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The Tay Bridge Disaster, remembered on its anniversary

Today, December 28, is the anniversary of the Tay Bridge Disaster — the much marveled-at new railway bridge over the River Tay collapsed during a fierce storm, dooming the passengers on a train. The tragedy is now remembered in connection with the disaster of the poem it inspired. The poem begins:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time….

William McGonagall wrote the poem, which has already been remember’d for a very long time. The poet’s family name, at least, is familiar to readers of the Harry Potter books, wherein teaches a beloved character named “Professor McGonagall.” The real, non-Pottered McGonagall’s grave — William Topaz McGonagall’s grave — is in the cemetery near the coffee shop where J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book.

We made three videos involving the poem. In this first video, Dr. Elena Bodnar (Ig Nobel Prize-winning inventor of the Emergency Bra) and Terry Jones (an original Monty Python) perform a Ukrainian translation of part of the poem.To the best of our knowledge this is the first time the poem was performed, even partially, in Ukrainian:

In the next video, passengers in a train on the Tay Bridge recite the poem. To the best of our knowledge this is the first time the poem was recited by a group on a train on the bridge. Several of these passengers are Ig Nobel Prize winners, others are University of Dundee students and staff, mixed among the normal collection of people who happen to ride that train, some of whom join in the recitation while others stoically endure:

In the third video, a group of actors perform the poem together, at the Central Square Theater, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA, as part of the 2011 Cambridge Science Festival. The readers are Dafydd ap Rees, Debra Wise, Robin Abrahams, David Kessler, Ig Nobel Prize winner Patricia Priest, Daniel Rosenberg and Roberta Gilbert:

Every March, during selected shows in the Ig Nobel Tour of the UK (for the UK’s National Science Week), we, often joined by the entire audience perform the poem. Consider yourself warned, should you be considering whether to attend these events. Several of our favorite performances happened at the University of Dundee, within walking distance of the Tay Bridge.

There exists a video of Billy Connolly performing the poem on a hill in Dundee, Scotland, overlooking the Tay Bridge, in a snowstorm. It is perhaps the greatest performance of the poem by anyone other than the author. (McGonagall himself often was pelted with peas when he performed his poems, a fact that did not prevent him from repeatedly performing them in public.)

Here’s a “Scotland on TV” look at William McGonagall’s life and works. It includes a snippet of Billy Connolly’s hilltop reading:

Improbable Research