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Pub Music of Ireland and Britain

James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.

Traditional pub session

Traditional pub session

The Beloved Tradition of Drinking Songs

Loud, boisterous, off-key, and sung, obviously, while drinking. What's not to love about pub music and drinking songs?

Even someone like myself can enjoy partaking in drinking songs, and I have the singing voice of two cats fighting in a one-cat-sized tin bucket. This grand tradition has been handed down to us through the centuries, that of the pub session and its drinking songs. Who doesn’t love the mixture of stout and congenial music? Certainly not I, as a Guinness-guzzling guitarist.

Although it’s a wondrous event that has been going on since the advent of, well, music and alcohol, its written history for the isles of the northwest of Europe is quite sparse until a couple of hundred years ago, with a few notable exceptions.

William Shakespeare, in the 16th century, makes note of it in Henry IV. There are excellent paintings from the same era as well. Even earlier, although from continental Europe, is the Carmina Burana, written in the 1100s, tells of boozing clergymen through song, even if this is a bit different than pub songs. In the latter half of the 1800s and into the early 1900s, songbooks were being printed that contained drinking songs and we have a fair bit more to go on.

Join me for a small excursion into the history of pub music and drinking songs in the Celtic and Anglo lands.

The Way You Hear It (Jan Steen 1663-1665)

The Way You Hear It (Jan Steen 1663-1665)

“When We Are in the Tavern”

This is an excerpt from “When We Are in the Tavern” (from the Carmina Burana):

“First of all it is to the wine-merchant

the libertines drink,

one for the prisoners,

three for the living,

four for all Christians,

five for the faithful dead,

six for the loose sisters,

seven for the footpads in the wood,

Eight for the errant brethren,

nine for the dispersed monks,

ten for the seamen,

eleven for the squabblers,

twelve for the penitent

thirteen for the wayfarers.”

Traditional Irish Music Session at Tig Coili Galway.

Traditional Irish Music Session at Tig Coili Galway.

Drinking Songs of Ireland

Irish pub culture is a thing unto itself. It’s not just an occasional thing, but a way of life. There are standard rules of pub etiquette that all are expected to know, including the length of time to let your Guinness settle to “buying one’s round.” There should be no wonder that this way of life includes pub music and drinking songs.

Traditionally, such songs were not sung in pubs. Rather, they were part of a story-telling tradition where tales were told by the fireside. Friends and family would gather together in the dark evenings and share stories, in-between which there would be music. It is this oral story-telling tradition, helped by Ireland’s agricultural economy and general insularity, which has helped Irish folk music hold its own and stay popular, especially when compared to other countries.

The first wave of traditional Irish music stared in the late 1800s with the foundation of the Gaelic League and by Nationalistic calls for independence. Not only was a breakaway from England wanted, but a breakaway from all European mainstream culture.

Then, in the 1960s, with the folk revival, the singing moved into the pubs. This second wave started in the 1960s, with the aim of preserving traditional Irish music, and was certainly helped by the 1951 establishment of the Irish Traditional Music Association (Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann).

Now, most of the time the music is accompanied, such as with the guitar in the early years, but having grown to typically include traditional Irish instruments, including the Uilleann pipes, tin whistle, and fiddle, lending even more folk authenticity. There are many Irish folk songs that are to be sung unaccompanied, however. This can be difficult to achieve in a pub, as the music is atmospheric and not the main reason for visiting the establishment, and thus is difficult to hear over the general noise. Interestingly enough, it is the solo performance (called “sean nós”, meaning “in the old style”) that is considered the true Irish folk form, with bands starting to take over in the mid-1800s.

While there may be a house band or touring band that plays, one of the most popular ways to play Irish pub music is through a pub session. These sessions are simple get-togethers of local musicians, usually with a person or two in charge to keep the songs flowing. These pub sessions have become so popular that, in Ireland and countries that include a large number of the Irish diaspora, many Irish pubs (and, as the author can attest to personally, brewpubs) have open session night, where any musician can come and play, as long as the musicians know a couple songs and aren’t disruptive. The point is musical companionship and conviviality, sometimes even to the point of not even remembering there is an audience watching!

Irish folk music

Irish folk music

Although typically held in pubs, taverns, public houses, and the like, it’s not uncommon to have sessions at a person’s house, a practice called bothántiocht, nor is it uncommon to see such a session in a beer tent at festivals and even at wakes. The subject of death itself, whether at a wake or a pub, is not out of bounds in the Irish drinking song, as exemplified by the song “Finnegan’s Wake:”

"Finnegan's Wake"

“One morning Tim was father full

His head felt heavy which made him shake.

He fell off the ladder and broke his skull

And they carried him home, his corpse to wake.

Rolled him up nice, clean sheet

Laid him out upon the bed

With a bottle of whiskey at his feet

And a barrel of porter at his head.”

Even though Celtic rock and Celtic punk fall a bit outside the realm of “pub session music,” I’d be remiss not to mention the genres. After all, Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey in the Jar” is a great rock version of a traditional Irish song and the band Horslips (formed in 1970) did a great job of utilizing Irish folk music and mythology. Celtic Punk, in the form of Ireland’s own The Pogues and bands such as Dropkick Murphy’s from the United States typify the Irish spirit.

"Whiskey in the Jar": Excerpt

“As I was a goin' over the far famed Kerry mountains
I met with captain Farrell and his money he was counting
I first produced my pistol and I then produced my rapier
Saying "Stand and deliver" for he were a bold deceiver

Mush-a ring dum-a do dum-a da
Whack for my daddy-o.
Whack for my daddy-o
There's whiskey in the jar.”

Irish Folk Session - The Old Dubliner

Irish Folk Session - The Old Dubliner

And while there is always time to drink while listening to traditional folk music, the traditional songs can be a bit slow for a drinking song. Drinking music itself is notably faster with rhythms that allow for the waving of the pint, such as Jimmy Carbomb’s (aka J Parkinson) "Whiskey-Bailey’s-Guinness".


“Take a pint of Guinness and watch the waterfall
Drink it halfway down and stop you dare not drink it all
Take half a shot of whiskey make Jameson the call,
Then top the shot with Bailey's get ready for a ball.

Line those glasses up, me boys, it's time to face the fray,
If you ain't got the gonads get up and walk away.
Drop that shot right in the beer, then quickly drink it down,
Last one empty on the bar will buy another round.

Oh vodka's in the bottle and rum is in the flask,
I've got a shot of brandy, and tequila in my glass
Imported wines from off the vines will sometimes serve the task
But Whiskey-Bailey's-Guinness will knock me on my ass.”

More Irish folk session music from the Old Dubliner.

More Irish folk session music from the Old Dubliner.

Drinking Songs of Scotland

Pub sessions can also include traditional Scottish music, although the instruments and style are very similar to the Irish. Perhaps most notable is the addition of the bagpipes, even if that instrument is now becoming very familiar in Irish sessions, as well.

More so, among the Scots and Northern Irish (although becoming very popular across Ireland now and has been popular in America and other Scottish diaspora regions) is the cèilidh (pronounced kay-lee). This is a traditional Scottish social gathering with Gaelic folk music and dancing. Originally it was a term for any social gathering (from Old Irish “céle,” meaning “companion”), and did not have to involve dancing, but did involve storytelling and poems, as well as singing being performed. Music and dancing are the primary aspects of the modern cèilidh, whether at a private residence or at a public house (pub), with the music being performed on traditional instruments. The dancing is also traditional and includes reels and jigs. As is with Irish pub sessions, it is considered rude and impolite to make fun of anyone’s dancing at a cèilidh. The point is to be merry and socialize with those around you!

Scottish ceilidh and ceilidh dances

Scottish ceilidh and ceilidh dances

Drinking Songs of England and America

In 1600s England, drinking songs, were used to create a bond between the patrons in attendance. It was part of good fellowship, and also helped reinforce social norms through the lyrics, such as courtship rituals, marriage, and moral guidance. The lyrics could be more imaginative, though, with some lyrics discussing sensational murders or chivalry. Pub owners would do their part by nailing broadsheets, containing the words, to the walls.

Tavern singing and dancing were important aspects of Colonial America. The music was very similar to Britain’s, seeing as the culture was the same, just separated by an ocean, with the songs and broadsides on the British side being exported across the Atlantic. In addition, the music, as well as toasts, were a way of bringing together people of different backgrounds, as individuals from across the British Isles could find themselves in the same American town. Of course, sometimes this backfired and fights ensued, rather than harmony. Even after the Revolution, America’s national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” comes from an English drinking song, “The Anacreontic Song,” by John Stafford Smith. Anacreon, by the way, was a Greek lyric poet noted for his own drinking songs and hymns, showing that drinking to music is a worldwide phenomenon.

“The Anacreontic Song"

To Anacreon in Heav'n, where he sat in full Glee,

A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,

That he their Inspirer and Patron would be;

When this answer arriv'd from the Jolly Old Grecian

Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,

no longer be mute,

I'll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,

And, besides I'll instruct you, like me, to intwine

The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."

Colonial Tavern - from Samuel Johnson's "Selected Essays" (1750s)

Colonial Tavern - from Samuel Johnson's "Selected Essays" (1750s)

Filk Music: A New Genre

Even geek culture has gotten in on the act with the musical genre Filk. Filk is the wonderful blend of folk music with science fiction, fantasy, and horror. There are drinking songs, song to the tune of the traditional Irish and others, about Doctor Who, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Cthulhu, and Lord of the Rings. My personal favorite artist is Marc Gunn, whose albums Don’t Go Drinking With Hobbits and Sci-Fi Drinking Songs are phenomenal, in my only-semi-humble opinion.

Marc produces a weekly podcast “Irish and Celtic Music Podcast,” and there you can find all of the genres listed above, if you’re interested in traditional Gaelic music, drinking songs, or Filk. I suggest you give it a try. I listen to it every week, and so this isn’t a commercial plug (he’s not paying me), but rather one of enjoyment.

Marc Gunn's "Don't Go Drinking With Hobbits" (used with permission)

Author's own (partial) collection

Author's own (partial) collection

Final Bits

"But, James!" I hear you exclaim. "You've talked a lot about traditional music and drinking songs, but the title is 'Pub Songs.' What's up with that?"

Well, dear brutes, they're one and the same. Traditional folk music is very much fair play at Irish pubs and Scottish dances and English public houses. Drinking songs are pub songs that are typically faster, but not always. Who hasn't sipped their stout or whiskey while listening to heart-wrenching versions of "Song for Ireland" or "Auld Lang Syne"?

So then! Across centuries, across oceans, and across the countrysides, pub music and drinking songs are a way to reinforce good-natured fun. Now go have a beer and sing! Whether you are at a pub, a friend’s house, or your own home, raise a pint and raise your voice. Slainte!

Not just "slainte," but "slainte mhaith!"

Spock (Leonard Nimoy) playing "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins."

Spock (Leonard Nimoy) playing "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins."

© 2018 James Slaven