There’s no sing song like an Irish sing song – 30 of the best Irish session songs

There’s no sing song like an Irish sing song – 30 of the best Irish session songs

DUBLIN songwriter Pete St.John has written some of the great classic ballads that will be with us forever.

The Fields of Athenry can be heard at every international football game and Liverpool football supporters have even adopted and adapted it to The Fields of Liverpool, so there is no chance of that particular melody ever fading.

An even better St.John song, in my humble opinion, is The Rare Ould Times (sometimes called Dublin in the Rare Ould Times). It tells the story of a man who worked as a cooper in Guinness’ brewery all his life but was made redundant (“Like my house that fell to progress, my trade’s a memory”) and noted the changes that had taken place in his beloved hometown during his working life – a terrific piece of writing and my personal favourite of all time.

Other St. John classics that you might hear at a session include The Ferryman (“The little boats are gone from the breast of Anna Liffey, and the ferrymen are stranded on the quay”) a song about the last of the ferryboats working on the Liffey – also the gentle love song Ringsend Rose and if you are lucky, The Mero (“And we all went up to The Mero, hey there who’s yer man?”). In case you are wondering, The Mero was a cinema in Dublin’s Mary Street.

Other songwriters whose songs might feature in a session are Dublin’s Barney Rushe whose compositions include Nancy Spain and The Crack was Ninety, or some of very talented Cork songwriter Jimmy McCarthy’s songs such as Ride On or Bright Blue Rose. Paul Brady’s powerful and intelligent The Island might also be a popular inclusion.

In true folk tradition The Troubles in Northern Ireland inevitably produced many great songs such as Phil Coulter’s The Town I Loved So Well, Paddy Joe McGuigan’s The Men Behind the Wire and Brian Warfield’s Joe McDonnell among so many others.

Of course there are also loads of songs that are part of the session scene that have not been written by Irish songwriters. For example, Galway Girl was written by Steve Earle who was born in Virginia but grew up in Texas. He spent some time in Galway hanging out with local Irish musicians like Sharon Shannon and wrote the song that became a massive hit.

Another song that is part of the Irish repertoire is The Green Fields of France (also known as Willie McBride or No Man’s Land) - a fantastic anti-war song written by Scottish songwriter Eric Bogle in 1975 - a year after the Birmingham and Guilford bombings and the resulting backlash against the Irish in Britain. In an interview with The Irish Times he said he wrote the song at the time because of its “Irish Connotations” and a subtle reminder to British people that thousands of Irishmen died in the First World War. He conceded that it might have been a bit too subtle. However, the song became a big hit for The Fureys and Davey Arthur four years later and has been recorded by a host of artists.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists five William McBride’s who died in France in the war but the William McBride who most fits the description is listed as being from Armagh.  According to records he was twenty one and not nineteen as mentioned in the song.

Another song, The Red Rose Café – written by Dutch songwriter Pierre Kartner – was also recorded by The Fureys and Davey Arthur (also by Demis Roussos) and is sure to be a favourite at any session.

Dirty Old Town is guaranteed to have everyone singing along and is often assumed to be a traditional Irish song due to the number of Irish artists who have recorded it. In fact it was written by the legendary Ewan McColl about Salford in Greater Manchester.

circa 1970: Bearded Irish pop group The Dubliners in London. Originally founded in the sixties, they were still prevalent in the late nineties. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images) The Dubliners in London in the 70s. Originally founded in the sixties, they were still prevalent in the late nineties. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Traditional songs (or songs in the traditional style) of course play a huge part in the repertoire. Spancil Hill is usually assumed to be traditional but is not. It was written in the traditional style by Michael Considine and tells the story of an Irish immigrant living in California who dreams one night that he is back home in Spancil Hill, County Clare (site of the oldest horse fair in Ireland) where he was born. Lots of Irish headed to California during the gold rush and never came back.

The Auld Triangle is always popular. When Ronnie Drew woke up in jail in Northern Ireland one time, he asked Barney McKenna where they were. Barney said “We’re in jail. Sing The Auld Triangle now ya bollocks”.

The very trad Whiskey in the Jar got a new lease of life when Thin Lizzy rocked it up with that wonderful Eric Bell guitar riff but it is still a very popular session song. The Dubliners and The Pogues joined forces to bring The Irish Rover up to date and Sinead O’Connor’s brilliant rendition of The Foggy Dew probably popularised the song with a whole new generation. James Taylor has a lovely version of Wild Mountain Thyme on a recent album so these songs do crop up again from time to time.

However, if it’s a singsong around Christmas time there is no contest. The one song that we never tire of is the brilliant Shane McGowan and Jem Finer composition Fairytale of New York - simply the best Christmas song ever.

All together now – “And the boys from the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay…”

And some of The Irish Post team’s other favourite session songs are…

The Banks of my own Lovely Lee

Will you go Lassie go

The Leaving of Liverpool

Rocky Road to Dublin

Peggy Gordon

Galway Races

Watch The Pogues and the Dubliners perform The Irish Rover here: