VagaGuide and lover of Irish music, John McKiernan, lays out his top Irish tracks to listen to before going to Ireland.
This is the impossible task. Narrowing limitless Irish songs down to only ten. There are so many to choose from. But we’ll give it a go…
1. Molly Malone
The ultimate sing-along song. The subject is a Dublin fishmonger, who may have sold more than just ‘cockles and mussels’.
The song has become an anthem of sorts, particularly for the people of Dublin. It touches on the heart of the city and those who have worked as street sellers since the city began, over a thousand years ago.
Molly’s buxom statue now adorns Suffolk Street, in Dublin city centre.
Most will recognise the Dubliners version of the song. But it was most likely written long before, sometime in the late 19th century:
2. The Fields of Athenry
Often heralded as Ireland’s unofficial national anthem, this is one of the most famous Irish songs of all time.
Author Pete St John captures the tragedy of the Famine and the spirit of the Irish like no other.
On any national sporting occasion in Ireland, The Fields of Athenry can be heard resounding around the stadium. Love for country shines through the lyrics:
‘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.
During the European soccer championships in 2012, the Irish team were losing 0-4 against world champions, Spain. Ireland fans joined together in song for one of the all time great renditions of The Fields of Athenry.
To let the music shine, German TV commentators stopped talking. This is what sport should be about. Spine-tingling:
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 1960s by the McPeake family. It has enjoyed enormous popularity ever since.
Wild Mountain Thyme has become synonymous with Ireland, becoming one of the most famous Irish songs, bar none. This is most likely due to the 1960s Liam Clancy version.
4. Raglan Road
Perhaps the most romantic of Irish songs?
Poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote the words. His brief relationship with Hilda Moriarty was the inspiration
The song was brought to life when Kavanagh met Luke Kelly one evening in the Bailey Bar in Dublin. Kelly, seen by many as Ireland’s greatest singer, set the poem to the air of another traditional Irish song ‘The Dawning of the Day’.
There is a depth and resonance to this song that still holds true today. Despite a plethora of artists covering the tune, Luke Kelly’s version remains definitive. It would bring a tear to a glass eye, as they say.
5. The Auld Triangle
The Auld Triangle first appeared at the opening of a Brendan Behan play, The Quare Fellow . While many attribute Behan with writing the song, this may not be the case.
The song itself tells of life inside a prison. Behan himself had first-hand experience, having spent time in Mountjoy prison for his involvement with the IRA. His uncle wrote ‘The Soldier Song’, now the Irish national anthem. A heavy drinker from a young age, Behan described himself as ‘a drinker with a writing problem’.
Here’s a special Albert Hall rendition of the song:
6. The Wild Rover
A classic. This is an Irish drinking song on the topic of temperance (!).
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
The source of this Irish song remains unknown. Some claim it to be over 400 years old. More recent versions date it to the mid-1800s.
Most popular is the Dubliners version of the song released in 1964.
7. Black Velvet Band
Black Velvet Band tells the story of a man led astray by a woman. He ends up down under, as a prisoner, in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).
In the 1967 Dubliners version, the lyrics refer to ‘the neat little town they called Belfast’. But many have adopted the location to suit their own audience.
The song’s writer remain a mystery. Despite this, the tune is one of the most popular folk songs – one of the most popular Irish songs outright – and a stalwart of many a pub singsong.
8. The Town I Loved So Well
Written by Phil Coulter about life in Derry, Northern Ireland.
We hear about a simple childhood followed by the search for wife and family. Derry is then 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’, continuing,
‘They will not forget but their hearts are set
On tomorrow and peace once again.’
This is one of the most emotive Irish songs. It speaks to anyone who experienced life in Ireland during the Troubles.
Here’s a more recent version 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’s the perfect soundtrack to many a Vagabond tour. It references many of the sites along the Wild Atlantic Way. From Black Head in the Burren, to the beauty of a 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
One of the most famous Irish songs ever.
Danny Boy was made famous by singer Elsie Griffin during the First World War. 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 an English barrister and songwriter, Frederick Edward Weatherly. The song became profoundly identified with Ireland and its struggle for independence.
More recently, Danny Boy was featured in the Hollywood movie Memphis Belle. This beautiful version by Harry Connick Jr is one of my favorites.