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With its roots in early Celtic history, musicians still learn and play Irish folk songs by ear, memorising melodies and playing tunes they probably first heard as children. Written scores are available, of course, but originality and the personality of individual musicians keep traditional old tunes alive and relevant.
Everybody knows some Irish tunes. They’ve travelled around the world, immortalising places like Tralee, Athenry, Galway, Dublin, Derry, and Tipperary to name a few. The songs are usually catchy, easy to learn, often repetitive and rhythmic but when you hear the words, they’re also tragic, moving tales of betrayal, hardship, and suffering. Here are a few you probably know but if you don’t, definitely look them up and have a listen.
This song has been popularised by various big-name bands over the years, starting with the Dubliners back in the 1960s, then Thin Lizzy, The Pogues, and Metallica. It dates to the 1700s, telling the story of a highwayman who, betrayed by a woman, ends up in jail.
Just about everyone must have heard this one, given its popular association with sporting events. It’s a bit of a mystery regarding its origins, but it definitely follows a traditional Irish theme. It tells the story of a man returning home after a spell away drinking and generally carousing. He finally sees the light and goes home with new-found resolve and fortune.
This 19th-century song has a 5-day international festival in its honour. If you fancy a trip to County Kerry, the festival is in August. The song is a lovely poetic ballad about a lady called Mary, The Rose of Tralee. She’s a woman who captured a man’s heart not just for her beauty but for the truth that shone in her eyes.
A driving, rhythmic ballad telling the tale of a young man who sets out from his Irish home to seek his fortune in Liverpool. He’s robbed, forced to travel with the pigs on a ship, and taunted for being Irish when he gets there. There are some great versions of this popular 19th-century tune, even a cappella if you enjoy harmony and unaccompanied singing.
In the Irish tradition, it sounds happy, bouncy, and fun. But underneath it’s a sad little ballad, telling the story of the end of the ferries across the River Liffey, when ferrymen lost their livelihoods thanks to the building of bridges across the river. The popularity of Irish folk music is as enduring today as it was hundreds of years ago, with tunes passed down through generations and loved equally by them all.
Irish folk songs are the mainstay of popular Irish pub entertainment, the toe-tapping, head-nodding rhythms carrying us through many a rousing evening. But next time you’re enjoying your own ‘drop of the pure’, bend your ear to the words you’re hearing. They often tell a tale that’ll soften the hardest heart.
Keen to hear some Irish music? Drop by The Temple Bar Pub, where we have live music 7 days a week.