Bridging the Gap: A Note of the Literary in Irish Folk Music (New Editorial Column!)


A Note of the Literary in Irish Folk Music

Traditional Irish music is known for its strong narrative voice and rhyme scheme. Unfortunately, for most, Irish heritage is little more than St. Patrick’s Day and the often alcohol-fueled bacchanal associated with it. Centuries of tradition available to anyone via the Internet, however, offer a plethora of Irish folk music to explore and enjoy.

Well-known in Irish folk music are talented musicians like The Clancy Brothers, The Dubliners, The Chieftains, and The Irish Rovers. These artists paved the way for contemporary acts Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys, and The Pogues (assuming anyone can understand Shane McGowan at this point). Irish music is enjoyable and a marker of a vast and cherished tradition, but it’s also brimming with literary conventions and stylistics that make Irish folk music words and lyrics not unlike the poetry of Shakespeare. These are the stories of Ireland and the Irish.

Sure, lots of music resembles poetry and most songs tell a story of some kind. There’s more than meets the ear here, though. I’m sure at one time or another, sober or inebriated, you’ve heard the classic, “Whiskey in the Jar.” Since lyrics can vary over time, I am using the version the High Kings released in 2011. I could write pages upon pages about the entire song, but for a closer look, we can examine the first two verses and see plenty of what I mean. Hopefully you are sober now (if you weren’t the last time you heard this song), so let’s investigate!

As I was goin’ over the Cork and Kerry mountains.
I met with Captain Farrell and his money he was counting.
I first produced my pistol and then produced my rapier.
I said: “Stand and deliver for you are the bold deceiver.”
Musha ring dum-a do dum-a da, Whack for the daddy-o,
Whack for the daddy-o, There’s whiskey in the jar.

Before we get into mechanics of the song itself, let’s establish the narrative voice. The speaker is recounting a past experience, in essence, literally telling us a story. He is a highwayman going over the mountains, who meets a military captain, and stages a “stick up” with his pistol and his sword. It is a simple beginning, introducing us to the setting, plot, and supporting character. The structure helps us to not only remember the story, but to sing it as well.

Well, look at that! It seems we have a couplet structure on our hands! Could we call these verses stanzas, perhaps? “Mountains” and “counting” are rhymed very loosely, whereas “rapier” and “deceiver” have a much closer sounding rhyme. Each “stanza” ends with the same two lines throughout the song. This reduces the need for a refrain, allows us to transition to the next situation and pulls all of the story together. These lines are considered by some to be nonsense (there is no clear definition of what “Musha ring dum-a do dum-a da” or “Whack for the daddy-o” means). They are most likely used as a rhythmic and musical device. As for the rhyme scheme, some may argue that the strategy of using a simple rhyme dates back to the ancient tradition of oral storytelling, which is most likely the case.

Among a number of quintessential artists, the High Kings are known for their rich catalogue of traditional songs and are a great way to start exploring Irish music more deeply. Another great and more contemporary song to examine and enjoy is Flogging Molly’s heartfelt tale of the hardship of an Irish railroad worker, “Far Away Boys”. The lyrics are in the video’s description, and I won’t judge you for a quick cry. If you are desperately craving more songs to study, Irish music is not just for St. Patrick’s Day. It is a storytelling tradition that recounts hilarious exploits, adventure, and important historical events passionately, poetically, and unforgettably.
Gabbie Zeller