I may be denied one of the usual pleasures of St Patrick’s Day due to my Lent booze ban, but nothing can detract from the other pleasure, a day indulging in Irish music: the thigh-slapping choruses and tear-jerking ballads alike; songs written decades and even centuries ago which sound as fresh and visceral as anything in today’s charts.
From the house where I was born and my childhood summers in Donegal to my first experiences in pubs and clubs, I grew up surrounded by Irish music. Most people did not, and good friends will often look baffled at me when I load up a pub jukebox with what they will describe as ‘fiddle-di-dee’ music.
This has always struck me as an aberration, because whatever else it is, Irish music is not some exclusive acquired taste, but a music rooted in fine tunes that a man can whistle. So it is in the interest of spreading the joy and – where appropriate – the tuneful misery of Irish music to a broader audience that I have put together this St Patrick’s Day playlist.
I’ve tried to steer clear of the most obvious and over-played St Patrick’s Day anthems (No Rovers, Irish or Wild; No Fairytales or Fields; and definitely no Angelic Goats or Ghostly Wheelbarrows). I’ve avoided songs which, like some of Jack Charlton’s recruits, are definitely of dubious Irish origin (No Sonny, No Danny, No Willie McBride). And I’ve left alone anything which belongs in lists of great songs written by Irishmen rather than great Irish songs (No Feargal or Bono; No Phils, whether Lynott or Coulter).
As most people know, some of the greatest Irish music, and by extension some of the greatest music of the past two centuries, takes its inspiration from the various rebellions against British rule, from The Wearing of the Green (composed in the aftermath of the 1789 Wexford Rebellion) to Kevin Barry and the various other songs written about the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence.
For what it’s worth, and with the honourable exception of Dominic Behan’s The Patriot Game, I don’t believe there has been a truly great ‘Rebel Song’ written since the Second World War about the era of the modern Troubles, and none are included in my selection.
However, if you object to hearing the names of republican and nationalist organisations mentioned in songs* written a century ago about events a century ago, then stop reading this blog, and go and read some Irish history instead. If you just enjoy great music regardless of the ancient politics, then enjoy this St Patrick’s Day playlist. Click on the song titles for the Youtube videos.
The Rocky Road to Dublin (c 1860s, DK Gavan): a staple of The Dubliners’ repertoire, and never better sung than here by Luke Kelly (including singing one verse twice by mistake). It was played for motivation on the Arsenal FC coach en route to Wembley before the 1979 Five Minute FA Cup Final against Man Utd, in the days when Arsenal were THE Irish team.
Galway Races (traditional): taken from the greatest Irish album, The Pogues’ If I Should Fall From Grace With God, it’s a tribute to Shane MacGowan’s song-writing that this great hymn to Ireland’s sporting unity sits easily with his own compositions.
McAlpine’s Fusiliers (c 1960s, D Behan): another Dubliners’ staple, with Ronnie Drew this time on the microphone. A pastiche of great rebel songs, but full of resonance for anyone who’s ever worked on a building site: “no money if you stop for rain”.
Down by the Liffeyside* (c 1920s, P Kearney): sung here by Fee O’Gorman, it’s the most jovial and romantic of Peadar Kearney’s many great and historic compositions. The opening verse is as good an evocation of young, working class love as you’ll ever hear.
Man from the Daily Mail* (c 1930s, unknown): sung here by Blackthorn, it makes the outrageous assertion that the Daily Mail in the 1930s was an alarmist newspaper, with their reporter spying seditious activity in every farmyard. Good to know things have changed.
Holy Ground (traditional): a song of disputed Irish origin (DIO), but claimed for Ireland by The Clancy Brothers. And for a nation used to singing about sad departures, it’s nice to hear a thoroughly happy song about returning home.
Black Velvet Band (traditional): another song of DIO, but no English folk singer ever sang it as well as Luke Kelly, here again with The Dubliners.
Sally Maclennane (1985, S MacGowan): from a great canon, this is The Pogues’ finest song, and brilliantly performed here live. The ultimate Irish party anthem.
N17 (1989, L Moran/D Carton): The Sawdoctors’ first single, written about the road back to Tuam. I saw them perform this at the Dungloe Festival in (I think) 1991, and it remains the best atmosphere I’ve known at a concert.
Welcome to the Cabaret (1991, C Moore): Christy Moore’s greatest song, say no more.
She Moved Through The Fair (unknown, 1900s), Apologies for the advert on the link, but it’s worth it for this beautiful version of the song by Count John McCormack, the Irish tenor.
Boolavogue (1898, PJ McCall): commemorating the Wexford Rebellion of 1798, and possibly the loveliest song ever written about rebellions and gruesome executions, it’s sung here by Jim McCann (with The Dubliners).
Carrickfergus (traditional): quite simply one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and this is a tear-jerking performance by the late Liam Clancy.
The Auld Triangle (1950s, D Behan): Apologies for the advert, but worth it for a wonderful performance by Paddy Reilly, who I saw perform this song in The Ostan Gaoth Dobhair in the late 1980s, at the same time The Fields of Athenry (which Paddy had helped popularise) was starting to become an anthem at Irish sporting events.
The Foggy Dew (1919, Canon C O’Neil): A mournful song, both for those Irishmen who fought and died in the First World War and for those who fell in the 1916 Easter Rising, sung beautifully by Luke Kelly.
On Raglan Road (1946, P Kavanagh): Famously given to Luke Kelly in a pub by the poet Patrick Kavanagh, set to the traditional tune The Dawning of the Day, and recently made famous by the film In Bruges. Apologies for the advert that precedes this version.
The Leaving of Liverpool (1880s, unknown): A song of very DIO, but the sentiment of emigration away from loved ones is thoroughly Irish, and there’s not a more Irish rendition in this selection than Ronnie Drew’s rasping vocal here.
Kitty (traditional): On a similar theme, this traditional song features a man’s parting words to his sweetheart before he escapes the approaching police, sung to perfection here by Shane MacGowan on the Pogues album, Red Roses For Me.
A Pair of Brown Eyes (1985, S MacGowan): Finally, a wonderful composition from The Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, and their first single to chart in the UK. The definitive song for a drunken end to a party, for those of you lucky enough to be enjoying the other Paddy’s Day pleasure.
Let me know any great songs or better versions you think I’ve missed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/dpmcbride