Irish folk music has many types of songs. Some will be romantic ballads, while others will be historical laments. Below are two types of famous songs: a political song and a drinking song. Political songs will be about a political event. Drinking songs, however, don't have to be about drinking. Rather, they are songs that became popular in pubs as songs sang during a session
The Wind That Shakes The Barley- A Political Song
This song is about the 1798 rebellion. This was an attempt by the Irish to expel the English from Ireland. Irish freedom fighters took inspiration from the successful revolutions in America and France. Unlike those revolutions, however, Ireland was not successful in expelling the English.
The song is a personal tale told from the point of view of a young man who is very reluctant to leave his farm and join the fight against the English. He is hesitant to leave his beloved. However, when an English sniper shoots her and she dies, he looks to seek vengeance.
The barley is an important symbol in the song. Barley was carried by Irish fighters as food when they went off to fight. The legend goes that many of those soldiers were killed in combat and buried in their uniform. The barley would then sprout from their grave. This was to symbolize the fact that the solider could be killed, but the rebellion would live on and would return.
This is a somber, slow song. It is not a song that you would often hear in a pub. It is more something you would hear performed at a folk concert.
Whiskey In The Jar – A Drinking Song
This is an incredibly popular drinking song that has been covered by heavy metal bands, American folk musicians, and hard rock bands. The basic story is the same, even though the lyrics change depending upon what source is used.
The song is narrated by a highwayman who robs a military officer. The highwayman then heads home where his wife betrays him. She switches out the bullets in his gun while he is sleeping. She then calls for the military officer to come and find her husband. When the husband wakes, he is unable to find his sword, which his wife hid, and his gun has no bullets, so he is arrested.
Even though the song is about robbery and betrayal, it has a fun and upbeat tempo. It is one of the standard songs played in Irish pubs throughout the world. The story of the song has nothing to do with whiskey. The reason the song is called Whiskey In The Jar, and why it's become a ubiquitous song in pubs across the world is that the chorus breaks from the story and the narrator sings:
Musha ring dumma do dumma da Whack fol de daddy-o Whack fol de daddy-o There's whiskey in the jar
There has been a lot of debate as to what exactly those first 4 lines mean. Some believe they hearken back to Irish "mouth music", while others say they are non-sense words used because they fit the tune of the song.