Best Irish folk songs: 6 beautiful, traditional Irish songs you can't help singing along to
Self-confessed folk obsessive Freya Parr shares her favourite 6 Irish folk songs
Whether it’s to tell stories of bygone lovers or to reflect on the emotional pull of one’s home country, Ireland has always produced a rich array of folk songs. Their lilting melodies and short, catchy motifs and phrases make them easy to learn and sing – even when a few Guinnesses have been knocked back. The folk revival of the 1960s helped bring many of these tunes back to the mainstream, with bands like The Dubliners giving these old tunes a new life.
Here are our favourite Irish folk songs.
Most beautiful Irish folk songs of all time
Whiskey in the Jar
Like many folk songs, the origins of the traditional Irish ballad ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ are unclear – but thanks to a resurgence in the latter half of the 20th century, it is one of the few songs that you’ll hear being rowdily sung in Irish pubs around the world on St Patrick’s Day. The earliest known copy of ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ is held in the Bodleian Library’s collection of broadside ballads (a ballad printed on one side of a single sheet of paper), dating back to around 1740. Its popularity is unequivocal, with folk music historian Alan Lomax having even suggested that John Gay was inspired to write The Beggar’s Opera when he heard an Irish singer perform this song.
Set in the southern mountains of Ireland, ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ tells the story of a highwayman on his travels. He robs a military man and takes home his winnings to a woman, who promptly betrays him. The highwayman ends up in prison. There has been speculation that the song might be based on Patrick Fleming, an Irish highwayman who was executed in 1650 and is the subject of many Irish songs and poems.
When Irish folk band The Dubliners covered ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ in the 1960s, the song entered public consciousness in a more noticeable way. Irish rock band Thin Lizzy then followed suit, releasing their own unique interpretation of the song, followed swiftly by The Pogues and later Metallica, who were awarded a Grammy for their version in 2000.
The Wild Rover
The benefit of many of these Irish folk tunes is that their catchy refrains and easily learned melodies are perfectly suited to large sporting crowds. As a result, they have become favourites of football and rugby fans, with ‘The Wild Rover’ often sung by Celtic Football Club fans at their away matches.
More like this
There’s a lot of ambiguity around the origins of this particular tune – in fact, it might not even be Irish, due to the fact that it has been sung around the world for many centuries. But we can safely assume there is an Irish link, due to the fact that it shares similar themes with many other Irish folk songs, telling the story of a young man finally returning to his hometown to settle down. He visits his local pub, showing off the money he has earned while he was away.
Its contemporary association with Irish drinking culture is ironic, seeing as it was initially used as a temperance song. The protagonist bids farewell to his wild roving ways, claiming he ‘never will play the wild rover no more.’
The 1960s folk revival helped bring it back into public consciousness and has tied it to Irish culture. You might recognise the familiar melody as the theme from the Clover margarine advert.
The Rose of Tralee
This 19th-century Irish ballad has become so popular it has even helped launch its very own festival, celebrating the beauty of local women and crowning the winner as the ‘Rose’. The song itself is an ode to a woman called Mary, who is called ‘The Rose of Tralee’ because of her immense beauty. The lyrics reflect on a time in which the singer knew and ‘won the heart’ of Mary, and the ‘solace and comfort’ she brought him while he was ‘in the far fields of India’.
The Rose of Tralee Festival is still held every year in Tralee, County Kerry, with additional ‘Roses’ selected from the other counties around Ireland and from around the world. These women compete in a televised final, with one crowned the ultimate ‘Rose of Tralee’.
Rocky Road to Dublin
There is little speculation around the origins of this rousing ballad, due to its narrative-led lyrics and clear subject matter. The 19th-century tune of ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ is set to text by the Irish poet DK Gavan, who was known as ‘The Galway Poet’. So many Irish folk songs tell stories of those leaving Ireland and reflecting on their love for the country – and this is no different. Gavan paints a picture of a man’s travels to Liverpool from his home in Ireland, describing his adventures (and mishaps) along the way. He is robbed, gets left off a boat and is abused by Liverpool locals for being Irish.
While many traditional Irish tunes and standard jigs are written in 6/8 time, this is written in the ‘slip jig’ time signature of 9/8.
Danny Boy (Londonderry Air)
The version we now know of this song actually only came into existence in 1913, when Frederic Weatherly wrote the now iconic ‘Danny Boy’ text. Despite this relatively recent reinvention, we’ve chosen to include it here because it is set to the traditional Irish melody, ‘Londonderry Air’, a folk song collected by Jane Ross of Limavady in the 19th century.
It was first publicised by opera singer Elsie Griffin, who would go on to perform it to the troops in France during World War One
It’s not entirely clear what the meaning of the lyrics are – or who Danny Boy might be. The line ‘the pipes, the pipes are calling’ has led people to believe it might be a message from a parent to a son going off to war or leaving to emigrate. It’s become a symbolic song for Irish people for this reason, intimately associated with Irish culture.
Thanks to its haunting, lilting melody and exploration of themes of separation and loss, the song has also become a mainstay in the funeral tradition, having been played at the funerals of Princess Diana and Elvis Presley, and was performed by Renée Fleming at the funeral of senator John McCain. Like ‘Whiskey in the Jar’, ‘Danny Boy’ has been performed, arranged and recorded multiple times in various guises by the likes of Judy Garland, Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and Sinéad O’Connor.
‘Molly Malone’ is another ‘not-quite’ Irish folk song, which has slightly ambiguous origins but has been written in the same style as other songs within the Irish folk tradition. The song has become so popular it – and its protagonist – has become a firm part of Irish culture, so much so that there is now a bronze statue of Molly herself in Dublin.
Also known as ‘Cockles and Mussels’, ‘Molly Malone’ is a tale of a fishwife working on the streets of Dublin in the 17th century. There is plenty of speculation about how and why it was written, but it is believed to be first published in the latter part of the 19th century across the Atlantic in Boston, Massachusetts. Although it is written in the ‘music hall’ style of the period, there are similarities with folk songs and street ballads from Irish musical history. The refrain ‘alive, alive, oh’ was supposedly a common phrase heard in fish markets at the time, as a way of telling customers how fresh the fish were.
You’ll know the tune if you’ve ever watched an Irish sports match, having been adopted by football and rugby fans. ‘Molly Malone’ has become Dublin’s unofficial anthem.
Top image: Getty Images
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.