Vagabond tour guide and lover of Irish music John McKiernan lays out his top Irish tracks to listen to before going to Ireland.
John – Ok…so this is an impossible task. Only ten songs…there are so many to choose from but we’ll give it a go…
1. Molly Malone
The ultimate sing-along song about a Dublin fishmonger who may have sold more than just ‘cockles and mussels’. Most will recognise the Dubliners version of the song but it was most likely written long before any of the Dubliners were born, sometime in the late 19th century. The song has become an anthem of sorts, particularly for the people of Dublin, touching on the heart of the city and those who have worked as street sellers since the city began, over a thousand years ago. Mollys’ buxom statue now adorns Suffolk Street, not far from Grafton Street and is a popular meeting spot.
2. The Fields of Athenry
Often heralded as Ireland’s unofficial national anthem, Pete St Johns moving song about the Famine manages to capture the spirit of the Irish like no other. So much so that on any national sporting occasion this song can be heard from the stands as the Irish express the love of their country and support of their team through the lyrics of this song.
‘Low lie, The Fields Of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly
Our love was on the wing
We had dreams and songs to sing,
It’s so lonely round the Fields of Athenry’
There is an emotion here that goes beyond just an ordinary song, this song tells a story, and it manages to capture the spirit of a nation and is always sung with great pride and passion by Irish fans all over the world. Ultimately it is a song about freedom.
3. Wild Mountain Thyme
Most recently covered by Ed Sheeran, this classic folk song has stood the test of time. Finding its roots in Scotland in the late 18th Century. The modern day version of the song came into being in the 1960’s by the Mc Peake family and has enjoyed enormous popularity ever since. Whilst it is actually a Scottish folk song it has become synonymous with Ireland, most likely because of the Liam Clancy version of the song released in the 1960’s.
4. Raglan Road
The combination of poetry from one of Irelands’ finest poets, Patrick Kavanagh and the voice of one of Irelands’ greatest singers, Luke Kelly, makes this song one of the greatest of all time. First written as a poem in the 1940’s by Kavanagh about his brief relationship with Hilda Moriarty, a then medical student, almost 20 years his junior. The song was brought to life after Kavanagh met Luke Kelly one evening in the Bailey Bar in Dublin. The poem was then put to the air of another traditional Irish song’ the dawning of the day’. There are a depth and resonance to this song that still holds true today and despite a plethora of artists covering the tune, Luke Kelly’s version remains definitive. As they say, it would bring a tear to a glass eye.
5. The ‘Oul Triangle’
The Auld Triangle first appeared at the opening of a Brendan Behan play ’ The Quare Fellow’ and whilst many attribute Behan with writing the song, this may not be the case. The song itself tells of life inside a prison and Behan himself had first-hand experience of this having spent time in Mountjoy prison for his involvement with the IRA. Sentenced to 14 years, he got early release after 4 years, during an amnesty in 1946. Brendan came from a nationalist family, his mother being a personal friend of Michael Collins and his Uncle wrote ‘The Soldiers song’ which is now the Irish National Anthem. A heavy drinker from a young age Behan described himself as a drinker with a writing problem.
You can find a special Albert Hall rendition of this song here…
6. The Wild Rover
An Irish drinking song about temperance. The source of this song remains unknown with some claiming it to be over 400 years old. More recent versions date it to the mid-1800’s. The song tells the story about a wayward son spending all his money ‘ on whiskey and beer’ but then promising to return home only to repent his wild ways. Sound familiar!?
And it’s no, nay, never
No, nay, never, no more
And I’ll play the wild rover
No never, no more
Most popular is the Dubliners version of the song released in 1964. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_4KboYi40I
7. Black Velvet Band
In the Dubliners version of the song released in 1967 the lyrics refer to ‘the neat little town they called Belfast’ but many have adopted the location to suit their own audience. The writers of this song remain a bit of a mystery but despite this, it is a popular Irish folk song and a stalwart of any pub session. It tells the story of a man led astray by a woman and he ends up down under as a prisoner in Van Diemen’s Land ( Tasmania)
8. The Town I Loved So Well
A song written by Phil Coulter about growing up Derry, Northern Ireland. In the first two verses, we hear about the simple lifestyle he grew up with in Derry, in the third he tells of finding a wife before he moves away. The fourth verse tells of his shock on his return at seeing the city transformed ‘ by the armoured cars and bombed-out bars’. The fifth and final verse includes a message of hope for a “bright, brand new day”, saying “They will not forget but their hearts are set / on tomorrow and peace once again”. An always emotive song that speaks to many who experienced life in Ireland during the Troubles.
Here’s a more recent version with Phil Coulter featuring Nathan Carter.
9. Song for Ireland
Written by the English folk singer Phil Colclough after his trip to the Dingle Peninsula, this song captures perfectly the magic of Ireland. It is the perfect soundtrack to many a Vagabond tour as it references many of the sites along the Wild Atlantic Way. From Blackhead in the Burren to Dingle beach “Living on your western shore, saw summer sunsets asked for more. I stood by your Atlantic sea and sang a song for Ireland.”
10. Danny Boy
Made famous by singer Elsie Griffin during World War 1, the tune of “Danny Boy” (also known as the Londonderry, or Derry air) may well date back to Rory Dall O’Cahan, an Irish harpist who lived in Scotland in the late 17th Century. The actual lyrics of the song were written by a British barrister and songwriter, Frederick Edward Weatherly. Despite its English origins, the song became profoundly identified with Ireland and its struggle for independence. More recently it was featured in the Hollywood Movie Memphis Belle with a beautiful version and one of my favorites by Harry Connick Jr.