What sets the best Irish songs apart from other pieces? It’s hard to pinpoint magical formula that sets some head and shoulders above others. But what stands out is that they are inherently love letters.
Sometimes that’s to a nation, other times to a people. Still other times it’s for a bygone era. Here are some of the best Irish songs to get you singing and celebrating on St. Patrick’s Day; or any other day for that matter.
1. “Irish Rover” by Seamus Kennedy
Song Year: 2008
“Irish Rover” is seen by many as one of the best Irish songs ever. It’s a spirited romp designed to get your blood pumping.
That’s appropriate because there are several dances set to this tune. The only drawback is that the most notorious one requires the dancer to know not Irish but Scottish Country Dance.
2. “Danny Boy” by Elvis Presley
Song Year: 1976
Elvis Presley might not be Irish, but it’s hard to get more overtly Irish than “Danny Boy.” It’s the quintessential Irish folk song. Plaintive and poignant, it has been featured prominently at several famous funerals, among them those of:
- Princess Diana
- John F. Kennedy
- Elvis Presley
3. “Zombie” by The Cranberries
Song Year: 1994
It’s difficult to discuss the best Irish songs ever without discussing their turbulent history. The Cranberry’s song “Zombie” is an excellent example.
Lead singer Dolores O’Riordan wrote the song to commemorate the deaths of two young people during the 1993 IRA Warrington bombing.
It became the catalyst for much of the band’s musical protesting against terrorism and one of Ireland’s unofficial anthems.
4. “Molly Malone” by The Dubliners
Song Year: 2003
Another of the best Irish songs ever is “Molly Malone.” Sometimes better known as “Cockles and Mussels,” it speaks to the country’s long tradition of fishing. It’s less rowdy than some Irish songs but is still a song to be sung with vim.
5. “Snowy-Breasted Pearl” by Wolfe Tones
Song Year: 2008
Like many folk songs, the lyrics of “Snowy-Breasted Pearl” can vary depending on the Irish singer. But the lyrics used by Wolfe Tones are the most recognizable.
As songs for St. Patrick’s Day go, this one is surprisingly perfect. It’s romantic, sentimental, and lyrical in true Irish tradition.
6. “Kerry Dancing” by New College, Oxford
Song Year: 1997
“Kerry Dancing” is another of the best Irish songs. It’s less melancholy than “Danny Boy” and less raucous than other folk songs on this list.
It’s tinged with nostalgia for a better and vanished time. It’s a theme that circles many Irish songs but seldom so movingly.
7. “Whisky in the Jar” by The Seekers
Song Year: 1965
If it’s true you can’t talk about the best Irish songs without getting into politics, it’s equally true that you are hard-pressed not to mention whisky.
Many of the best St. Patrick’s Day songs feature whisky, and “Whisky in the Jar” is the best-known of these. The Seekers sing this version, but other notable versions include those performed by:
8. “Rocky Road to Dublin” by The High Kings
Song Year: 2008
“The Rocky Road to Dublin” is another song fit for St. Patrick’s Day. It tells the story of a man who treks from Liverpool back to Dublin. Along the way, he has several misadventures, including a fraught encounter with some pigs.
The song is fast-paced and ribald in keeping with the spirit of this Irish holiday.
9. “Song for Ireland” by Luke Kelly
Song Year: 1986
Ireland isn’t just known for its fraught history and excellent whisky. It’s also a breathtakingly beautiful country. “Song for Ireland,” written and performed by Luke Kelly, is a tribute to that beauty.
It’s an atypically hopeful Irish anthem, making it one of the best Irish songs for commemorating the country’s patron saint.
10. “Foggy Dew” by Derek Warfield and The Young Wolfe Tones
Song Year: 2016
This song is another of the best Irish songs to combine an excellent melody with history.
The song remembers the Easter Rising of 1916. Although Ireland had internal disagreements about the necessity of the rebellion, they all agreed that the British decision to execute the rebels was an overreaction.
“Foggy Dew” reflects on that complicated history and a rare moment of unity for a nation too often divided.
11. “Fields of Athenry” by Paddy Reilly
Song Year: 1991
“Fields of Athenry” is another of the best Irish songs rooted in history. It tells the story of a man who steals corn for his family at the height of the Potato Famine. It goes predictably badly, and the song is haunting and melancholy as a result.
12. “The Blower’s Daughter” by Damien Rice
Song Year: 2010
Damien Rice’s piece “The Blower’s Daughter” is both one of the best Irish songs and one of the most mysterious.
Because Rice didn’t do much to publicize his early albums, people knew little about the music. And what little they knew intrigued them. The result was lots of speculation about the subject of “The Blower’s Daughter.”
The prevailing theory was that she was the daughter of Rice’s clarinet teacher. Supposedly he fancied her and wrote her into the song.
That might cause you to think the “blower” of the title was a clarinet. After all, they’re wind instruments. Rather, it refers to an old-fashioned word for the telephone. Given the way this song got people talking, it proved accidentally apt.
13. “The Spinning Wheel” by Delia Murphey
Song Year: 1950
What sets ‘The Spinning Wheel’ apart from some of the other St. Patrick’s Day songs on this list is its cheekiness.
Lots of Irish songs are love songs. But none of them flirt as candidly with the machinations of youth attempting to outwit age as this song does.
The interplay between grandmother and granddaughter is delightful. Set against their inter-generational story of teasing familial love is the spinning wheel.
It makes an unlikely cover for the off-screen lover’s overtures to his sweetheart, as well as a soothing noise to lull granny to sleep.
Even more delightful, as any spinner will tell you, is that you can hear the whir of wheel and pedal in the song’s rhythm. Listen, and you’ll hear it speed up and slow down to match the needs of the young woman in the song.
14. “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison
Song Year: 1967
It would be impossible to talk about the best Irish songs without mentioning Van Morrison. “Brown Eyed Girl” is one of his best-loved songs.
It’s an evocative, nostalgic song that reflects on times past. Despite this, it’s catchy and, like so many Morrison songs, it’s optimistic. That makes it ideal for St. Patrick’s Day.
15. “Star of the County Down” by The Irish Rovers
Song Year: 2015
“Star of the County Down” is the perfect song for St. Patrick’s Day for several reasons. It’s fast, even raucous, it’s about Ireland, and it’s got a melody that sticks in your head for days.
The use of a bodhran in the background, combined with the county-specific allusions to County Down, Ireland, make this song inescapably Irish.
It’s also energetic and lively, so more ambitious celebrators can try burling in time to it at their peril.
16. “Black Velvet Band” by Eanair
Song Year: 2012
“The Black Velvet Band” shows its age through the speaker’s deportation to Australia for his misdemeanors.
Despite this, it’s an excellent song for St Patrick’s Day. It features trickery, charming rogues, and hefty amounts of alcohol.
There are many versions of the “Black Velvet Band” from around the British Isles. What tips its hand as distinctively Irish is the lilting rhythm. It doesn’t snap like a Lombardie rhythm, but rocks, the way the Irish brogue does.
17. “This Is a Rebel Song” by Sinead O’Connor
Song Year: 1997
Sinead O’Connor can be divisive because of her politics. But it’s impossible to discuss the best Irish songs without mentioning her contributions.
“This Is A Rebel Song” came about partly as a response to the inherent pacifism of other Irish artists, especially U2.
As the title suggests, “This Is A Rebel Song” is unrepentantly political. But when it gets around to damning the English for their part in the Irish Troubles, and the country’s complicated history, it isn’t a heat-of-the-moment rant.
Instead, it’s a thoughtful argument for Ireland’s cause that justifies some of that inherited generational hurt.
18. “Phil the Fluter’s Ball” by Sir James Gallaway
Song Year: 2008
That said, not all the best Irish songs are about politics. “Phil the Fluter’s Ball” is the musical personification of that old word, “craic.”
There’s a bit of conniving by the eponymous Phil, some canoodling among the various couples, and a thorough night of dancing.
On top of all that, it’s a whirlwind of a song. You need to spit the words out quickly if you want anyone to understand them. Luckily, no one cares much about diction when selecting St Patrick’s Day songs.
19. “Riverdance” by Bill Wheelan
Song Year: 1995
No list of the best Irish songs would be complete without “Riverdance.” This song began as part of a Eurovision act and then expanded into a national favorite.
It showcases a blend of traditional Irish music and dance, and it’s aged well. As of writing, it still holds the record for the most weeks spent on the top of the Irish song charts.
20. “Only Time” by Enya
Song Year: 2000
What’s remarkable about many of the best Irish songs is how high their melodies soar. “Only Time” by Enya is an excellent example. It’s ethereal-sounding and floats at the top of the artist’s register.
Enya is best known for the part her lyrics played in instilling hope in people after 9/11. But many Enya pieces also make excellent songs for St. Patrick’s Day.
21. “Here We Are in New South Wales” by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem
Song Year: 1997
Don’t be fooled by the title. “Here We Are in New South Wales” is another of the best Irish songs there is. You can tell because of the distinct Irish use of the flute in the background.
As for the lyrics, they refer to a time in Irish history when many impoverished Irish left the country to make their fortunes in other parts of the Commonwealth. Because so many Irish people experienced deportation to Australia and New Zealand, it was the natural choice for these migrating families.
However, they were unprepared for the experience of living abroad. The song talks about the struggle to make a living somewhere new while also being homesick for Ireland.
Despite that, it’s rollicking and quick-moving, making it perfect for St Patrick’s Day celebrations.
22. “Rose of Tralee” by Jim McCann
Song Year: 1930
Roses feature with surprising prominence in some of the best Irish songs. “The Rose of Tralee” is an excellent example. Written in the nineteenth century, many people still debate who composed it.
But the accepted opinion is that it was the work of Edward Mordant Spencer, using a tune by Charles Glover. It’s featured or been mentioned in several films, including:
- Son o’ My Heart
- The Informer
- Daughter of Rosie O’Grady
23. “An Irish Pub Song” by The Rumjacks
Song Year: 2010
That high Irish whistle is again on display in yet another of the best Irish songs there is.
Surprisingly, the band behind the song isn’t Irish. “An Irish Pub Song” was written by an Australian band that wanted to pay tribute to the conviviality of the pubs they enjoyed while holidaying in Ireland.
Despite its foreign origins, the song demonstrates an excellent understanding of Irish musicality. There’s that soaring background flute and the ribald, giddy pace of the melody.
24. “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” by U2
Song Year: 1983
No list of the best Irish songs would be complete without “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.” Famously, U2 insisted that this song was not a rebel song.
Despite that, the song deploys a militaristic snare drum rhythm in the background. It’s the lyrics that prove deceptive. They commemorate a mass civilian killing at the height of the Irish Troubles dubbed “Bloody Sunday.”
But even as they commemorate it, this isn’t a patriotic call to war and uprising. Rebel song or not, it’s a deeply moving song.
25. “Red Is the Rose” by The Irish Tenors
Song Year: 2000
We told you the best Irish songs featured roses. “Red Is the Rose” is another example. But while today it’s accepted as an Irish song, it was originally Scottish. The song is a reworking of “Loch Lomond,” with the Boyne swapped in for the more Scottish body of water.
Careful listeners will notice that the “Loch Lomond” melody survived the rewrite.
Tommy Makem made it popular when he started recording it. Between Makem and The Clancy Brothers, it was soon a popular Irish ballad. But wherever it came from, “Red Is the Rose” is now one of the favorite songs singers choose to sing on St. Patrick’s day.
26. “The Parting Glass” by The Wailing Jennys
Song Year: 2004
If you are looking for the best song to conclude a St. Patrick’s Day celebration, look no further.
“The Parting Glass” has a long tradition of musically wrapping up an evening’s entertainment. Many Irish people consider it the equivalent of “Auld Lang Syne,” and rightly so.
Before Burns wrote his famous poem, the Scots used the song to end their ceilidh evenings.
Lyrical, melodic, and a bit melancholy, “The Parting Glass” is a beautiful song that even the non-singer should feel confident singing.
27. “Roddy McCorley” by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem
Song Year: 1961
“Roddy McCorley” is another essential song when discussing the best Irish songs.
The song tells the story of the death of Roddy McCorley. In life, he was an Irish nationalist. After his death, he became a hero for the cause of Irish liberation.
He was commemorated first in a poem and later in a song that several different performers made famous.
Listening, it’s not hard to see why. Even without drums, there’s a propulsive military beat that gets singers moving. In this recording, by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, the beat gets extra emphasis from a strident string accompaniment.
28. “As I Roved Out” by Andy Irving
“As I Roved Out” is another of the best Irish songs. However, whereas most songs on this list exist in a handful of tellings and retellings, the permutations of “As I Roved Out” are legion.
Love and abandonment go hand in hand in Irish songs. It’s part of the reason many of them sound inherently mournful.
In that sense, “As I Roved Out” is a phrase roughly equivalent to “once upon a time.” It’s a fairy-tale beginning for the doomed couple in the song. This version, sung by Andy Irving, remains one of the most popular versions of the story.
29. “Gypsy Rover” by The Kingston Trio
Song Year: 1961
Here is another folk song with several variations that is almost as popular as “The Wraggle-Taggle Gypsy,” which tells a similar story. But when it comes to stories of young maidens eloping, “Whistling Gypsy Rover” is one of the best Irish songs.
It’s full of snapping dotted rhythms and a relaxed, indulgent chorus. For a novelty, the young lovers get their happy ending, making it an excellent song for St. Patrick’s Day.
30. “The Patriot Game” by Dominic Behan
Song Year: 1958
Another song crucial to discussions of the best Irish Songs is “The Patriot Game.”
These days, it’s something or Ireland’s unofficial anthem. But when Dominic Behan released it, he intended it as a cautionary tale about the dangers of becoming overwhelmed by nationalistic pride.
Despite this, it’s a favorite across Ireland, and often gets sung at sporting events. St. Patrick’s Day wouldn’t be complete without it.
31. “The Minstrel” Boy by John McDermott
Song Year: 1992
“The Minstrel Boy” is another old but popular Irish song for St. Patrick’s Day.
Thomas Moore wrote the song. In a case of life imitating art, he was dubbed “The Minstrel Boy” by others as a reflection of his prolific musical publications.
Moore set the tune to a popular Irish melody of the time, and after his death, it was usual to find the score embossed with a shamrock.
Like many of the best Irish songs, this one is mournful and nostalgic. What sets it apart from others is its treatment of war. There’s no glorious hope for the future.
There is no triumphal victory of the cause. Instead, the Minstrel, who went to war to play his harp, experiences a life of silence and slavery when he comes home.
It’s an unexpectedly thoughtful meditation on what violence does to those who embrace and survive it.
32. “Eileen Aroon” by The Corrie Folk Trio
Song Year: 1963
Here’s another Irish song with Scottish roots. “Eileen Aroon” is a reconfiguration of “Robin Adair.”
That often happened with early Scottish and Irish music because their musicians were nomadic, so a tune that began in one part of the country slowly migrated to another.
“Eileen Aroon” remains one of the best Irish songs there is. It’s slow, sentimental, and a moving love song.
33.” Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms” by Joni James
Song Year: 1996
If you aren’t ambitious enough to dance to the Irish reels, then “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms” is the best Irish song for you.
It’s another Thomas Moore composition. He wrote it for his wife, who was suffering from smallpox. It’s a touching reflection on the enduring nature of love and a beautiful waltz for dancers.
34. “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” by Charles Villiers Stanford
Song Year: 1972
Hymnody might seem an unlikely choice for one of the best Irish songs for St Patrick’s Day. But at its core, the holiday is about Patrick bringing the Catholics to Ireland.
Besides, St. Patrick makes for some excellent stories. His most famous tells of him driving the snakes out of Ireland. Even without that, this is an exuberant, operatic tune that sounds wonderful, whether belted out in church or at the local pub.
35. “Galway Girl” by Ed Sheeran
Song Year: 2017
Ed Sheeran’s “Galway Girl” is another song for St Patrick’s Day. Sheeran wrote it in collaboration with the Irish folk artist Beoga. Consequently, the song draws heavily on imagery and themes from Irish folk songs.
One of the reasons it’s ideal for St Patrick’s Day is that Sheeran chose that day to announce its inclusion on his then-upcoming album.
36. “Follow Me Up to Carlow” by Planxty
Song Year: 1973
Supposedly “Follow Me Up to Carlow” began as a marching tune for Irish armies to keep in time with each other.
It celebrates an Irish victory over the English. And while nominally St. Patrick’s Day is about a saint and his miracles, for many, it is also about celebrating their Irish heritage.
The unlikely history of “Follow Me Up to Carlow” makes it ideal for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
37. “Wind That Shakes the Barley/The Reel with the Beryle” by The Chieftains
Song Year: 1978
The best Irish songs get the singers not just singing but dancing. The Chieftain’s medley of classic melodies handily proves that point.
As you listen, note the distinctive Irish instruments. There’s a bodhran keeping time, pipes on the melody, and occasionally the high-floating penny whistle for harmony.
Top Irish Songs Of All Time, Final Thoughts
The best Irish songs vary wildly. Many are political. Some are fast-paced and encourage you to dance. Yet others are slow and nostalgic.
Whatever the tempo, what comes through in all of them is a fierce love of Ireland, as a country and a people.