31 Best Irish Songs That Demonstrate Songwriting at Its Finest

The history of Ireland is rich in lore, conflict, triumph, and heartache.

From ancient battles against invading armies to its 20th-century conflict simply referred to as “The Troubles,” musicians hailing from the fertile island known for its vast green landscape have naturally worked their country’s complicated history into their writing.

Check out the best Irish songs below featuring traditional groups like Celtic Woman and secular artists like Sinead O’Connor.

The Irish Rover – The Pogues Feat. The Dubliners

Folk band The Dubliners pair up with celt-punk band The Pogues for their own take on a folklore classic, ‘The Irish Rover.’ Dating all the way back to 1937, the original is credited to writer J. M. Crofts. The song tells the story of a towering cargo ship famous along its sailing route. After crashing into rocks, the only survivor is the narrator, assumed to be the captain.

Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2

In 1972, several peaceful protestors were killed by British soldiers during a march for civil rights. The historical event has long been referred to as ‘Bloody Sunday.’ U2 frontman Bono wrote ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ as a subtle call for peace despite the Emerald Isle’s violent history. To make the song less political, Bono intertwined personal struggles within the message to give it universal relatability.

Related: Spend your weekend listening to the best songs about Sunday.

Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinéad O’Connor

A palpable song about heartbreak, ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ bounced around the industry for about six years before Sinead O’Connor covered it. Prince originally wrote it in 1984, but instead of releasing it, he gave it to The Family to record, one of the bands on his label. Though they released it on an LP, it was never a single, so it didn’t get much attention. But when it became O’Connor’s single in 1990, it went straight to number one on both US and UK charts.

Related: See our playlist of good cover songs.

The Boys Are Back in Town – Thin Lizzy

Band leader Phil Lynott was born in Ireland but spent much time in Manchester, England, in his youth. His mom ran a bar there where a popular “street gang” would hang out. Their brash behavior rubbed off on a young and impressionable Lynott. The gang’s rowdy ways inspired much of the music he’d later write, including ‘The Boys Are Back in Town,’ which was a comeback hit for the group. Before its release, they were on the brink of breaking up.

Related: Celebrate your long-lasting friendships with these songs about old friends.

Zombie – The Cranberries

For much of the 1900s, a guerilla-style war between English troops and the Irish Republican Army occurred as the two factions fought for control over Northern Ireland. In 1993, two children died during one of the IRA’s attacks in England. The Cranberries’ song ‘Zombie’ is about this particular event. Despite the song’s heavy instrumentation and lyrics, frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan said it was a plea for peace. This song is probably one of the most popular Irish songs, having made it to the top of the charts in several countries.

Related: This features on our list of songs that start with the letter Z.

The Blower’s Daughter – Damien Rice

“So it is just like you said it would be. Life goes easy on me.” Songwriter Damien Rice rarely gives interviews, so many of his songs are left up to fans’ interpretations. For ‘The Blower’s Daughter,’ speculation has long swirled. Some say he wrote it about a clarinet teacher he fancied who his daughter took lessons from (a blower is a term used to describe someone who plays woodwind instruments). Others suggest it’s about a summertime love that ended abruptly.

Teenage Kicks – The Undertones

Released in 1978 on The Undertone’s self-titled album, the popularity of ‘Teenage Kicks’ was partly due to a beloved radio DJ’s obsession with the hit. When BBC Radio 1’s John Peel heard the song for the first time, he instantly fell in love with it and even played it twice a row during its debut on his show. When Peel passed away, he even requested the song’s lines “Teenage dreams, so hard to beat” be engraved on his headstone.

Related: Check out more great 70s songs.

The Rocky Road to Dublin – The High Kings

A beloved Irish folk song covered by many groups like The High Kings, ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’ began as a poem. Known as “the Galway poet,” D. K. Gavan wrote the stanzas for music performer Harry Clifton back in the 1800s. The story follows a young man making a trip from his small Irish town to the bustling streets of England and all the adventures he encounters along the way.

Chasing Cars – Snow Patrol

“You’re like a dog chasing a car.” That’s what Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody’s father said about his handling of young love growing up. A stripped-down song that slowly builds as light guitar parts are introduced, ‘Chasing Cars’ has become a radio darling over the years on British channels. According to Smooth Radio, it has been the most-played song over the last 20 years.

Related: See this song on our car songs list.

Fairytale of New York – The Pogues

Songwriter Shane MacGowan started writing ‘Fairytale of New York’ as a cheeky response to commercial Christmas songs. It evolved into a memorable story about a couple escaping Ireland during the potato famine and moving to New York in hopes of finding a better life. Singer Kirsty MacColl, daughter of UK folk songwriter Ewan MacColl, provided guest vocals for the song and appeared in The Pogues’ music video.

Related: Going to NY? You’ll like these songs with New York in the title.

Drunken Lullabies – Flogging Molly

“‘Cause we find ourselves in the same old mess singin’ drunken lullabies.” Flogging Molly’s Dave King packs centuries of battles, losses, and the fight for Irish independence in his band’s song ‘Drunken Lullabies.’ One of the band’s most requested tracks, lyrics like “500 years like gelignite,” are references to the territory’s centuries-long battle for autonomy, mainly with England and her ultimate control over Northern Ireland.

Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison

Originally titled ‘Brown Skinned Girl,’ Van Morrison’s breakout hit started as a song about interracial relationships. But several things had to be changed for it to be allowed on radio airwaves. Starting with the title, he had to change it to ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ to make it less controversial. Also, the edited lyric “laughin’ and a-runnin’, hey, hey,” was originally “making love in the green grass.”

Related: Here are some more songs about a girl. For more Van the Man, check out our pick of Van Morrison’s greatest hits.

Raglan Road – Luke Kelly

“Her dark hair would weave a snare that I would one day rue.” A chance encounter on Raglan Road turns into a torrid love affair. That’s how Peter Kavanaugh wrote the poem before he met musician Luke Kelly and Kelly turned the poetry into music. The moral of the story is don’t let your heart rule your head, no matter how pretty the girl may be.

Molly Malone – The Dubliners

Not many songs have statues erected after them, but the folk classic ‘Molly Malone’ does. The statue of a girl pushing a cart donning straw baskets can be found in Dublin. The song tells the story of a girl who roamed the cobblestone streets selling fish she caught but tragically died too soon due to a fever. It serves as the town’s unofficial anthem, and the legend is so cemented in Irish history that natives think of Malone as a real historical figure.

Dirty Old Town – The Pogues

Though Ewan MacColl originally wrote the folk song ‘Dirty Old Town’ as a transitional piece for a play he was writing in 1949, the revival of more traditional music in the ’50s gave it a new outlet. Inspired by the industrial town MacColl grew up in, The Pogues ended up covering it. Frontman Shane MacGowan’s raspy, gritty vocals provided the perfect delivery for the song’s blue-collar tone.

Related: Find more popular songs with harmonica.

The Foggy Dew – The Chieftains

This Irish lamentation has been around for so long that a traditional version of it is listed in the book The Ancient Music of Ireland, published in 1840. Many contemporary artists like The Chieftains and Sinead O’Connor have released their own recordings. As it was modernized, it began to take on a new meaning focused on a call to arms among Irish people during the early days of WWI. While many boys were going to fight for the British, the song tells them to stay and help form an independent Irish Republic separate from England.

Related: Listen to our playlist of war related songs.

Breathless – The Corrs

Though folk music is one of Ireland’s most popular genres, the 21st century gave rise to artists who mixed traditional roots with modern pop and rock stylings. For The Corrs, their number one hit in the UK, ‘Breathless,’ encompasses their traditional background with pop-tinged guitar and electronic keys. The sugary, romantic track would become their biggest hit in America.

Related: Take a minute to catch your breath with our songs about breathing playlist.

I’m Shipping Up to Boston – Dropkick Murphys

“I’m a sailor peg, and I’ve lost my leg.” If you hear Dropkick Murphy’s ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’ once, you’ll remember those lyrics screamed into listeners’ ears by lead singer Ken Casey. Inspired by an old Woodie Guthrie tune never released, the band wrote their head-banging track about a sailor who suddenly loses his leg in a boating accident and heads to Boston to get a new one.

Related: Travel over to our list of the best songs about a place.

Alternative Ulster – Stiff Little Fingers

Ireland is home to many punk rock legends, and Stiff Little Fingers is a punk-genre classic. Their tunes unapologetically encompass youthful counterculture and creative destruction. They released ‘Alternative Ulster’ in the late ’70s when violence from a long series of uprisings and battles known as “The Troubles” was at its height. The song relays the message that there isn’t much left for young people in Northern Ireland due to the conflict, so they are quite “bored.”

The Galway Girl – Mundy and Sharon Shannon

‘Copperhead Road’ songwriter Steve Earle scored another hit with his folk-rock-inspired version of ‘Galway Girl.’ When he was in songwriting mode, he’d spend a lot of time in Galway, where he met the musician Sharon Shannon. When he decided to record the tune, Shannon stepped into the studio and helped him bring the song back to life.

Finnegan’s Wake – The Irish Rovers

“Tim Finnegan lived in Watling Street. A gentleman Irishman mighty odd.” The tradition of funerals is a cornerstone of Irish culture. Though funerals are often viewed as mournful ceremonies, the other Irish tradition of dark humor can add an odd comedic element to such affairs. That’s exactly what happens with the tune ‘Finnegan’s Wake,’ a brash story about Tim Finnegan who passes away, only to reawaken at his “wake” when a large amount of whiskey is spilled on his body.

Related: Here are some more celebration of life songs to use at the next funeral.

Danny Boy – Celtic Woman

The all-female music ensemble Celtic Woman is known for its renditions of traditional Irish songs. For their version of ‘Danny Boy,’ they skillfully and soulfully tackle a heart-wrenching tune about a father singing to his son who is going to leave and fight in a war. ‘Danny Boy’ is one of the Celtic genre’s best-known songs, mainly due to its powerful a-cappella delivery.

Related: Here’s a salute to the best soldier songs.

Rattlin’ Bog – Carlyle Fraser

One of Irish culture’s most-favored traditional works, ‘Rattlin’ Bog’ seems like a never-ending tale, with additional lines added to each new verse (like America’s ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ song). The song’s length takes a toll on any singer trying their hand at this number; its gradually increasing speed makes it even more challenging. A cover of the tune appears on Carlyle Fraser’s album Pint of Ale.

Tattoo’d Lady – Rory Gallagher

An ideal dancing song popular in the early ’70s, Rory Gallagher’s ‘Tattoo’d Lady’ is sometimes thought of as a love song between a young man and a woman in the circus. But natives of Ireland are quick to remind people Tattoo’d Lady is a well-known beer brand in their country and is often ordered while at the pub.

Related: Sip along with more songs about liquor.

Banana Republic – The Boomtown Rats

In 1977, The Boomtown Rats appeared on a popular late-night talk show. During their interview, frontman Geldof had some choice words for the Republic of Ireland revolving around his political disagreements with the government. This rant led to performances by the band being outlawed in the country. As a rebuttal, they released ‘Banana Republic,’ a part-reggae-part-ska tune with seething lyrics.

Ride On – Christy Moore

Written by Cork resident Jimmy MacCarthy, the equestrian theme in the song points to MacCarthy drawing inspiration from his days of training to be a jockey. Christy Moore, one of Ireland’s long-admired folk singers, covered the song in 1984. ‘Ride On,’ which was the name of his album as well, became one of Moore’s most successful releases.

July – Mundy

“Your blue sky grins for all its sins.” Folk artist Mundy drummed up a classic summertime hit with ‘July.’ Focused on the beauty of a warm summer day spent in the park, the lyrics reference blue skies, fresh-cut grass, and a steel drum in the distance. Mundy also can’t help but notice all the gorgeous women walking around on this fine day. The shows’ crowds always help with the lyric, “Oh! Ma, ma, ma. My July.”

Related: Bask in the summer vibes with these summer theme songs.

Theme From Harry’s Game – Clannad

In 1975, writer Gerald Seymour published a novel, Harry’s Game, which focused on life in Belfast during The Troubles conflict. In 1982, a TV show was adapted from the novel, and Clannad was tasked with writing the opening track to the series. Though the song was written in under two hours, it was such a favorite among fans of the series that it became a hit song in the UK.

Fisherman’s Blues – The Waterboys

Partly about dealing with mixed emotions after a tough breakup, The Waterboys’ tune ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ was also inspired by a poem by writer W.H. Auden. The poem itself focuses its theme and rhythmic quality on a passing midnight mail train. Many blues-inspired songs have train elements in their lyrics, and this track is no exception. The song also weaves in more traditional Gaelic-folk elements not previously explored by the group.

Related: You’ll love these famous blues songs.

Feed Me with Your Kiss – My Bloody Valentine

The first single released from their album Isn’t Anything, the dreamlike quality of the vocal lines as electric guitars rage in ‘Feed Me with Your Kiss’ can be found throughout the entire release. The group recorded in a remote area of England for the project in just two weeks. Between the lack of sleep, loud roaming herds of sheep, and random sonic booms from passing fighter jets, all of those infectious elements made their way into the overall tone of the album.

Don’t Go – Hothouse Flowers

Rock group Hothouse Flowers’ debut single ‘Don’t Go’ charted in several countries, including Ireland, Sweden, and New Zealand. Appearing on their ’88 album, People, it was their top-performing single in Ireland, reaching the number two spot until their next single, ‘Feet on the Ground,’ which quickly rose to number one.

Photo of author

About Ged Richardson

Ged Richardson is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ZingInstruments.com. He has been featured in Entrepreneur, PremierGuitar, Hallmark, Wanderlust, CreativeLive, and other major publications. As an avid music fan, he spends his time researching and writing about new and old music, as well as testing and reviewing music-related products. He's played guitar in various bands, from rock to gypsy jazz. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel, where he geeks out about his favorite bands.

Read more

Leave a Comment