Whiskey in the Jar

Last updated

Whiskey in the Jar
Composedcirca 17th century
"Whiskey in the Jar"
Single by The Dubliners
Genre Irish folk
Songwriter(s) Trad.

"Whiskey in the Jar" is an Irish traditional song set in the southern mountains of Ireland, often with specific mention of counties Cork and Kerry. The song, about a rapparee (highwayman) who is betrayed by his wife or lover, is one of the most widely performed traditional Irish songs and has been recorded by numerous artists since the 1950s.

County Cork County in the Republic of Ireland

County Cork is a county in Ireland. It is the largest and southernmost county of Ireland, situated in the province of Munster and named after the city of Cork, Ireland's second-largest city. The Cork County Council is the local authority for the county. Its largest market towns are Mallow, Macroom, Midleton, and Skibbereen. In 2016, the county's population was 542,868, making it the third-most populous county in Ireland. Notable Corkonians include Michael Collins, Jack Lynch, and Sonia O'Sullivan.

County Kerry County in the Republic of Ireland

County Kerry is a county in Ireland. It is located in the South-West Region and forms part of the province of Munster. It is named after the Ciarraige who lived in part of the present county. The population of the county was 147,707 at the 2016 census.

Rapparees or raparees were Irish guerrilla fighters who operated on the Jacobite side during the 1690s Williamite war in Ireland. Subsequently, the name was also given to bandits and highwaymen in Ireland – many former guerrillas having turned to crime after the war ended. They share similarities with the hajduks of Eastern Europe.


The song first gained wide exposure when the Irish folk band The Dubliners performed it internationally as a signature song, and recorded it on three albums in the 1960s. In the U.S., the song was popularized by The Highwaymen, who recorded it on their 1962 album Encore. [1] The Irish rock band Thin Lizzy hit the Irish and British pop charts with the song in 1973. In 1990, The Dubliners re-recorded the song with The Pogues with a faster rocky version charting at No.4 in Ireland and No.63 in the UK. The American metal band Metallica in 1998 played a version very similar to that of Thin Lizzy's, though with a heavier sound, winning a Grammy for the song in 2000 for Best Hard Rock Performance. In 2019, Canadian singer-songwriter Bryan Adams performed a cover of the song on his album Shine a Light .

The Dubliners Irish folk band

The Dubliners were an Irish folk band founded in Dublin in 1962 as The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group after its founding member; they subsequently renamed themselves The Dubliners. The line-up saw many changes over their fifty-year career, but the group's success was centred on lead singers Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew. The band garnered international success with their lively Irish folk songs, traditional street ballads and instrumentals. The band were regulars on the folk scenes in both Dublin and London in the early 1960s, and were signed to the Major Minor label in 1965 after backing from Dominic Behan who was paid by Major-Minor to work with the Dubliners and help them to build a better act fit for larger concert hall venues. The Dubliners worked with Behan regularly between 1965 and 1966; Behan wrote numerous songs for this act including the song McAlpine's Fusiliers created specifically to showcase Ronnie Drew's gravel voice. They went on to receive extensive airplay on Radio Caroline which was part owned by Phil Solomon CEO of Major Minor, and eventually appeared on Top of the Pops in 1967 with hits "Seven Drunken Nights" and "The Black Velvet Band". Often performing political songs considered controversial at the time, they drew criticism from some folk purists and Ireland's national broadcaster RTÉ had placed an unofficial ban on their music from 1967 to 1971. During this time the band's popularity began to spread across mainland Europe and they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in the United States. The group's success remained steady right through the 1970s and a number of collaborations with The Pogues in 1987 saw them enter the UK Singles Chart on another two occasions.

The Highwaymen were a 1960s "collegiate folk" group. They originated at Wesleyan University and had a Billboard #1 hit in 1961 with "Michael Row the Boat Ashore", a version of the African-American work song, and another Top 20 hit in 1962 with "Cotton Fields". "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold record.

Thin Lizzy Irish rock band

Thin Lizzy are a hard rock band formed in Dublin, Ireland, in 1969. Two of the founding members, drummer Brian Downey and bass guitarist and lead vocalist Phil Lynott, met while still in school. Lynott led the group throughout their recording career of twelve studio albums, writing most of the material. The singles "Whiskey in the Jar", "Jailbreak", and "The Boys Are Back in Town" were major international hits. After Lynott's death in 1986, various incarnations of the band emerged over the years based initially around guitarists Scott Gorham and John Sykes, though Sykes left the band in 2009. Gorham later continued with a new line-up including Downey.


"Whiskey in the Jar" is the tale of a highwayman or footpad who, after robbing a military or government official, is betrayed by a woman; whether she is his wife or sweetheart is not made clear. Various versions of the song take place in Kerry, Kilmoganny, Cork, Sligo Town, and other locales throughout Ireland. It is also sometimes placed in the American South, in various places among the Ozarks or Appalachians, possibly due to Irish settlement in these places. Names in the song change, and the official can be a Captain or a Colonel, called Farrell or Pepper among other names. The protagonist's wife or lover is sometimes called Molly, Jenny, Emzy, or Ginny among various other names. The details of the betrayal are also different, being either betraying him to the person he robbed and replacing his ammunition with sand or water, or not, resulting in his killing the person.

In archaic terminology, a footpad is a robber or thief specialising in pedestrian victims. The term was used widely from the 16th century until the 19th century, but gradually fell out of common use. A footpad was considered a low criminal, as opposed to the mounted highwayman who in certain cases might gain fame as well as notoriety. Footpads operated during the Elizabethan era and until the beginning of the 19th century.

Kilmoganny Town in Leinster, Ireland

Kilmoganny is a small village in the County Kilkenny in the south-east of Ireland. Saint Mogeanna was an Irish virgin whose feast day in the Irish Calendar of Saints is 29 January.

Cork (city) City in Munster, Ireland

Cork is a city in south-west Ireland, in the province of Munster. As of the 2016 census, the city had a population of 125,657, but following a boundary extension in 2019, the population increased to c. 210,000. It is the second largest city in the Republic of Ireland.


The song's exact origins are unknown. A number of its lines and the general plot resemble those of a contemporary broadside ballad "Patrick Fleming" (also called "Patrick Flemmen he was a Valiant Soldier") about Irish highwayman Patrick Fleming, who was executed in 1650. [2] [3]

Patrick Fleming was an Irish highwayman and the subject of poems and songs in Ireland. He was executed on April 24, 1650.

In the book The Folk Songs of North America, folk music historian Alan Lomax suggests that the song originated in the 17th century, and (based on plot similarities) that John Gay's 1728 The Beggar's Opera was inspired by Gay hearing an Irish ballad-monger singing "Whiskey in the Jar". In regard to the history of the song, Lomax states, "The folk of seventeenth century Britain liked and admired their local highwaymen; and in Ireland (or Scotland) where the gentlemen of the roads robbed English landlords, they were regarded as national patriots. Such feelings inspired this rollicking ballad." [4]

Alan Lomax American music historian, field collector, producer and filmmaker

Alan Lomax was an American ethnomusicologist, best known for his numerous field recordings of folk music of the 20th century. He was also a musician himself, as well as a folklorist, archivist, writer, scholar, political activist, oral historian, and film-maker. Lomax produced recordings, concerts, and radio shows in the US and in England, which played an important role in preserving folk music traditions in both countries, and helped start both the American and British folk revivals of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. He collected material first with his father, folklorist and collector John A. Lomax, and later alone and with others, Lomax recorded thousands of songs and interviews for the Archive of American Folk Song, of which he was the director, at the Library of Congress on aluminum and acetate discs.

John Gay English poet and playwright

John Gay was an English poet and dramatist and member of the Scriblerus Club. He is best remembered for The Beggar's Opera (1728), a ballad opera. The characters, including Captain Macheath and Polly Peachum, became household names.

<i>The Beggars Opera</i> 1728 ballad opera by John Gay

The Beggar's Opera is a ballad opera in three acts written in 1728 by John Gay with music arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. It is one of the watershed plays in Augustan drama and is the only example of the once thriving genre of satirical ballad opera to remain popular today. Ballad operas were satiric musical plays that used some of the conventions of opera, but without recitative. The lyrics of the airs in the piece are set to popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias, church hymns and folk tunes of the time.

At some point, the song came to the United States and was a favourite in Colonial America because of its irreverent attitude toward British officials. The American versions are sometimes set in America and deal with American characters. One such version, from Massachusetts, is about Alan McCollister, an Irish-American soldier who is sentenced to death by hanging for robbing British officials. [4]

Massachusetts State in the northeastern United States

Massachusetts, officially the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is the most populous state in the New England region of the northeastern United States. It borders on the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island to the south, New Hampshire and Vermont to the north, and New York to the west. The state is named after the Massachusett tribe, which once inhabited the east side of the area, and is one of the original thirteen states. The capital of Massachusetts is Boston, which is also the most populous city in New England. Over 80% of Massachusetts' population lives in the Greater Boston metropolitan area, a region influential upon American history, academia, and industry. Originally dependent on agriculture, fishing and trade, Massachusetts was transformed into a manufacturing center during the Industrial Revolution. During the 20th century, Massachusetts's economy shifted from manufacturing to services. Modern Massachusetts is a global leader in biotechnology, engineering, higher education, finance, and maritime trade.

The song appeared in a form close to its modern version in a precursor called "The Sporting Hero, or, Whiskey in the Bar" in a mid-1850s broadsheet. [5] [6]

The song collector Colm Ó Lochlainn, in his book Irish Street Ballads, [7] described how his mother learnt "Whiskey in the Jar" in Limerick in 1870 from a man called Buckley who came from Cork. When Ó Lochlainn included the song in Irish Street Ballads, he wrote down the lyrics from memory as he had learnt them from his mother. He called the song "There's Whiskey in the Jar", and the lyrics are virtually identical to the version that was used by Irish bands in the 1960s such as the Dubliners. The O Lochlainn version refers to the "far fam'd Kerry mountain" rather than the Cork and Kerry mountains, as appears in some versions.

The song also appears under the title "There's Whiskey in the Jar" in the Joyce [8] collection, but that only includes the melody line without any lyrics. Versions of the song were collected in the 1920s in Northern Ireland by song collector Sam Henry. [9]

Chart performance (The Dubliners/Pogues)

Chart (1990)Peak
Ireland (IRMA) [10] 4
UK Singles (Official Charts Company) [11] 63


"Whiskey in the Jar"
Whiskey in the Jar - Thin Lizzy.jpg
Single by Thin Lizzy
B-side "Black Boys on the Corner"
Released3 November 1972 (1972-11-03)
Format 7"
Label Decca
Songwriter(s) Trad. arr. Eric Bell, Brian Downey, Phil Lynott
Producer(s) Nick Tauber
Thin Lizzy singles chronology
"The Farmer"
"Whiskey in the Jar"
"Randolph's Tango"
"Whiskey in the Jar"
Song by Grateful Dead
from the album So Many Roads (1965–1995)
Label Arista
Songwriter(s) Trad. arr. Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter
"Whiskey in the Jar"
Whiskey in the Jar - Metallica.jpg
Single by Metallica
from the album Garage Inc.
Released1 February 1999 (1999-02-01)
Format CD
RecordedSeptember–October 1998
Label Vertigo
Songwriter(s) Trad. arr. Eric Bell, Brian Downey, Phil Lynott
Metallica singles chronology
"Turn the Page"
"Whiskey in the Jar"
"Die, Die My Darling"
Music video
"Whiskey in the Jar" on YouTube

"Whiskey in the Jar" is sung with many variants on locations and names, including the Grateful Dead version, a version by The Dubliners (which is often sung in Irish traditional music sessions around the world), a rock version sung by Thin Lizzy and a heavy metal version sung by Metallica.

There is also a song about Irish troops in the American Civil War called "We'll Fight for Uncle Sam", which is sung in the same tune of "Whiskey in the Jar".


A partial discography:

The song has also been recorded by singers and folk groups such as Roger Whittaker, The Irish Rovers, Seven Nations, Off Kilter, King Creosote, Brobdingnagian Bards, Charlie Zahm, and Christy Moore.

Contrary to common belief, The Clancy Brothers never recorded the song. The confusion stems from the album Irish Drinking Songs, which is composed of separate tracks by The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers, with the former performing "Whiskey in the Jar"; the same compilation includes the Clancy Brothers singing "Whiskey, You're The Devil", in which the line "There's whiskey in the jar" occurs several times. Liam Clancy did record it with his son and nephew on Clancy, O'Connell & Clancy in 1997, and Tommy Makem recorded it on The Song Tradition in 1998. The High Kings, featuring Bobby Clancy's son Finbarr, released a version in February 2011.

Thin Lizzy's 1972 single (bonus track on Vagabonds of the Western World [1991 edition]) stayed at the top of the Irish charts for 17 weeks, and the British release stayed in the top 30 for 12 weeks, peaking at No. 6, in 1973. [12] This version has since been covered by U2, Pulp (first released on a 1996 various artist compilation album Childline [13] and later on deluxe edition of Different Class in 2006), Smokie, Metallica ( Garage Inc. 1998, which won a Grammy), Belle and Sebastian ( The Blues Are Still Blue EP 2006), Gary Moore (2006), Nicky Moore (Top Musicians Play Thin Lizzy 2008), Simple Minds (Searching for the Lost Boys 2009), and Israeli musician Izhar Ashdot. The song is also on the Grateful Dead live compilation So Many Roads disc five.

On the bluegrass scene, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman recorded a version for the album Shady Grove . It has also been performed by the Scarecrows bluegrass band and the Dutch band Blue Grass Boogiemen. [14]

Icelandic folk band Þrjú á palli recorded it in 1971 as "Lífið Er Lotterí" with lyrics by Jónas Árnason. Lillebjørn Nilsen adapted it to Norwegian, as "Svikefulle Mari", on his 1971 album Tilbake. [15] Finnish band Eläkeläiset recorded a humppa version as the title track of their 1997 album Humppamaratooni. In 2007 the Lars Lilholt Band made a Danish version, "Gi' Mig Whiskey in the Jar", for the album Smukkere Med Tiden. [16] Estonian band Poisikõsõ recorded "Hans'a Õuhkaga" on the album Tii Päält Iist in 2007.

In 1966, the Yarkon Bridge Trio, an Israeli singing group, recorded a song named "Siman Sheata Tsair" ("It Is a Sign That You Are Young") set to the melody of "Whiskey in the Jar"; [17] the song became a hit and was later covered by various artists, notably by Gidi Gov. [18]

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  1. "The Highwaymen* - Encore (Vinyl, LP, Album)". Discogs.com. Retrieved 8 October 2016.
  2. [ dead link ]
  3. Patrick Flemming, The Complete Newgate Calendar Vol. I, Law in Popular Culture collection, Tarlton Law Library, University of Texas at Austin Archived 22 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  4. 1 2 The Folk Songs of North America: In the English Language, Alan Lomax, Peggy Seeger, Mátyás Seiber, Don Banks, Doubleday, 1960 Google Books Retrieved 11 July 2008
  5. "Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads". Bodley24.bodley.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
  6. "Ballads Catalogue: Firth c.17(314)". Bodley24.bodley.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
  7. Irish Street Ballads, Colm O Lochlainn, Pan 1978, pp220
  8. Joyce, Patrick Weston, Old Irish Folk Music and Songs: a Collection of 842 Irish Airs and Songs Hitherto Unpublished, Cooper Square Publishers, New York, 1965. Originally published in 1909.
  9. Songs of the People edited by Gale Huntington, Lani Herrman with contributions from John Moulden. 1990 (University of Georgia Press) ISBN   0-8203-1258-4
  10. "Chart Track: Week 00, 1990". Irish Singles Chart.
  11. "Official Singles Chart Top 100". Official Charts Company.
  12. Phil Lynott: The Rocker, Mark Putterford, Omnibus Press, 2002, ISBN   0-7119-9104-9 Google Books (retrieved 11 July 2008)
  13. "Various - Childline (Today's Top Artists Unite For Charity)". Discogs.com. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
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  15. [ dead link ]
  16. [ dead link ]
  17. "Special Broadcasting". Reshet Gimel. IBA/Google Translate. 28 April 2011. Retrieved 18 July 2013.
  18. Gidi Gov – Siman Sheata Tsa'ir on YouTube (NMC's official channel).