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The Story Behind The Song: Thin Lizzy's traditional rework 'Whiskey in the Jar'

‘Whiskey in the Jar’ is an undeniable classic. Whether it be in its traditional folk format, The Dubliners version or even the Metallica redux, it’s an earworm with a stirring chorus that we can all get behind. The song’s true genius lies with the fact that it suits any occasion, be it in a pub, a wedding, or otherwise. It guarantees that people will be merrily singing along in unison come to the first chorus. 

Although it was folk heroes The Dubliners who popularised the song in the mainstream with the release of their rendition in 1968, it was actually their countrymen, Thin Lizzy, who truly cemented its legacy in the wider collective consciousness. Their arrangement, masterminded by Phil Lynott, Eric Bell and Brian Downey, stayed faithful to the original but electrified it. There are brilliant elements to this rendition, such as the wailing guitar line, Lynott’s husky delivery, and the raucous control of the chorus, all of which serve to make it one of the best rock tracks ever released – and one of Thin Lizzy’s most enduring.

Hilariously, although it became a massive hit for Thin Lizzy in 1972, it was initially intended only as a B-side. They offered it to the record company as the reverse to ‘Black Boys On The Corner’ because they didn’t have any other material to use. However, the record company loved it so much that they decided to make ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ the single. What a decision that was.

The other interesting thing about ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ is its origins. The song is about a highwayman who is betrayed by his wife or lover, but it is never made clear who they actually were or why they did it. The exact roots of the song are unknown, and duly, there exist numerous accounts for where the mysterious original author might have taken their inspiration. One report claims that a number of the song’s lines and elements of a plot that resembles the Irish historical broadside ballad ‘Patrick Fleming’, about the notorious highwayman Patrick Fleming who was executed in 1650. Again, there is no concrete evidence for this, even if the similarities are stark. 

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In his book, The Folk Songs of North America, folk music historian Alan Lomax also suggested that the song originated in the 17th century. He even claimed that John Gay’s 1728 work The Beggar’s Opera was inspired by Gay hearing a ballad-monger singing ‘Whiskey in the Jar’. Discussing the history of the song, Lomax claims: “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.”

The 20th-century song collector and historian Colm Ó Lochlainn claimed that his mother learnt the song in Limerick in 1870 from a man named Buckley who hailed from Cork. In his book, Irish Street Ballads, the lyrics he includes are written down from memory, just in the way he’d learnt them from his mother. He called the song ‘There’s Whiskey in the Jar’, and the lyrics he documented are virtually identical to those that the Irish bands of the 1960s used, including The Dubliners

Given the intrinsic oral history of folk, there’s no surprise that the origins of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ are a mystery. It is likely that they will always remain so, a strange facet for such a famous song. What is clear, though, is that it has been passed down through generations, and to the Irish it means a great deal, regardless of lyrical variation.

The way that the band offered it up because they had nothing else is telling of how far-reaching the song’s legacy is within Irish music. It is a go-to number, a must-have for any of the country’s musicians, and consequently, it is a mainstay in the repertoire of many musicians worldwide.

Whether it be in its folk format or the modernised rock versions that abound, ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ is like a portal back in time to Ireland’s dark history, something that, in many ways, the country is still dealing with today, giving it an edge that many other popular songs lack. On the other hand, the song has a timeless feel and given society’s penchant for enjoying alcohol; it has endured worldwide since Thin Lizzy breathed life into it and reappropriated it for the modern audience. 

Listen to Thin Lizzy’s ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ below.