Around the world, Ireland is famous for its traditional music and dance, but less people know that the country has a long tradition of folk songs. The Irish folk songs tradition is deeply intertwined with the English and Scottish traditions, as the countries share much commun history.
We have all heard songs like The Parting Glass or Auld Lang Syne, both traditional Scottish folk songs, but there are many more. Some date back a few centuries, while others are relatively new yet known by all across the country. I chose to focus on older songs that have survived and evolved through the centuries and the languages.
There are different styles to traditional irish folk songs. In Irish, unaccompanied vocals are called sean nós (“in the old style”), while Caoineadh is Irish for a lament, a song which lyrics stress sorrow and pain.
Molly Malone (Cockles and Mussels)
Molly Malone is one of the most famous Irish songs, and the unofficial anthem of the city of Dublin. The song was written in 1880 but tells the story of a woman in the 17th century that may have existed. However, Molly Malone being a common name, it was never proven.
Molly Malone was a young and beautiful woman that sold fish in the streets of Dublin until she died of fever. For some, Molly sold fish by day and her body by night while others say she was a chaste fishmonger.
In 1987, the city of Dublin erected a statue of Molly Malone next to St Andrew’s church on Suffolk Street. The cleavage shown on the statue raised a few eyebrows at first, as it was considered indecent, especially next to a church. Yet, historians underlined that at the time, it was quite ordinary for women to breastfeed in the streets, so the sight of a woman’s breast was not the issue it can be nowadays.
When the statue was erected, the legend was tidied up a bit. For example, the dress she is wearing is from the 17th century even though the song is from the 19th century and that she was often depicted on music sheets as wearing a 19th century dress.
No matter if Molly Malone existed or not, the song is well-known in Ireland and far away. Many Irish pubs around the world were named after the song.
The Wild Rover
The Wild Rover dates back to the late 16th century, and is often categorized as a drinking song. Published in the United States in the 19th century, the song regained fame and spread so well through Europe and the United States that several nations declared that the song was their own.
The Wild Rover tells the story of a young man, away from his hometown for many years, that returns to his old ale house where he asks the landlady for credit. When she refuses, he shows her the gold he gained, she then accepts to serve him.
However, the entire song is about him telling that he doesn’t want to be a wild rover anymore and that he spent too much time and money on drinking, which he regrets. At the end of the song, the narrator tells that he will ask forgiveness from his parents and “never play the wild rover no more”.
This song is still really popular in Ireland and the United Kingdom, and is often heard during concerts in pubs or as a football chant.
The Black Velvet Band
The Black Velvet Band is a traditional Irish folk song that regained popularity at the end of the 20th century. It tells the story of a man from Belfast being sent to Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land at the time) after the woman he loves framed him for stealing a watch. In some versions of the song, the woman is said to have met a sailor and wanted to get rid of him.
The black velvet band symbolises the woman, as she is wearing one in her hair. Throughout the song, the narrator keeps repeating that he thought she was a queen and that she deceived him, so he was betrayed by the black velvet band.
This song could be listened to with the tensions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in mind. Indeed, it highlights the oppression of British colonialism that often sent people in exile in Australia, no matter what the crime was.
Dúlamán is a court song that tells the story of two men visiting a mother and her daughter.
At first, the daughter tries to show that she is “wife material”. After the men leave, the women say that they are unattractive but that they must have some money because of how fairly they are dressed. Then, one of the men promises a gift to the daughter as an enticement to marriage but the father decides that he can’t marry the daughter, so the man says he will run away with her anyway.
Dúlamán is a type of seaweed used for dying clothes: the man is named after his job. As a matter of fact, in Ireland certain men made their livings by collecting and selling different types of seaweed, and were frequently nicknamed for the particular types in which they dealt.
Yet, another interpretation is possible. To some people, dúlamán is in fact the word dúramán, in the Ulster dialect, which means dimwit or idiot. Even though the story stays the same, the song is meaner in this version and underlines the cupidity of the women of the song.
The Maid of Culmore
The Maid of Culmore is a song about immigration that probably dates from the late 1800s. Culmore is a city close to Derry, in the north of Ireland, where the Foyle river widens into Lough Foyle. It was a departure point for emigrants.
The song tells the story of a young man who falls in love with a young lady from Culmore but she leaves Ireland for America soon after. The young man finally decides to go to the wild parts of America to find his darling the Maid of Culmore.
It is a bittersweet story, as the man hopes for a storm to prevent his loved one from leaving for the new world. Then, the man leaves for America and explains that he will not come back, whether or not he finds his maid of Culmore.
For many people at the time, it was a reality. People were leaving never to come back and many Irish citizens left and brought songs to the United States, as a reminder of their former home. When the famine started in Ireland, more than a million people left Ireland and took ships to America for a new life.
Óró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile
Óró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile has an unsure origin or date, but probably dates from the 18th century. It is a cheer song about coming home.
The lyrics of the songs tell that Grace O’Malley and a thousand warriors are coming to the country to liberate it. It says that the land was stolen by foreigners and that they are coming to reclaim it. People singing the song celebrate the return of the warriors, even though they say they might not live long after the fight.
Traditionally, this song was played during the Hauling Home, a ceremony that took place about a month after a wedding, when the bride came back to visit her parents for the first time after the wedding.
The song has also been associated with the Jacobite cause, a movement in the 17th and 18 century to reclaim the British throne for the Stuart house. Jacobitism was strongest in Ireland and Scotland, and followers believed that the throne was a divine right, so the Kings and Queens appointed by the parliament were illegitimate.
It is no secret that to this very day, Ireland, Scotland and England have a complicated relationship, and an even more complicated history. It is the reason why there are so many songs in the Irish folk song tradition about fights between countries, and immigration. It also explains why there are many songs in English, and not only in Irish: for a long time, Irish music and songs were banned from Ireland for the benefit of English music and language.
The Rising of the Moon
The Rising of the Moon is a famous Irish folk song that has been transmitted since 1865. It is sometimes taught in schools in Ireland.
It tells the story of a battle between the United Irishmen and the British army during the 1798 rebellion taking place during the night, at the rising of the moon. The United Irishmen were influenced by the French and American revolutions, and decided to oppose the British ruling. Many Catholics followed at first, but the uprising was suppressed by the British army.
Peigín Leitir Móir (Peggy Lettermore)
Peigín Leitir Móir is a song from the turn of the 20th century written in County Galway, and can also be played without lyrics as a polka.
The song is about the beauty of a woman named Peigín and how she attracts poets and men from every district. The narrator tells that Peggy is his favorite and the best woman he can have.
Throughout the years, lyrics have been added to the original song.
She Moved Through The Fair
She Moved Through The Fair is one of the oldest traditional Irish folk songs, whose melody could be from the Middle Age while the lyrics are from an old song from Donegal.
In the song, the narrator’s lover is moving away through the fair but tells him that her family approves of their relationship and that it shouldn’t be long until their wedding day. However, she ends up getting sick and dying, then coming back to visit her former lover as a ghost, or in a dream, depending on the version.
It is a Caoineadh, a lament, as it deals with lost love. The woman is compared to a swan at the beginning of the song, and the image it kept throughout the song, as she is only passing by, as a swan on a lake.
The Rocky Road To Dublin
The Rocky Road to Dublin is an Irish song from the 19th century. It is often played without lyrics and can be categorized as a humorous song, but has the reputation to be hard to sing.
It tells the story of a young man that left his hometown of Tuam and is going to Dublin. We follow his adventures on the road, where he stops in Mullingar, and meets a few people along the way. He then arrives in Dublin and tells how his bundle was stolen. He finds that people are not helpful in the city.
Then, he decides to go to Liverpool, and when a captain of a boat tells him there is no room for him, he jumps in the boat and travels with the pigs. In Liverpool he realizes that his luck hasn’t turned, as people make fun of him and Ireland. Finally, some men from Galway help him clear his name and Ireland’s reputation.
It happens often with oral traditions where each country, county or even city can have its own versions. If retracing the history of the song is harder for historians, it also makes it richer and each version says a lot about the place. Irish songs have a tendency to glorify the fights for freedom while the same song can be a little bit different from the English point of view.
Whatever the songs are about, the aim of traditional songs is always to bring people together, which is why it is important to be passed to future generations. If you want to know more about Irish music, be sure to check out the Irish Traditional Music Archives.