‘Whiskey in The Jar’ is a traditional Irish song set in the southern mountains of Ireland, often with specific mention of counties Cork and Kerry. The song is about a highwayman (rapparee), who is betrayed by his wife or lover. The song is one of the most widely performed traditional Irish songs. Go into any Irish pub or place where Irish men and women are gathered together on St. Patrick’s Day in March and you will hear the song sung loudly from the rafters as spirits and porter is liberally drunk. Indeed, along with ‘Danny Boy’ this song, ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ is guaranteed to make any Irish man and woman on American or English soil momentarily homesick as their thoughts drift back to their green Isle off the Irish Sea.
The song has been recorded by numerous professional artists since the 1950s. 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’ of ‘Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore’ fame, who recorded it on their 1962 album ‘Encore’. Building on their success, 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 that charted at Number 4 in Ireland and Number 63 in the UK. The American metal band ‘Metallica’ brought it to a wider rock audience in 1998 by playing a version very similar to that of ‘Thin Lizzy's’, though with a heavier sound, winning a ‘Grammy Award’ for the song in 2000 for ‘Best Hard Rock Performance’. In 2019 Canadian singer, songwriter Bryan Adams performed another cover of this song through his album ‘Shine A Light’.
‘Whiskey in the Jar’ is the tale of a highwayman, 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, Cork, Sligo Town, Killarney and Kilkenny, and other locales throughout Ireland. It is also sometimes placed in the American South, in various places among the Ozarks or the Appalachian Mountains, 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.
The song's exact origins are unknown. Several its lines and the general plot resemble those of a contemporary broadside ballad ‘Patrick Fleming’, an Irish highwayman who was executed in 1650. 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.
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. The song collector Colm O Lochlainn in his book ‘Irish Street Ballads’, described how his mother learnt ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ in Limerick in 1870 from a man called Buckley who came from County 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.
I dedicate my song today to my sister Susan on this special day of her birthday. As the seventh child in a family of seven, Susan and myself were born at the opposite ends of the family spectrum. Being my parent’s firstborn, I was naturally nearer the trunk of parental opinion, and like all older brothers in the family tree, I have always held protective instincts for my little sister (the family twig) who has too often found herself on the outer branches of family thought.
Like all Forde family members, my sister Susan has always been a rebel within any establishment she has found herself a member of. Her greatest fault is that she has always been and will remain a rebel until the day she dies. The song has gathered thousands of more listeners amongst the Southern Irish than it otherwise might have done because of its irreverent attitude toward British officials, and it fits nicely into my sister Susan’s frame of mind.
Whatever characteristics Susan possesses, being forthright in speech and fearless in opinion are traits she holds up front. She does not suffer fools and has an instant disregard for sexist authority bossy superiors and officious line-managers. She never courts popularity and would want to be the last person ever to be regarded as being ‘part of the crowd’. Susan works as an Area Manager in Social Work and I often view her as being too much of a ‘loner’, and far too independent and proud to ever ask for help or assistance unless it was a life-threatening situation. She is a good sister, mother and grandmother who loves being in the company of her sisters and brothers and she is known to like a good sing-song (especially if the songs, company and whiskey are of Irish extraction). She is undoubtedly at her happiest and wickedest after she has had a few drinks in carefree and cheerful Irish company, where the background noise is the refrain of a good old Irish ballad or the rebellious song of Irish martyrs who were killed during the Easter Rebellion of 1916 in Dublin.
Indeed, although she wasn’t born in Ireland like me and her two older sisters, She is fiercely proud of her Irish heritage. Susan is immensely proud of her Irish and rebel family roots; so much so that after her divorce, she legally changed her married name of Brown (not back to her maiden name of Forde), but to the name of her Maternal grandparents, Fanning.
Here’s wishing you a happy birthday, Susan Fanning; little sister. May your special day be filled with much happiness, love and peace…and… lots of cake and Irish whiskey. Know that our mum and dad are proudly looking down on their youngest child today to toast your health and continued wellbeing, and to place their Irish hand of destiny on your shoulder. Listen, Susan! Can’t you hear all of the good Irish people that you have been blessed to know in your life utter their eternal blessing to you in the background of your special day, as they say, the Irish phrase, ‘ céad míle fáilte’ (a hundred thousand welcomes).
Love from your big brother Billy; the farthest sibling away from you in age, but the one who is the closest to you in enduring affection, mutual respect and love of the Emerald Isle. Not only do we revere and deeply respect Irish ground and Irish tradition, but we breathe and live life through the Irish lungs and pulsating heart of our Irish parents and siblings. Love from Billy xxx.
Love and peace Bill xxx