Connoisseur’s Guide to Irish Drinking Songs
In college, you no doubt saw St. Patrick’s Day as a festive occasion to barhop and drink from the crack of dawn to the wee hours of the next morning. How much that weekend differed from any other on the calendar likely depended on your alma mater and your propensity to suffer the assaults of a raging hangover. We’re willing to bet that you’ve evolved from green-dyed beer to better-quality pints, and that these days your preferred method of St. Patrick’s Day revelry involves the languid appreciation of a dram (or two) of fine Irish whiskey.
Be that as it may, a St. Patrick’s Day celebration devoid of a pint enjoyed in a raucous and jovial Irish pub seems incomplete. Furthermore, the chances of being serenaded—and raising a glass—to the lively tune of an Irish folk song increase dramatically on a day dedicated to Ireland’s most famous patron saint. Thanks to bands such as the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners, Irish folk songs have enjoyed a renaissance during the last 50 years—some have even been covered by rock legends such as Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Metallica.
Many of these Irish folk songs have been categorized as drinking songs, and with titles like “Beer, Beer, Beer,” “The Moonshiner,” and “Whiskey in the Jar,” it’s easy to understand how such a designation could occur. Despite being odes to alcohol, these songs also convey unabashed national pride, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear at least a few of them sung on St. Patrick’s Day.
Here are a few of the most popular examples, with a brief description of their origin and the message that they share. We’re not promising that you’ll be ready to sing along to every word, but when you raise your glass with your fellow constituents, you’ll at least know what you’re celebrating.
The Rare Old Mountain Dew – Written by Edward Harrigan in 1882, the song praises whiskey brewed in Irish stills—in particular, the curative effects of Irish moonshine, which is known as poteen. “Away with yer pills, it’ll cure all ills, be ye pagan, Christian, or Jew,” declares one verse of the song. “So take off your coat and grease your throat with a bucketful of mountain dew.”
Whiskey in the Jar – One of the most famous traditional Irish folk songs, “Whiskey in the Jar” recounts the tale of a highwayman who steals a captain’s money but is betrayed by his love interest (either a wife or girlfriend). In the version made famous by the Dubliners, the narrator is taken prisoner by the captain by the end of the song, but in the variation performed by Metallica, which won a Grammy award for Best Hard Rock Performance in 2000, the narrator kills the captain and is sent to jail.
Haul Away Joe – More of an Irish seafaring song than one that sings the merits of drinking, “Haul Away Joe”—popularized by the Clancy Brothers in the early 1960s—is a popular song around this time of the year due to a reference to Ireland’s famous patron saint. “St. Patrick was a gentleman, he came from decent people,” the song explains. “He built his church in Dublin Town and on it put a steeple.”
Jug of Punch – Many Irish (and English) folk songs reflect back on the temperance movement, like “Jug of Punch,” which declares, “And if I get drunk, well the money’s me own, and them don’t like me can leave me alone.” Patrick Clancy, the lead singer of the Clancy Brothers, once noted before a televised performance that “it’s a song that starts out very quietly and very poetically, and rapidly deteriorates, like St. Patrick’s Day.”