FolkWorld #70 11/2019
© Gerry Hanberry / RTÉ

Ireland's Favourite Folk Song

RTÉ asked audiences at home and across the world, to tell us what your favourite folk song is, and why.


Ireland's Favourite Folk Song
The Top Ten shortlisted Songs:

A Rainy Night in Soho   
A Woman’s Heart
Danny Boy
Óró, Sé do Bheatha 'Bhaile
On Raglan Road
Rocky Road to Dublin
The Foggy Dew
The Green Fields of France
The Parting Glass
The Town I Loved So Well

»The Great Irish Songbook«

Our aim was simple: to put together a landmark TV series that celebrates the central role that folk song has played, and continues to play, in Irish life. And to find out which song you feel best captures the essence of folk music in Ireland – and deserves the title of Ireland’s Favourite Folk Song.

Thousands of you nominated hundreds of songs, and a jury was set the nigh-impossible task of whittling down your suggestions to a final shortlist of ten classic folk songs that illustrate how song has captured our collective experiences as people throughout the centuries. Find out more about how our jury made their final selection here.

We created a brand-new television series, Ireland’s Favourite Folk Song, presented by folk legend Mary Black and featuring a host of stars past and present of the Irish folk scene. We commissioned ten beautiful new interpretations of each of the top ten songs.

Ethnomusicologist and musician Dr. Aileen Dillane is one of the judges for Ireland's Favourite Folk Song. She offers her own unique insights into the judging process, and the selection of the 10 shortlisted songs.

»Picking a shortlist of ten representative songs for Ireland’s favourite folksong from thousands of entries suggested by the public – how easy would that be? Actually, it turned out, not so easy, as we found out when eight jury members convened in Dublin in late February. Chosen for their respective expertise in music performance, curation, production, writing, and teaching, the eight jurors were each asked in advance of the meeting to create their own personal shortlist from the public's suggestions, each choosing the ten songs that both reflected the public's choices, but that also most fully represented, in their opinion, the story of folk song in Ireland. The eight individual lists would then be cross-referenced before we started to form a starting-point for the jury discussion.«

Patrick Kavanagh

»Not surprisingly there were commonalities. The challenge came with addressing the differences and the rationale around our individual choices and how these translated in the context of an initial public vote. Much time was spent in the initial hours of the meeting, therefore, on really interrogating what constitutes a folk song? Is it about longevity and persistence in the canon? If so, what about newly composed songs that are held very dearly by the public? Is it about structures of feelings and singability? Do we need to be able to literally sing the song with passion? Is it about representation and dealing with Irish topics from a historical, political, socio-cultural perspective? What about new ideas on what constitutes different registers of Irishness in this multicultural and intersectional age?«

»To and fro we debated, championing songs for those final shortlist slots. What was perhaps most rewarding about this process was the way in which people left personal preferences at the door and instead engaged in careful, thoughtful and nuanced exchanges about what happens if a song is left out (or in) and the implications of that for the communities across Ireland and its diaspora who voted for the song initially. There was a great degree of respectful listening to the perspectives of each person at the table.«

»Difficult decisions were made, and inevitably, compromise was part of these negotiations. But in the end, we agreed on a list of ten songs that we all felt we could stand over. It is our hope and belief that every viewer/listener can find at least one song that meets their own criteria for Ireland’s favourite folksong.«

In the end, the winner of Ireland’s Favourite Folk Song has been revealed. On Raglan Road, written by Patrick Kavanagh and made famous by singer Luke Kelly, was named as Ireland's most iconic folk song.

The Ireland’s Favourite Folk Song series was presented by folk legend Mary Black, who said: “I’m delighted to hear that the public voted for the wonderful On Raglan Road as Ireland’s favorite folk song. It’s always been a favourite of mine and deserves this great accolade!”

Óró Sé Do Bheatha Abhaile

Listen to Óró Sé Do Bheatha Abhaile, especially performed for Ireland's Favourite Folk Song by Lumiere, Sibéal and Nicola Joyce, above, and read all about the song below.

This rousing marching song is well known to many of a certain generation. For decades this stirring ‘clan march’ could be heard pouring from school windows as the youngsters prepared to march up the street playing the tune on tin whistles in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. It was Patrick Pearse who composed the lyrics we are familiar with today. He understood the value of an inspiring marching song, one that could stir the blood of a nation. When he wanted to create a rousing song to fit his idea of an invigorated Ireland fighting for its freedom, he looked to this ‘ancient clan march’ in the Stanford-Petrie collection of Irish tunes published in 1855.

This song was originally associated with the Scottish Jacobite rising of 1745-6 when Bonnie Prince Charlie attempted to regain the throne for the House of Stuart. The old Gaelic order might be restored under a Stuart king. Patrick Pearse was aware of the song’s history. Pearse replaced Bonnie Prince Charlie with a great Gaelic warrior, the famous pirate-queen Gráinne Ní Mháille known as Granuaile. He eliminated the French and Spanish soldiers from the old lyrics replacing them with loyal Gaelic warriors. In this way Pearse created a new song to fit the new political scene using a female chieftain from the sixteenth century as a symbol of Ireland’s ancient struggle against the invader.

Danny Boy

Listen to Danny Boy, especially performed for Ireland's Favourite Folk Song by Declan O'Rourke, above, and read all about the song below.

It was in Limavady sometime around 1850 that Miss Jane Ross, a woman with a keen interest in collecting Irish airs, first jotted down the notes that would later become known as Danny Boy.

She never revealed her source and mystery, even controversy, surrounds the air’s provenance. One account is that Miss Ross heard the tune being played by a blind fiddler at a fair in the town. Variations of the air can be traced back to the great blind harper Ruaidhrí (Rory) Dall Ó Catháin (late 1500s – c. 1650). Miss Ross passed the air on to Dr George Petrie who published it in his collection The Ancient Music of Ireland (1855). Following publication the air became widely known. The tune was first called The Derry Air or The Londonderry Air in 1894 when the poet Katherine Tynan set the words of her poem Irish Love Song to it.

It was the eminent English lawyer, author and lyricist Frederic Edward Weatherly who wrote today’s famous lyrics. The story goes, his sister-in-law sent him the air having heard it being played in the Colorado mines by Irish immigrants – indeed the song has been interpreted in a variety of ways, Danny may have been called away to war or he have had to emigrate for economic reasons. The song was published in 1913 and first recorded in 1915 by Ernestine Schumann-Heink.

A Rainy Night In Soho

Listen to A Rainy Night In Soho, especially performed for Ireland's Favourite Folk Song by Steo Wall, above, and read all about the song below.

A Rainy Night in Soho was written by Shane Mac Gowan and was originally included on The Pogues’ 1986 EP ‘Poguetry in Motion’, produced by Elvis Costello. It has been described as ‘a love song in the purest sense’ and ‘a most beautiful declaration of scarred love’.

The lyrics describe a close, loving relationship that lasted ‘down all the years’ and even though circumstances have now changed, he still hears her talking in his head and she remains, as he so poetically describes it, – ‘the measure of my dreams’. The song is usually interpreted as a love song to musician and one-time bandmate Shanne Bradley with whom Shane had an on-off relationship from the late seventies to the mid eighties. Pogue guitarist, the late Philip Chevron, described how ‘Shane was still getting over Shanne when he wrote’ the song and believed ‘it was part of the process of coping with his torch for Shanne’.

Pogues biographer Carol Clerk describes the song as ‘a triumph of mood and atmosphere’ and says it ‘is a genuinely moving tribute, delivered with a dignified acceptance that something has passed yet still matters’. The song is widely held to be one of MacGowan’s finest compositions and has been covered by many artists. U2 appeared on stage to A Rainy Night In Soho every night on their 2017 Joshua Tree tour.

The Parting Glass

Listen to The Parting Glass, especially performed for Ireland's Favourite Folk Song by Freddie White, above, and read all about the song below.

The origins of The Parting Glass can be found in Scotland. A version of the lyrics was known at least as early as 1605 with variations and fragments appearing in various songs down through the centuries. The melody was first collected in 1782.

A ‘parting glass’ or ‘stirrup cup’ was the final hospitality offered to a departing guest, a custom dating back to Saxon times. ‘The Parting Glass’ with its familiar melody was first printed in Colm O Lochlainn’s Irish Street Ballads (1939). Cork poet Patrick Galvin recorded this song in 1956. The Clancy Brothers popularised the song when they included it on their 1959 album Come Fill Your Glass with Us. Because of its poignancy, it is also occasionally sung at funerals and gravesides. It was movingly sung at Liam Clancy’s graveside as a fitting tribute by family and friends when he was laid to rest.

The song’s protagonist knows that the time has come for him to ‘gently rise’ and leave the jolly company of his friend behind. He asks for one last drink, a parting glass, to be filled before he departs with his final blessing ‘goodnight and joy be with you all’. Part of the song’s great charm is the fact that the speaker knows he is not perfect. He admits he may have drank a bit too much and spent money ‘in good company’. He may have charmed some pretty girls in his time but the only harm he ever did was to himself. He knows that he may not always have acted wisely ‘for want of wit’ but his friends are genuinely sorry to see him depart.

Rocky Road To Dublin

Listen to Rocky Road To Dublin, especially performed for Ireland's Favourite Folk Song by Lankum, above, and read all about the song below.

This rousing ballad tells the tale of a young man who leaves his Tuam home and makes his way on foot to Dublin where he jumps on board a ship bound for Liverpool and ends up dancing jigs ‘down among the pigs’. He has many adventures along the way, stopping for the occasional drink and eventually arrives in Dublin where his ‘bundle it was stole’. His Connaught brogue makes him an outsider in Dublin and likewise in Liverpool where he is ridiculed for being Irish. He ends up in a fray but fellow Galway boys come to his assistance.

Much of the song’s appeal and charm is down to the protagonist’s confident and spirited disposition. He fancies himself with the girls, he believes they were ‘sad and broken hearted’ when he left Tuam. He never gets disheartened even when robbed. He bears no insults even when outnumbered. The lyrics were composed by D K Gavan for the English music hall singer Harry Clifton, who popularised it in the mid 19th century.

On Raglan Road

Listen to On Raglan Road, especially performed for Ireland's Favourite Folk Song by Villagers, above...

The famous photograph of Luke Kelly, his head of flaming curls tilted back as he sings On Raglan Road, is one of the great iconic images associated with Irish folk songs.

It was in Dublin’s Baily pub in 1964 that the poet Patrick Kavanagh told balladeer Luke Kelly that he had a song for him. It soon became a standard in Luke’s repertoire. He eventually recorded the song with the Dubliners in 1971 and it was included on their live album Hometown in 1972. The song in question, On Raglan Road, began life twenty years earlier as a lyric poem written by Kavanagh following his doomed infatuation with Hilda Moriarty, a young medical student from Dingle. Kavanagh befriended Hilda in 1944 when they both lived on Raglan Road. She enjoyed the famous poet’s company but at twenty-two she was not interested in having a romantic relationship with this forty-year-old man. Kavanagh, struck by Cupid’s arrow, saw things differently and his ensuing disappointment found expression in his most famous poem that would eventually become On Raglan Road. It was first published in The Irish Press in 1946 as Dark-haired Miriam Ran Away.

Writer Benedict Kiely recalls Kavanagh asking him at that time if his verses could be sung to the tune of The Dawning of the Day. Kavanagh did not live to see his lyric recorded. He died in November 1967. Hilda sent a wreath of roses in the shape of the letter H to his funeral.

The Green Fields Of France

Listen to The Green Fields Of France, especially performed for Ireland's Favourite Folk Song by Niall Hanna and Niamh Farrell, above, and read all about the song below...

Eric Bogle, a Scottish Australian folk singer-songwriter, was moved to write this famous anti-war song in 1976 following a trip he undertook that same year with his wife to Flanders where they visited a number of military cemeteries.

Following the visit he found himself ‘torn between anger and sadness at the young lives lost’. Bogle had no specific gravestone bearing the name ‘Willie McBride’ in mind when he wrote the song although there are eleven solders of that name buried in the various war cemeteries. He chose the name because it rhymed with ‘graveside’ and he wanted his young soldier to be Irish to highlight the significant role Irishmen had played in the Great War as a counter to the anti-Irish sentiment prevalent in Britain in the 1970’s. Bogle has stated that his main reason for writing this song was to illustrate ‘the utter waste of war while paying tribute to the courage and sacrifice of those brave young men who fought’.

Bogle based the melody and refrain on the cowboy ballad The Streets of Laredo which itself draws on the 18th century ballads The Unfortunate Rake and The Lock Hospital. Recorded widely worldwide, The Furey Brothers and Davy Arthur recorded Bogle’s song in 1979. It became a number one hit in Ireland where it remained in the charts for twenty-eight weeks.

The Foggy Dew

Listen to The Foggy Dew, especially performed for Ireland's Favourite Folk Song by Daoirí Farrell, above, and read all about the song below...

The Foggy Dew is a rousing ballad written in praise of those Irishmen who decided that it was ‘better to die ‘neath an Irish sky’ fighting for Ireland’s freedom rather than sacrificing their lives fighting for the British Empire in the Great War. The soldiers who died in far-away places such as Suvla or Sud-El-Bar (Sedd el Bahr) in Gallipoli were no less heroic but the lyricist believed that they would not be remembered or held in the same reverence as those who ‘died by Pearse’s side’ during the 1916 Easter Rising.

The song’s lyrics are attributed to Fr. (later Cannon) Charles O’Neill who was a curate at the time in Belfast. He attended the first sitting of Dáil Éireann in 1919 and was moved by the experience to write his patriotic ballad soon after. The music pre-existed. It shares the same melody with older songs such as The Moorlough Shore. It would appear that Fr. O’Neill based his composition on John McCormack’s earlier love song also called The Foggy Dew which McCormack recorded in 1913. The melody is exactly the same and the opening lines are similar –‘As down the hill I went one morn a lovely maid I spied...’.

Only A Woman's Heart

Listen to Only A Woman's Heart, especially performed for Ireland's Favourite Folk Song by Saint Sister, above, and read all about the song below...

When Eleanor McEvoy composed Only A Woman’s Heart, little did she know that she had written a song that would go on to capture the imagination of a nation and resonate down through generations.

It was not even a regular in her early repertoire. The poignant lyrics and the wistful melody together with the perfect vocal tone achieved, struck a deep chord with all who heard the recording. Women particularly drew inspiration from the song and it became a type of anthem at a time when the country’s culture was changing. The song tells of a woman’s heartache and bewilderment after the break-up of a ‘bittersweet romance’. She knows she will ‘survive’ and ‘manage’ on her own but her soul remains ‘troubled’ and ‘memories flood’ her ‘weary heart’. The song, recorded as a duet with Mary Black in 1992, became the title track on the album A Woman’s Heart. It was a huge success, selling over a million records worldwide and remains Ireland’s biggest selling album of all time. Eleanor’s title track was released as the lead single and the rest is history.

The Town I Loved So Well

Listen to The Town I Loved So Well, especially performed for Ireland's Favourite Folk Song by The Henry Girls, above, and read all about the song below...

This is one serious folksong that packs a powerful emotional punch and Luke Kelly, with his distinctive commanding voice, perfectly captures the range of passions the lyrics evoke.

It carries the listener on a rollercoaster of feelings from nostalgia and pride, through shock and grief, to end on a note of optimism for a better future. Written by Phil Coulter in 1972 at a dark time when the Northern Troubles were at a high point following ‘Bloody Sunday’, one of the song’s strengths is that it avoids any hint of rabble-rousing, neither does it attribute blame to either side in the conflict. Its tone moves from nostalgia, through grief and ends in optimism. One can feel the hint of anger at ‘the damned barbed wire’ and ‘their tanks and guns’ but all can raise their voices and sing out that ‘their hearts are set on tomorrow and peace once again’. It is heard equally at Croke Park before Derry games and by marching Orange bands.

The autobiographical lyrics have been described as ‘a personal lament’ and even ‘a prayer’ for a ‘bright brand new day’. Coulter sees it as ‘a love song’ to his native Derry. The song, first recorded by The Dubliners in 1973 for their album Plain & Simple, has become Phil Coulter’s signature. He claims it is the one songs for which he would like to be remembered.

Luke Kelly Declan O'Rourke Daoiri Farrell The Henry Girls Eric Bogle Niall Hanna Nicola Joyce

Photo Credits: (1) RTÉ, (2) Patrick Kavanagh, (3)-(12) YouTube, (13) Luke Kelly, (14) Declan O'Rourke, (15) Daoiri Farrell, (17) Eric Bogle, (18) Niall Hanna, (19) Nicola Joyce (unknown/website); (16) The Henry Girls (by Walkin' Tom).

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