The Auld Triangle

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"The Auld Triangle" is a song by Dick Shannon, often attributed to Brendan Behan, who made it famous when he included it in his 1954 play The Quare Fellow . He first performed it publicly in 1952 on the RTE radio programme 'The Ballad Maker's Saturday Night', produced by Mícheál Ó hAodha. Behan's biographer, Michael O'Sullivan, recorded, 'It has been believed for many years that Brendan wrote that famous prison song but Mícheál Ó hAodha says he never laid claim to authorship. Indeed he asked him to send a copyright to another Dubliner, Dick Shannon.' [1] When he recorded the song for Brendan Behan Sings Irish Folksongs and Ballads (Spoken Arts 1960), Behan introduced it with these words: 'This song was written by a person who will never hear it recorded, because he's not in possession of a gramophone. He's ... he's ... pretty much of a tramp.'


Shannon's authorship was asserted by his relatives in discussions on the Mudcat Cafe folksong forum. Here, Deasún ÓSeanáin, his nephew, recorded: 'My father Thomas Shannon told me as far back as the 1950s that Dickey had written it. Dickey is buried in Manchester. It would be nice to see a plaque erected indicating him as the author.' [2] Shannon's grandson Tom Neary posted: 'I can confirm that it was indeed Dicky Shannon who penned the song for Behan. Brendan and Dicky were very close pals, as well as drinking mates....I have many stories of their escapades together....Brendan always credited Dicky for the song because they were great pals, however, I can verify that Dicky never received a penny in royalties and neither did his family...I must also point out that grandad was not in fact a tramp, but was a highly articulate man with a very dry sense of humour, which could cut you to the quick without degrading you. He was also a very tough man who had literally fought his way through life in the Liberties.' [3]

The first commercial recording was by Brendan's brother Dominic Behan on his 1958 Topic album Irish Songs. On the liner notes, he wrote, 'The Old Triangle is a song of Mountjoy Prison and was made popular in the play "The Quare Fella" by Brendan Behan of Dublin.' [4]

The song was later made famous by Luke Kelly, Ronnie Drew and The Dubliners in the late 1960s, and was revived for a new audience by Irish rock band The Pogues on their 1984 album Red Roses for Me.

The Quare Fellow takes place in Mountjoy prison during the early 1950s Mountjoy Jail and Prison Van.jpg
The Quare Fellow takes place in Mountjoy prison during the early 1950s

The song has become also a football chant, sung by fans of the Dublin Bohemian Football Club whose ground is near the prison. In 2021, Ronan Burtenshaw reported, 'Recently, the club's fans have gone viral for their renditions of ‘The Auld Triangle'.' [5]


The song is used to introduce the play, a story about the occurrences in a prison (in real life Mountjoy Prison where Behan had once been lodged) the day a convict is set to be executed. The triangle in the title refers to the large metal triangle which was beaten daily in Mountjoy Prison to waken the inmates ("The Auld Triangle goes Jingle Jangle"). The triangle still hangs in the prison at the centre where the wings meet on a metal gate. It is no longer used, though the hammer to beat it is mounted beside it. In the original play by Brendan Behan, the song is written as the "old triangle" not "auld triangle".

The triangle was rung regularly to signify points in the prison's routine.

The Auld Triangle bar on Dorset Street. This pub is notable for having art on its outside walls paying homage to Irish Republican Hunger Strikers from the second half of the 20th century The Auld Triangle Inn.jpg
The Auld Triangle bar on Dorset Street. This pub is notable for having art on its outside walls paying homage to Irish Republican Hunger Strikers from the second half of the 20th century

A second level of meaning is hinted at in the final verse in which the singer imagines himself dwelling in the women's prison. Another mourns the separation from "his girl Sal". These hint at the internal erotic fantasies that prisoners use to separate themselves from the harsh prison environment. In this meaning the old triangle becomes the female pudenda and the Royal Canal the vagina. [6]

As with many Irish ballads, the lyrics have been changed with each passing cover. For example, the Dropkick Murphys recording condenses the structure into a three-lyric section song with a chorus based on the last two lines of each stanza in the original.


And the auld triangle went jingle-jangle

All along the banks of the Royal Canal


This song has been recorded by a number of artists.

Artist, albumYear
Bert Jansch for his album The Black Swan 2006
Blackthorn on their album Nil na La [7] 1997
Bob Dylan and The Band also recorded a rendition of the song during their Basement Tapes sessions. This recording is available on bootleg recordings but does not appear on the official The Basement Tapes album released in 1975. It finally appeared in 2014 on the official release, The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete .1967
Brendan Behan, Brendan Behan Sings Irish Folksongs and Ballads, Spoken Arts1960
Cat Power for her EP Dark End of the Street 2008
Chris Thile, Chris Eldridge, Marcus Mumford, Justin Timberlake and Gabe Witcher for the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' film Inside Llewyn Davis [8] 2013
Dominic Behan, Irish Sings (Recalled by Dominic Behan), Topic1958
Dropkick Murphys on the album The Warrior's Code . Their version was also included on the compilation Vans Off the Wall Volume VII.2005
Glen Hansard, lead singer of The Frames, and Damien Dempsey, to raise funds for the charity Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. [9] 2010
Ian & Sylvia as "The Royal Canal" for their Four Strong Winds album1963
Jeff Tweedy on his tour DVD Sunken Treasure: Live in the Pacific Northwest 2006
Liam Clancy as "Royal Canal" on his self-titled 1965 album (reissued with additional tracksas Irish Troubadour)1999
Lifvens Vänner Swedish band recorded this song for their album "Lifvs Levenes"1997
Oysterband for their 'Alive and Acoustic' recording1998
Patrick Clifford, on Chance of a Start 2012
Ronnie Drew, on his self-titled solo album 1975
Ryan Boldt on his album Broadside Ballads [10] 2014
The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem on Ain't It Grand Boys (Recorded 1964, released 1995, as "Royal Canal") and The Bold Fenian Men (1969, as "The Old Triangle")
The Dubliners, on several albumsNotably 1967 album More of the Hard Stuff
The High Kings on The High Kings2008
The Mahones on their album The Hunger & The Fight 2014
The Pogues on the album Red Roses for Me 1984
Trembling Bells released a version of the song as a single for Record Store Day, featuring Ricky Ross, Mike Heron and Alasdair Roberts.2017

Notable performances

The Doug Anthony Allstars performed a medley (a variation on Fred Geis's "Lament for Brendan Behan" prefacing "The Auld Triangle") on the Australian ABC program The Big Gig in the late 1980s. [11]

The Frames performed it as the final song of a two-hour concert at the Vic Theater in Chicago on 23 November 2010. They performed the song live on RTÉ television's The Saturday Night Show on 18 December of the same year. U2 played a live cover version at Croke Park, Dublin on 24 July 2009 as part of the 360 tour. Bono joined lead singer Glen Hansard on 8 May 2012 in New York City's The Living Room venue to perform the song. [12]

At the Ceiliúradh (celebration) at Royal Albert Hall on 10 April 2014, it was sung by a collection of performers including Glen Hansard, Lisa Hannigan, Elvis Costello, Conor O’Brien (of Villagers), Paul Brady, Imelda May, John Sheahan, Dónal Lunny, Andy Irvine and The Gloaming.

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  1. Michael O'Sullivan, Brendan Behan: A Life, Blackwater Press, 1999, p.163
  2. Deasún ÓSeanáin 'RE: Origin: The Old Triangle', Mudcat, 21 September 2015
  3. Tom Neary 'The Ould Triangle', Mudcat, 21 July 2012
  4. Irish Songs (Recalled by Dominic Behan), details on The Balladeers website
  5. Ronan Burtenshaw, 'How Dublin’s Bohemians Are Bringing Fan-Owned Football into Europe', Tribune, 16.7.2021
  6. "The Auld Triangle". | Song of the Isles. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  7. Blackthorn - Nil 'na La , retrieved 5 April 2022
  8. "First Listen: Soundtrack, 'Inside Llewyn Davis'". NPR. 3 November 2013. Retrieved 10 November 2013.
  9. "The Frames". Archived from the original on 10 November 2013. Retrieved 10 November 2013.
  10. "Ryan Boldt – Broadside Ballads". Folk Radio UK. Retrieved 16 May 2016.
  11. hismerrymen (30 March 2010), DAAS: The Big Gig - The Auld Triangle / Brendan Behan Is Dead, archived from the original on 21 December 2021, retrieved 11 October 2018
  12. "Glen Hansard w/ Bono "The Auld Triangle" on Vimeo". 8 May 2012. Retrieved 10 November 2013.