Ireland's Favorite Drinking Songs

By Rachael Funk

Nothing gets the blood rushing quite like the sound of a lively fiddle, stomping feet, and a chorus of singing voices. If you’re on a quest to capture some magic on your trip, look no further than Ireland’s pubs. There, you may be lucky enough to catch a “trad session,” when musicians gather informally to play traditional Irish standards, share wild stories, and enjoy each other’s company. These gatherings pay homage to Ireland’s rich cultural heritage and create one-of-a-kind memories for anyone fortunate enough to choose the right pub on the right night. Here are a few songs you’re likely to hear during a trad session!

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Whiskey in the Jar

This song is the story of a thief named Patrick Flemming who robs an official then is betrayed by the woman he loves. The story can be traced back to 1650 and has many accepted versions of the song as it is considered “traditional.” The story itself can vary as much as the song style, with some versions ending with Flemming going to jail for his crimes and others ending with him murdering his confronter and escaping scot-free.

The Wild Rover

This classic is sure to earn you some points if you get it going in a pub, like the actor John C. Reilly did at Gus O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin. Though its origins are contested, references can be found to this song dating back to the late 16th century! The story is of a man returning home with riches he’s found on his journey. He sings that his roving days are over and he is ready to return home and settle down.

Rare Old Mountain Dew

This ballad is a jaunty song about Ireland’s favorite illicit alcohol. Though moonshine was illegal in Ireland for centuries, its wild popularity inspired Edward Harrigan to write The Rare Old Mountain Dew in 1882. Known as poitín (or poteen in some places), distillers had to stay on their toes to avoid persecution from the Catholic Church, the Irish government, and trouble with the bounty hunters who joined the pursuit in the 18th century.

Rocky Road to Dublin

A 19th century story about a man traveling to Liverpool from Ireland, this traditional song is often performed instrumentally. The man in the song sets off to seek his fortune. He charms women in Mullingar with his Irish style and accent but is robbed in Dublin where he is mocked for his “Connacht brogue.” Unpopular and finding no one to help him, he moves on to England, where he gets in a fight with the locals. He is outnumbered until fellow Irishmen from Galway join the scuffle and become the first to help him on his journey.

Black Velvet Band

A collaboration of folk lore from singers in Australia, England, Canada, and Ireland, this song has many different version and styles. In the tale, a young man becomes involved with a woman who steals a watch and plants it on the man. Apprehended for the crime, the man is sentenced to seven years at a penal colony in Australia. The details of the betrayal varies depending on who sings it, but one thing’s for sure – no one wants to get involved with the woman whose hair is tied up with a black velvet band.

Galway Races

As the title suggests, this song is about the annual Galway Races held in Ireland. The song was made famous in 1967 when it was recorded by the well-known Irish band The Dubliners. A festival lasting over seven days, the Galway Races are one of Ireland’s longest-lasting race meets. Each day has different events, but the best-attended events are the fashion competition on Ladies’ Day, the races on the day of the Galway Plate, and the hurdle race on the day of the Galway Hurdle.

Molly Malone

A well-loved song set in Dublin, Molly Malone tells the fictional story of a woman who sold seafood on the streets of the city. Tragically, she died young of a fever. A song by many titles (and many versions, depending on who’s singing it!) you may recognize it from its catchy refrain of “alive, alive-o!”

Drunken Sailor

A sea shanty whose first published account dates back to 1839 from a whaling voyage out of New London, Connecticut, “Drunken Sailor” is now well-known around the world. Originally used to help keep men hauling things together on the same rhythm, the repetitive melody is easy to remember and sing along to. If you feel moved to start a sing-along of your own, this one’s sure to get the rest of the pub harmonizing right along with you!

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