It’s 8 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day and your tone deaf cousin is threatening to sing “Danny Boy.” What do you do? Try our selection of Irish favourites, of course.
These are the songs have crossed glade and river, passed prison walls, and endured nations, fads and decades. Some of these tunes are just beginning their journeys. Others don’t seem like they’ll ever stop.
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Tim Finnegan’s Wake (live at Carnegie Hall) by The Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem
Poor Tim and his love of the liquor. Originally recorded the Dubliners (by way of James Joyce), this tune tells the story of a solemn wake that descends into something called “Shillelagh law.”
It’s a rousing, hilarious song about whiskey, death, and the water of life.
What’s Left of the Flag by Flogging Molly
Alternating between moments of mortality, introspection and frenzied outbursts of energy, this song is like one-stop shopping for St. Patrick’s Day. A wistful/angry, rock/folk masterpiece about “the colour we were born to mourn.”
The Rocky Road to Dublin by Luke Kelly
Born into what his sister called “poverty of the utmost,” Luke Kelly was a singular talent and a fine banjo player to boot.
On this tune, he sings with speed and precision. I can’t keep up. I also can’t stop trying.
Botany Bay by The Wolfe Tones
With a foot-stomping energy, the song tells the story of a brick-layer who quits his job in the hopes of striking gold in Australia.
It’s a great song for St. Patrick’s Day. It’s also perfect if you’ve just been laid off and you need to believe there’s something better on the way.
“Farewell to your bricks and mortar, farewell to your dirty lies/ Farewell to your gangers and gang planks/ And to hell with your overtime.”
A Pair of Brown Eyes by The Pogues
I was tempted to fill this list solely with Pogues songs.
“Dirty Old Town,” “Streams of Whiskey,” “Boys from the County Hell,” and “The Body of an American” are all fantastic, but there’s something about A Pair of Brown Eyes, right from its first lines.
“One summer evening, drunk to hell/ I sat there nearly lifeless.”
It stands on the shoulders of traditional folk music while telling a modern story about love, war, music and the ghosts of the past.
Whiskey in the Jar by The Dubliners
Everyone from the Irish Rovers to Bryan Adams to Thin Lizzy to Metallica to (appropriately) The Highwaymen has taken a crack at this feisty song about a doomed highwayman.
The mountains change, as does the military rank of Captain Farrell (or was it Colonel Pepper?) but the song’s timeless elements, its melody, pugnacity and melancholy remain.
I like the way everyone sings it. The Dubliners, however, are the only ones who sing like they lived it.
Molly Malone by Dervish with Imelda May
Play this song. But play it late, when the lights are low and no one will catch you weeping into your tumbler.
An Irish pub song: The Rumjacks (explicit lyrics)
For everyone who’s had enough of Kiss Me I’m Irish buttons and shamrocks in their beer, this fist-clenched fusion of Irish folk and punk rock fury is indispensable.