An Old Irish Song

‘Whiskey in a Jar’ was originally written a couple hundred years ago probably in the mid-17th century, and the first recording of this song is usually credited to The Dubliners from 1967, but in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Burl Ives, The Brothers Four, and The Limeliters covered it as ‘Kilgary Mountain’, and in 1965 Peter Paul and Mary recorded ‘Gilgarra Mountain’ which contains a lot of the same lyrics.  This song is a centuries-old folk tale about an Irish criminal who plunders and robs the people he encounters on the highway and then gets shipped off to jail after his woman betrays him.  The highwayman robs a military officer and he is eventually executed.

‘Whiskey in a Jar’ has been recorded by many artists, Thin Lizzy recorded it in 1972, and the Grateful Dead recorded a version of this song in 1993.  In 1998 Metallica recorded this song and their version won a 2000 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance.  It’s a rollicking tune that’s fun to sing, especially while hoisting a pint or two, and it has become a favorite drinking and pub song among fans of Irish music all over the world.  ‘Whiskey in a Jar’, like ‘Danny Boy’, is popular on St. Patrick’s Day.  According to folklorist Alan Lomax, this song is one of the best known traditional Irish vocal ballads.

Many of the song’s lines bear a strong resemblance to a traditional ballad concerning the execution of Patrick Fleming in 1650.  The story is about the exploits of this vile criminal, who maimed and killed Irish civilians galore before he was caught only because his woman Molly messed around with his weapon so it would malfunction.  ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ is the classic hero-is-the-villain story, as highwaymen were robbers who travelled on horseback, as opposed to those who travelled on foot.  They were also socially superior to any other robbers, so they became romanticized into legends just like Robin Hood.

Highwaymen were secretly applauded by the poor as well as the rich who opposed the ruling royalty.  Highwaymen first made their appearance during the Elizabethan period and lasted well into the 19th centuries.  Their “rob from the rich’ philosophy caught on very quickly and spread to other countries and in America, they were called “road agents” and in Australia, they were called “bushrangers”.  The song contains some Gaelic words in the chorus and “Musha ringum duram da” may translate to “I made my whiskey for the fool” and “Whack fol de daddy-o” could be “work of the devil”.

The highwayman in this song robs Colonel Pepper and he gives the money to Molly, but she has the devil in her and she betrays him.  When the guards surround him, his pistols won’t fire and he is taken prisoner.  He breaks out of jail by punching somebody and he bids “a long farewell to that cold penitentiary”.  He declares his love for barley and pretty women.  Scotch and irish whisky are often made from barley.

As I was a-goin’ over Gilgarra mountains
I met Colonel Pepper and his money he was counting
I drew forth my pistol and I rattled my sabre
Saying “stand and deliver, for I am a bold deceiver”

Musha ringum duram da
Whack fol de daddy-o
Whack fol de daddy-o
There’s whiskey in the jar

The shining yellow coins did sure look bright and jolly
I took the money home and I gave it to my Molly
She promised and she vowed that she never would deceive me
But the devil’s in the women for they never can be easy


When I awoke between the hours of six and seven
Guards were standing ‘round me in numbers odd and even
I flew to my pistols, but alas I was mistaken
I fired off my pistols and a prisoner was taken


They put me in jail without a judge or jury
For robbing Colonel Pepper in the morning so early
They didn’t take my fist so I knocked down the sentry
And I bid a long farewell to that cold penitentiary


Some take delight in fishing and bowling
Others take delight in carriage a-rollin’
I take delight in the juice of the barley
Courting pretty women in the morning so early


Written for Paula’s Thursday Inspiration 32 where this week’s theme is farewell.

8 thoughts on “An Old Irish Song

  1. Brilliant, Jim. The Dubs, in particular, were fond of taking traditional material, covering it and then releasing it. Of course, lots to choose from! Have a good Thanksgiving – hopefully there’ll be some decent football on for you later, full program on Thanksgiving, isn’t there?

    Liked by 1 person

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