OK, so we did the folk groups already … this is part two of the trilogy, where we look at the best folk songs themselves. I will put singers to the songs, even though most have been recorded by many artists. Perhaps you can put down a few of your own favourites before we continue and see are we all on the one track. I know I will leave something out and kick myself later, but with thousands to choose from, it is anything but easy. We will follow the trend and go in reverse order, and I have to say that when I go to write this song down, I wonder at which end of my chart should it be.
20, Whisky in the Jar, The Dubliners
The Dubliners’ version of Whiskey in the jar, which was one of their signature songs, featured on three of their albums in the 1960s. The song tells the tale of a highway man robbing Captain Farrell of all his money and taking it home to is wife, who then betrays him, however there are no definite origins of the song that we know of, except that it could be a reference to a highwayman called Patrick Fleming, who was executed in 1650. Thin Lizzy’s version of the song, released in 1973, was a huge hit and the band had significant chart success with it in Britain, while also appearing on Top of the Pops.
19, The Green Fields of France, The Furey Brothers and Davy Arthur
This song was written in 1976 by Eric Bogle (also the composer of Waltzing Matilda), a Scottish-Australian singer and songwriter. It’s about Willie McBride, who was killed in France at the age of 19 in 1916. Besides the Furey’s hit in the ’80s, Makem and Clancy charted in 1990 with the song, which was taken from their CD The Collection.
18, The Irish Rover, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem
A song about a redoubtable ship, which meets a sticky end. It has been covered by numerous artists, including the Dubliners and the Pogues, whose version reached No 1 in the Irish charts, while hitting No 8 in Britain in 1987. Who wrote it is uncertain, but Walton’s give the credit to JM Crofts.
17, Danny Boy, Celtic Women
Recorded down the ages by many, this ballad was written by Englishman Frederick Weatherly in 1913. Since then, it has always had a place in the Irish folk music. And Celtic Women’s version of the song gets my vote.
16, Grace, Jim McCann
It’s not hard to believe that this love ballad about Grace Gifford and 1916 leader Joseph Mary Plunkett (also recorded by the Wolfe Tones) has had more than 1.1 million hits on YouTube. The song was written in 1985 by Frank and Seán McNamara.
15, Molly Malone, The Dubliners
Most Dubs would probably have their anthem at number one. Lord Mayor Ben Briscoe unveiled a statue to Molly in Grafton Street during 1988; the question is, was there such a person? The song is credited to James Yorkston of Edinburgh, with Edmund Forman providing the music score. However, the Dublin Molly may have been based on an older tune. The song is based on a fictional character, who lived in the 17th century. The Dublin 1988 Millennium Commission endorsed claims that the song relates to a Mary Malone, who died on 13 June 1699, and proclaimed 13 June as “Molly Malone day.”
14, Brennan on the Moor, The Clancys and Tommy Makem
In the 1960s, this group stood out and there would possibly be 40 songs around the same quality I could have chosen. This number dates back to the 1830s. And although the composer is unknown, it is factual. Willy Brennan was a highwayman from the Munster area, who was caught and hanged. The date is not certain, but possibly either 1804 or 1809.
13, The Spinning Wheel, Foster and Allen
This song was written around 1922 by Limerick-born John Francis Waller. It’s about a young lady, Eileen, who is spinning as she sits by the window, while her blind grandmother sits by the fire. Eileen’s beau taps on the window, and eventually the hum of the spinning wheel sends granny to sleep and Eileen slips out the window.
12, Noreen Ban, Celtic Thunder
Yet again, a song covered by many artists. I like the version by Keith Harkin of Celtic Thunder. Of course, in the 1960s, Bridie Gallagher had a hit with it. Recently, Dominic Kirwan has had a lot of airplay with the song.
Neil McBride from Creeslough in Donegal wrote the song in 1910. Noreen Bawn was a fictional character, but the song highlighted the number of young Irish emigrants leaving in good health, only to return and succumb to tuberculosis (TB) the killer illness of the time.
11, Lisdoonvarna, Christy Moore
One of Christy’s signature tunes. Anywhere you have a sing-song, this will surely feature. The song was written by Christy based on his experiences at the famous music festival in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s – and it’s still going strong. In 2010, to Christy’s delight, it was included in the Penguin Collection of Irish Verse, which is the Bible of Irish Poetry.
10, Rose of Tralee, Joe Lynch
It was composed by William Pembroke Mulchinock, a wealthy Protestant, who fell in love with Mary O’Connor, a working-class Catholic from Tralee. But this love was forbidden by his parents. Later, he was forced to emigrate, but returned to find Mary had died and was buried on the day of his return. This is the story and song which inspired the Rose of Tralee festival. Again, many have recorded this ballad, but the late Joe Lynch (Dinny Byrne in Glenroe) was associated with it from the early days.
9, Come down the Mountain Katie Daly, Tom Dunphy and the Royal Showband
This was the first showband record and the first hit for the Royal. It was released in 1962. Tom Dunphy was the band’s bass player and vocalist, along with Brendan Bowyer. Tom died when he was only 39 years’ old when his Ford Granada crashed into a lorry near Mohill, Co Leitrim on his way to the Mary from Dungloe Festival in Donegal on 29 July 1975. This version of the song was written by Paul Mullins, fiddler with the Stanley Brothers, in 1962. The original dates back to the 1880s and Katie Daly of Tombstone is shown in town records to have married Frank Heban on 30 August 1882. Again, many have put the song on disc, but it would be hard to beat Dunphy’s version from way back.
8, On the One Road, the Wolfe Tones
The first of three for the Wolfe Tones who, like the Clancys, Dubliners and Dublin City Ramblers, any number of their songs would make it into the top 20.
This one was written by Francis O’Donovan in 1940 as a call to Irishmen to unite during World War II. It was recorded by many but the Wolfe Tones have a long history with the song, releasing it as a single and on their LP Let the People Sing in 1972, and again as the title song on an album in 2005.
7, God Save Ireland, The Wolf Tones
This marching song was written in 1867 by Timothy Daniel Sullivan, lord mayor of Dublin from 1886 to 1888, who was born in Bantry Co Cork. The song was considered the national anthem until 1910, and far beyond that by some. The Wolfe Tones’ version was probably the most admired. It was taken from their 1969 album Rifles of the IRA.
6, Boolavogue, Brendan Bowyer
This Wexford ballad featuring the bravery of rebel leader Fr John Murphy from Boolavogue during the 1798 Rebellion was written by Patrick Joseph McCall in 1898. Fr Murphy was captured by the Yeomen in Tullow. He was executed and his body burned on the rack. His memorial stands in The Square in Tullow. The song has been popular right up to the present day, whether sung in a quiet mode or belted out with vigour, as performed by Brendan Bowyer and the Royal Showband from their Ireland album. This performance is the best I have heard.
5, The Ferryman, The Dublin City Ramblers
This is a song written by Pete St John about a ferry pilot, who is talking to his wife Molly of his sadness at losing his job on the Liffey who, as times had changed and the ferry was no longer required. Patsy Watchorn and the Dublin City Ramblers do a great job on this lovely ballad.
4, Muirsheen Durkin, Johnny McEvoy
Many recording artists in Ireland have recorded this all-time favourite, but the composer’s (Johnny McEvoy) version made is beyond comparison. The song tells the story of an emigrant leaving Ireland to join the hunt for gold in California in 1849.
3, A Nation Once Again, The Wolfe Tones
The Wolfe Tones again with another song from Let the People Sing. This song was written by Thomas Osborne Davis in The 1840s. The Tones’ version from 1972 was voted the world’s most popular song by the BBC World Service in a global pole held in 2002.
2, Fairytale of New York, The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl
Probably the biggest-selling modern Christmas song of our time written by Jim Finer and Shane McGowan who with Kirsty MacColl recorded and released it in 1987. It has been voted best Christmas song of all time by many radio and TV polls. Hit and Miss in the 90s it has appeared in the Christmas top 20 every year from 2005 to 2012.
1, The Fields of Athenry, Paddy Reilly
This folk ballad is set during the Famine with the transportation of a man to Botany Bay in Australia for stealing food to feed his family. It was written by Pete St John in the 1970s and the first artist to have a hit with it was Danny Doyle. However, I feel Paddy Reilly’s 1983 version is the most popular, although it could only manage a high of number four. It stayed in the charts for 72 weeks.
It is now the Irish sporting anthem and is heard anywhere an Irish international or provincial team is playing, whatever the sport.