could not find or afford lodgings) and to 'shuttering' (a rapidly constructed wooden casing made to hold concrete while it sets). Holyhead, also referred to in the monologue, is a port on Anglesey (Ynys Môn) in Wales where the main ferry service across the Irish Sea from Dún Laoghaire used to dock. Cricklewood is a district of North West London which had a relatively large Irish population. The Isle of Grain is an area in Kent where the River Medway joins the Thames Estuary east of London which was a large construction site for several years while a large power station was built there. The song offers a satirical view of the life and work of the Irish labourers of the times and as such proved popular.
While some sources suggest that the words of the song were derived from an earlier poem or poems, the song's arrangement was attributed to Dominic Behan. Along with a number of other songs, Behan provided the song to The Dubliners for use in a new set-structure. In its original form, the song was performed in two parts, a spoken monologue (originally spoken by Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners self-accompanied by his flamenco guitar) followed by the sung verses supported by the full band.
- "Mystery of the Man who Wrote McAlpine's Fusiliers". Irelands Own. 17 September 2018. Retrieved 8 November 2018.
- "Dominic Behan: The man who wrote McAlpine's Fusiliers – the iconic emigrant ballad adored by the Irish". Irish Post. 1 June 2017.
- "Rebuilding a forgotten generation". Irish Independent. 14 September 2010.
- Ultan Cowley (2001). The men who built Britain: a history of the Irish navvy. Wolfhound Press. ISBN 9780863278297.
- "Why the song of the emigrant still strikes a chord today". Irish Times. 26 November 2016.
- "Lyr Req: McAlpine's Fusiliers". mudcat.org. 1999.
- "McAlpine's Fusiliers". Bellsirishlyrics.com. Retrieved 8 November 2018.