The song relates to the migration of large numbers of Irish labourers from Ireland to Britain prior to, after and especially during, the Second World War. The ballad's title refers to Sir Robert McAlpine, a major employer of Irish workmen. 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').
There are several colloquial and local references in the monologue and the song's lyrics, some of which are sometimes misunderstood or misinterpreted by listeners and some who have reproduced the lyrics.[original research?] A 'spike' was a hostel or 'reception centre' (originally a casual ward in a workhouse) for men with no fixed abode or homeless, sometimes used by Irish navvies who could not find or afford lodgings. Shuttering (sometimes incorrectly reproduced as 'shuddering') is a rapidly constructed wooden casing made to hold concrete while it sets: ironically shuttering 'chippies' (carpenters) were rarely Irish as the incredibly rapid rate of work required made this a relatively well paid sector of the workforce and the exclusion of 'unskilled' Irish labourers due to skill demarcation lines (and racism) from such work was not uncommon. Holyhead (referred to in the monologue) is a port on Anglesey (Ynys Môn) in Wales where the main ferry service across the Irish Sea from Dun Laoghaire used to dock and Cricklewood is a district of North West London (near to Kilburn and Brent) 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 some years while a large power station was being constructed there.
The song offers a satirical view of the life and work of the Irish labourers of the times and as such proved extremely popular, resonating with the Irish populations in London and other British cities.. It is regarded by many folk singers as the anthem of construction industry workers.
According to remaining members of Behan's family, the song was written with The Dubliners in mind. At this time Behan was engaged by Phil Solomon, the owner of Major Minor Records, to provide mentoring services for many of the label's acts, including the Dubliners, David McWilliams and Christy Moore.
Solomon realised the Dubliners had many of the capabilities required to become massively successful, but they needed a more cohesive and polished act.[original research?] Behan was tasked by Solomon with preparing them for a UK launch. Over a three-month period, Behan provided the Dubliners with a new two-hour set structure and new songs - among which was McAlpine's Fusiliers and The Black Velvet Band. The song went on to become a staple of the Dubliners live set and has been covered by many artists since.
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.