Ireland has a vibrant, varied, and complex history. St Patrick’s day is not only an excuse to drink ourselves under the table – although it very definitely is an excuse for that – but to celebrate everything Ireland has given us.
From James Joyce to the invention of colour photography, we’ve got a lot to be grateful for. And we can’t think of a better of paying thanks than with a list of the greatest songs ever written about the nation.
In this selection of tracks – ranging from Van Morrison to Paul McCartney and more – we see every kind of Ireland. Some songs focus on The Troubles, while others are celebrations of Ireland’s rich folkloric history, people or landscapes. Because while Ireland has a complicated political past, it is so much more than that. It is the nation of Oscar Wilde and the Giants Causeway as much as it is Bloody Sunday and Bobby Sands.
Some of the songs below were written by people for whom Ireland is home; others were written by outsiders looking in. Either way, each of the following ten tracks is a chance to raise a glass to Ireland, and what could be better than that.
The 10 best songs about Ireland:
‘Cyprus Avenue’ – Van Morrison
From Morrison’s seminal 1968 album ‘Astral Weeks’, ‘Cyprus Avenue’ takes its name from the wealthy neighbourhood a few blocks away from Morrison’s modest childhood home at 125 Hyndford Street in a working-class area in Belfast. Apparently, Morrison used to dream of one day owning a house there.
The story goes that Morrison used to walk up and down Cyprus Avenue when he wanted some time to his own thoughts. This track captures the tranquillity of those long walks while also recalling some of the formative experiences of his young life, including the occasion in which he was “conquered in a car seat” by a local girl.
‘Oliver’s Army’ – Elvis Costello
Penned on a plane from Belfast to London, ‘Oliver’s Army’ was written by Elvis Costello after his first visit to the city in 1978. On arrival, he was shocked to find the streets littered with British soldiers carrying machine guns, many of whom were no older than 16.
The titular ‘Oliver’ is Oliver Cromwell, leader of the Parliamentary Army that overthrew Charles 1st. As well as forming Englands’ first professional fighting force, Cromwell conducted a brutal invasion of Ireland, which included the Siege of Drogheda, in which hundreds of civilians were executed. Costello’s track is at once an anti-military protest song and an observation of how the UK government was doomed to repeat its past mistakes.
‘The Fields Of Athenry’ – The Durutti Column
While its subject matter might deal with the Great Potato Famine of 1845 -50, ‘The Fields of Athenry’ is not, in fact, a traditional ballad but a contemporary composition by Pete St. John, who wrote it in the mid-1970s.
The song first found chart success when it became a Top 10 hit in 1979 for folk singer Danny Doyle. Since then, ‘The Fields of Athenry’ has been covered by the likes of Paddy Reilly, James Galway, The Dubliners and Dropkick Murphys. But perhaps one of the most tender versions of this Irish classic comes from The Durutti Column, who recorded it in 2006.
‘Whiskey In The Jar’ – Thin Lizzy
This traditional Irish folk song first found fame with The Dubliners in 1967, before being given the rock ‘n’ roll treatment by Thin Lizzy in 1972, landing the group their breakthrough hit.
The track tells the story of a highwayman who robs an English officer and is subsequently betrayed by his girlfriend, Molly. Despite being a huge success, the track was originally intended as a B-side for their single Black Boys On The Corner. The story goes that Thin Lizzy only included the single because they had nothing else to offer. But on hearing the track, the band’s label convinced them to put ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ on the A-side.
‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’ – Paul McCartney & Wings
This hilariously polite protest song sees Paul McCartney at his most overtly political, but what it lacks in nuance it more than makes up for in heart.
McCartney has Irish ancestry on both his mother and father’s side and so felt compelled to take up the cause at a moment of extreme political tensions. Speaking to ABC at the time, he said: “I’m British, and I was brought up to be proud of things like the British Empire. I don’t want my army going ’round shooting my Irish brothers.” Written in response to the Bloody Sunday incident, in which British troops shot dead a number of Irish protesters, ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’ was ultimately banned by the BBC, who deemed it “unsuitable for broadcasting.”
‘The Foggy Dew’ – Sinéad O’Connor & The Chieftains
Featured on the soundtrack for The Wind That Shakes The Barley, starring Cillian Murphy, ‘The Foggy Dew’ is a cover of a traditional Irish folk ballad written in the midst of the First World War.
The song, performed here by Sinéad O’Connor & The Chieftains, recalls the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, an uprising against British forces in Ireland during Easter week. The Wind That Shakes The Barley occurs during the revolutionary years that followed the insurrection – telling the story of two brothers fighting side by side for Ireland’s independence.
‘The Town I Loved So Well’ – Phil Coulter
Phil Coulter wrote ‘The Town I loved so Well at the height of the troubles in the early 1970s. The track sees Coulter recall fond memories of his childhood in Derry. After not seeing his hometown for man years, he returns to find it has been utterly destroyed during the conflict. “But when I returned how my eyes have burned / To see how a town could be brought to its knees / By the armoured cars and the bombed out bars.”
And yet, Coulter remains optimistic for Derry’s future, singing of his hope that the city will see a “brighter day.” Several artists have covered the track, including Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Peter Kelly and The Dubliners, Johnny Logan, and many more.
‘Belfast’ – Boney M
Perhaps the most unlikely Irish protest song of all time – not least because it was written by a band from Germany – Boney M’s ‘Belfast’ became a hit in 1977 at a time when Germany, like Ireland, was a divided country.
Boney M’s ‘Belfast’ exudes optimism while simultaneously drawing attention to the fact that the troubles have prompted many of the cities, original residents, to start new lives elsewhere – a subject that crops up in Kenneth Brannagh’s 2021 film of the same name.
‘Zombie’ – The Cranberries
Written shortly after the IRA bombings in Warrington, England on March 20th, 1993, ‘Zombie’ speaks about the Irish fight for independence, which singer Dolores O’Riordan claims has been riffing on, “the same old theme since 1916.”
Despite Cranberries’ claims that the ‘Zombie; was intended as a “song for peace,” the political fervour at the heart of the track caused a great deal of controversy at the time. A few weeks after the track was released, the IRA declared a ceasefire, leading certain critics to joke if they had called the truce to ensure the group didn’t release any more songs about them.
‘Bad’ – U2
Taken from U2’s 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire, ‘Bad’ began life an a short guitar riff that The Edge improvised during a session as Slaine Castle, where U2 were recording the album.
While the track has been interpreted in many different ways, ts widely believed that ‘Bad’ focuses on Dublin in the 1980s, when the recession led to a high number of heroin addicts in the inner city. Bono has frequently introduced the Brian Eno-produced track as a song “about Dublin during live concerts.”