St. Patrick's Day: The ten recurring themes that crop up in your traditional Irish drinking songs
Irish drinking songs may seem fairly simple to the casual listener. The main theme is in the title, right? These are songs concerned with alcohol of any kind, tunes in 4/4 that are easy to clap along with during St. Patrick's Day celebrations. Though that may be the kind of criteria that guides those assembling generic "Best of Ireland" compilations, there's a lot more going on in traditional Irish balladry than mere tributes to alcohol. Indeed, even the most blatant and direct drinking song includes other basic and important themes, strains that distinguish the songs as an art form of their own.
The folk tunes that traveled across the sea to America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and later found a renaissance in the 1900s told very specific stories about the larger dramas of a people. The drinking songs told a tale of emigration, hard labor and little recompense. They sketched a picture of a culture that had been exported and belittled, and the songs that seemed like simple drinking anthems on their surface actually held deeper messages about love, loss, war and self-acceptance. And those messages kept coming back in song after song. We put together a list of the ten most important elements in traditional Irish balladry, a roster that includes drinking and fighting, but also goes a little deeper. Keep reading for the ten recurring themes that make up traditional Irish drinking songs.
Irish balladry offers listeners a pretty impressive rogues' gallery. There's the unrepentant title character of "The Beggarman," a roving roustabout who earns his living by the kindness of others. The star of "The Moonshiner" is a proud lover of alcohol, praising all aspects of the stuff, down to the smell it carries on the breath. Then there's the narrator of "Whiskey in the Jar," one of the best-loved and most covered Irish folk songs. He's a robber who steals money from a military man, only to be betrayed by his sweetheart. All of these flawed figures share a common self-acceptance and pride, in spite of their deep-seated flaws. As the singer in "The Moonshiner" admits, "I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler, I'm a long ways from home/And if you don't like me then leave me alone/I'll eat when I'm hungry, I'll drink when I'm dry/If the moonshine don't kill me, I'll live 'til I die."
9. Resignation and acceptance in the face of death
There's no big fear of the afterlife in Irish folk music, perhaps because of the combination of lost and soured love, emigration and a laundry list of other hardships. But the mortal strain in this music isn't dreary or depressing. Rather, tunes like "Jug of Punch" and "Kevin Barry" are about living in the moment, about sucking the marrow out of life and letting it go for the right cause. And as grim as the question posed by "Isn't It Grand Boys" may seem ("Isn't grand, boys, to be bloody well dead?"), it still feels celebratory. Life should be cherished and lived to the fullest, whether it's through strong drink, battles for the right cause or stormy love affairs.
8. Soured love/marital strife
Love can sour pretty quickly...and violently. That much is clear in some of the funniest and macabre songs of the Irish tradition. Here couples don't just get divorced; they turn violent. In "The Cobbler," the title character drowns his wife by dipping her "three times in the river" and casually bidding her good day. In "William Bloat," the subject of the song slits his wife's throat, then is struck by remorse and hangs himself. He's dispatched to hell, but his wife is saved, only because "the razor blade was German-made, but the rope was Belfast linen."