St. Patrick's Day: The ten recurring themes that crop up in your traditional Irish drinking songs
Irish drinking songs may seem fairly simple to the casual listener. The main theme is in the title, right? These are songs concerned with alcohol of any kind, tunes in 4/4 that are easy to clap along with during St. Patrick's Day celebrations. Though that may be the kind of criteria that guides those assembling generic "Best of Ireland" compilations, there's a lot more going on in traditional Irish balladry than mere tributes to alcohol. Indeed, even the most blatant and direct drinking song includes other basic and important themes, strains that distinguish the songs as an art form of their own.
The folk tunes that traveled across the sea to America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and later found a renaissance in the 1900s told very specific stories about the larger dramas of a people. The drinking songs told a tale of emigration, hard labor and little recompense. They sketched a picture of a culture that had been exported and belittled, and the songs that seemed like simple drinking anthems on their surface actually held deeper messages about love, loss, war and self-acceptance. And those messages kept coming back in song after song. We put together a list of the ten most important elements in traditional Irish balladry, a roster that includes drinking and fighting, but also goes a little deeper. Keep reading for the ten recurring themes that make up traditional Irish drinking songs.
Irish balladry offers listeners a pretty impressive rogues' gallery. There's the unrepentant title character of "The Beggarman," a roving roustabout who earns his living by the kindness of others. The star of "The Moonshiner" is a proud lover of alcohol, praising all aspects of the stuff, down to the smell it carries on the breath. Then there's the narrator of "Whiskey in the Jar," one of the best-loved and most covered Irish folk songs. He's a robber who steals money from a military man, only to be betrayed by his sweetheart. All of these flawed figures share a common self-acceptance and pride, in spite of their deep-seated flaws. As the singer in "The Moonshiner" admits, "I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler, I'm a long ways from home/And if you don't like me then leave me alone/I'll eat when I'm hungry, I'll drink when I'm dry/If the moonshine don't kill me, I'll live 'til I die."
9. Resignation and acceptance in the face of death
There's no big fear of the afterlife in Irish folk music, perhaps because of the combination of lost and soured love, emigration and a laundry list of other hardships. But the mortal strain in this music isn't dreary or depressing. Rather, tunes like "Jug of Punch" and "Kevin Barry" are about living in the moment, about sucking the marrow out of life and letting it go for the right cause. And as grim as the question posed by "Isn't It Grand Boys" may seem ("Isn't grand, boys, to be bloody well dead?"), it still feels celebratory. Life should be cherished and lived to the fullest, whether it's through strong drink, battles for the right cause or stormy love affairs.
8. Soured love/marital strife
Love can sour pretty quickly...and violently. That much is clear in some of the funniest and macabre songs of the Irish tradition. Here couples don't just get divorced; they turn violent. In "The Cobbler," the title character drowns his wife by dipping her "three times in the river" and casually bidding her good day. In "William Bloat," the subject of the song slits his wife's throat, then is struck by remorse and hangs himself. He's dispatched to hell, but his wife is saved, only because "the razor blade was German-made, but the rope was Belfast linen."
7. Emigration/separation from homeland
The songs in this category could easily fall under the heading of lost love. Irish balladry often paints the Emerald Isle as a spurned lover, a sweetheart long gone. But the connection isn't always so poetic. In "Home Boys Home," for example, the narrator states simply, "Home I'd like to be/Home for a while in my own country." Considering the long tradition of emigration from Ireland to far-flung locales, that theme isn't all that shocking.
6. Love at first sight
You have to find love before it can disappear. In the Irish tradition, the affection comes fast and strong. As Irish poet William Butler Yeats notes, "Wine comes in at the mouth/And love comes in at the eye/That's all we shall know for truth/Before we grow old and die." In songs like "Star of the County Down," love comes after the narrator spots a maid across a field. In "Spanish Lady," it's spurred when the singer sees a pretty girl washing her feet by the fire. In "Maid of Fife-E-O," the attraction is just as instant as it is ill-fated: After an Irish dragoon is summarily rejected, he dies from heartbreak. There's no lack of melodrama here.
Whether it's fighting for the cause of nationalism or fighting for the sake of a pretty redhead ("Red Haired Mary"), there's a solid strain of violence in old Irish music. Most of it is lighthearted fisticuffs, scuffles that come after too much drinking. Some of it comes as a mark of manhood, as in "Big Strong Man," where the narrator sings the praises of his tough brother, who can take Jeffrey Johnson and "the whole lot."
4. Lost love
If the sea is the barrier in Irish balladry, then love is the impossible prize, the treasure that's disappeared under the weight of duty and distance. Love is fragile, love is fleeting, it's a distant memory or a constant regret. In "Spancil Hill," the narrator dreams of returning to his first love in County Clare, only to wake in California. In "Leaving of Liverpool," an Irish immigrant en route to distant shores bids his final farewell. In "Eamonn An Chniuic," a rebel shows up at his lover's door, seeking refuge as he's hunted by the British. For the poetic, these could be metaphors, stories where a woman stands in for Ireland itself. But for the romantics, there's no more tender love song than an Irish ballad.
3. The sea
Chalk it up to the close relationship between some Irish folk tunes and sea chanties, but the sea plays a major role in the Celtic musical tradition. It's a character that's often looming in the background, whether as a barrier, a duty or some kind of mystic lover. When the narrator tells his love he must depart in songs like "The Holy Ground," it's to do his duty as a man on a ship. When Ewan McColl sings of the sea in "Shoals of Herring," it's as a source of bounty that offers up sustenance. Even the Clancy Brothers' innocent "Children's Medley" includes a nod to the sea; they call it "the illie allie oh."
A good Irish drinking song can veer from the sentimental to the martial in a matter of seconds. Songs like "Kevin Barry," "A Nation Once Again" and "The Merry Ploughboy" never shy from choosing a side, and they're never subtle about decrying the colonialism of the British. It's hard to think of another genre of world music or folk music that is tied so tightly to one of the Western world's bloodiest and lengthy conflicts, but the music takes a measured approach to the violence. As Bob Dylan noted in his thoughts about the traditional music of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, "What I heard...were rousing, rebel songs, Napoleonic in scope, and they were these musketeer-type characters. But then on the other level, you had the romantic ballads that would just slay you right in your tracks with the sweetness.... It was like, take a sword and cut off your head and then weep." The Protestants put their own musical spin on divided Ireland in songs like "The Old Orange Flute."
The relationship between man and whiskey in the Irish folk song is particular. There are plentiful tunes about the homemade variety of the stuff, the moonshine or Gaelic poitín brewed in stills across the Irish countryside. Songs like "Mountain Dew" and "The Moonshiner" paint a loving and mysterious portrait of the stuff, praising its ability to unite "Pagan, Christian and Jew." The commercial stuff is pretty okay, too. Songs like "Whiskey Is the Life of Man" makes no distinction between homemade brews and Jameson. In these tunes, it all comes down to the elixir's medicinal power, even if it does occasionally cause the narrator to "pawn me clothes" and give "me a broken nose."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.