Best Christy Moore Songs: 20 Irish Classics

Christy Moore’s best songs all connect in one way to his homeland of Ireland. This introduction explains why he’s such a beloved figure.

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Christy Moore
Photo: Samir Hussein/Getty Images

Christy Moore, one of the most inspirational musicians Ireland has ever produced, has been a key part of the evolution of modern Irish roots music for more than half a century. He is a superb interpreter of songs by other musicians, and a compelling solo performer, acclaimed for his own uniquely humorous tracks. As well as his solo career, he helped found two of the seminal bands of the Irish folk renaissance: the traditional Planxty and the innovative folk-rock fusion band Moving Hearts.

Moore has created defining versions of folk classics, as well as accumulating a vast repertoire of powerful political songs, all sung with a burning desire to draw attention to the plight of the oppressed and the underdog. Elvis Costello, U2’s Bono, and Sinéad O’Connor are just three of the modern music greats who have been influenced by Moore, who likens himself to “the old ballad singer who used to carry the news to the people.” He has lived a tumultuous life – he’s talked openly about his recovery from the ravages of alcoholism and drug addiction – and created a great legacy of music.

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Listen to the best songs by Christy Moore on Spotify and Apple Music.

Traditional folk

(The Well Below the Valley, The Curragh of Kildare, Lanigan’s Ball, Tippin’ It Up To Nancy, Little Musgrave)

Christopher Andrew Moore, the older brother of folk singer Luka Bloom, was born in Newbridge, County Kildare, on May 7, 1945. He grew up in a musical household and started out by playing rock ‘n’ roll songs on the piano. He once said that The Clancy Brothers, a traditional Irish band, changed his life. Their music made him realize that Irish folk could be “every bit as exciting as rock.”

At 21, Moore left his job as a bank clerk to move to England and begin a quest to be a professional musician. After working on building sites and in factories, he made his breakthrough on the folk club circuit. And, by 1969, he had developed a solid enough reputation to be signed by Universal Music’s Mercury label. His debut album, Paddy on the Road, which was produced by the famous Irish writer Dominic Behan, included a stirring version of “The Curragh of Kildare,” a traditional classic written by Scottish poet Robbie Burns. Moore devised the chorus now used by most folk singers who perform it. The song, a Glasgow woman’s lament for a man who has left to be a soldier in Ireland, showed his ability to convey the sorrow of ordinary people, using all the subtleties of his rich, soft voice.

The best songs gathered in his early career – including the haunting ballad “The Well Below the Valley,” a song he learned from John Reilly – remained cherished favorites throughout his career. Moore, who possesses a powerfully rhythmic guitar style, also excels on the Bodhrán. He played this traditional Irish drum on the engaging 19th-century dance song “Lanigan’s Ball.” His version for Paddy on the Road featured Barney McKenna, from The Dubliner’s, on tenor banjo. One of Moore’s gifts as an interpreter of traditional songs is the way he makes them his own, including his cover of “Tippin’ It Up To Nancy” – a bawdy traditional song his mother Nancy particularly enjoyed – and the sweeping betrayal ballad “Little Musgrave.”

Celebrating Ireland

(The Cliffs of Doneen, The Galtee Mountain Boy, Only Our Rivers Run Free, Irish Ways and Irish Laws)

When Christy Moore returned to Ireland in 1971, he wanted to record with “Irish musicians who had more feeling for the songs.” For his second album Prosperous – named after the County Kildare town in which it was recorded – he was joined by folk maestros Dónal Lunny (guitar, bouzouki), Andy Irvine (mandolin, harmonica), and Liam O’Flynn (tin whistle, uilleann pipes). The collaboration was an immediate success. Their beautiful version of “The Cliffs of Doneen,” a classic ballad of nostalgic yearning, was released as a single and went straight to number three in the Irish charts.

They decided to form Planxty, a native expression for a Celtic melody, a band that represented the best of Irish music, preserving its inherent beauty, yet treating it with a rare freshness and originality. The band later recorded their own live version of “The Cliffs of Doneen,” which you can find on the DVD disc of the excellent boxset Planxty – Between the Jigs and the Reels: A Retrospective.

Moore has been adept at conveying the appeal of Ireland’s natural environment, its valleys and green hills, and the part that love of the land played in national mythology. In songs such as “Galtee Mountain Boy,” which he sang as a teenager at parties and which he memorably performed live on RTÉ in 1979, and “Only Our Rivers Run Free,” he captured the appeal of Ireland’s natural beauty in lyrics that were also making political points.

By the time Moore formed the experimental Moving Hearts in 1981, a band that included talented guitarist Declan Sinnott and pipes player Davy Spillane, Moore’s political interests were more prominent. He said he “needed some relevance in my work,” something he found in “Irish Ways and Irish Laws.” John Gibbs penned the lyrics on the back of a cigarette packet and handed them to Moore after a gig at the famous Baggot Inn in Dublin. “We were so taken with it that we started rehearsing it the same night and two years later found that it had passed into the tradition,” recalled Moore. “Of all the songs I have ever done ‘Irish Ways and Irish Laws’ and ‘Only Our Rivers Run Free’ were the songs that became part of the general Irish repertoire in a very quick time.”

Protest songs

(Hey Sandy, Sacco and Vanzetti, The Moving On Song, Ordinary Man)

When talking about the best songs by Christy Moore, you must include protest songs. Moore regularly includes compositions by Woody Guthrie and Ewan McColl songs among his repertoire – and he stands out as an artist who refuses to shy away from taboo topics. Moore has written and performed songs about the Holocaust, sexual abuses in the Catholic Church, Ronald Reagan’s presidential failings, the strip-searching of women in Armagh Prison, the needless deaths of Chinese cockle pickers, and the threat of nuclear power and the arms race. He tackles songs about injustice and inequality with passion and compassion.

The 1978 Tara album Live in Dublin includes a stunning version of “Hey Sandy,” a song written by Harvey Andrews from Birmingham, England, about one of the four students shot dead by the National Guard at Kent State University during a protest against the Vietnam War. Moore has explored American history in other songs, including his cover of Guthrie’s protest song “Sacco and Vanzetti,” about two Italian activists who were executed in 1926. “They were given a pardon in 1976 on the 50th anniversary of their death. The American government admitted that Sacco and Vanzetti had been framed,” Moore explained in The Christy Moore Songbook.

Throughout his career, Moore has played his own invaluable part in the endurance of the ballad as a form of cultural resistance. His version of McColl’s “The Moving On Song” (sometimes known as “Go, Move, Shift”) is a fine example of Moore’s ability to conjure up his own powerful, touching take on a great song about the hardships and victimization of traveling people. Moore first covered “The Moving On Song” on his third solo album, Whatever Tickles Your Fancy, and it became a staple of his live shows for decades. Moore’s potent, empathic version of “Ordinary Man,” a plaintive song about Margaret Thatcher’s brutal employment cuts in 1980s Britain, transformed Grimsby songwriter Peter Hames’s little-known song into a genuine modern protest classic.

The tender troubadour

(Nancy Spain, Black is the Colour (Of My True Love’s Hair), Bogey’s Bonnie Belle)

In his best tender songs, Christy Moore is one of those rare singers who makes it sound as if they are singing directly to the listener. He brings the same conviction and empathy to ballads that he does to his angriest songs. In 1969, Moore played a gig at a club in St. Helier on the island of Jersey. The resident singer at the club was Barney Rush, a writer originally from Sallynoggin. “When I heard him sing ‘Nancy Spain,’ I was instantly smitten by this beautiful song,” said Moore. He made a recording of Rush singing it, and kept the tape in a drawer for nearly ten years before he created his own version. “I suppose it has become the best known song in my repertoire,” he added.

Moore’s interpretations of old love songs have the power to stir something in your soul every time you listen to them, especially in his performances of “Black is the Colour (Of My True Love’s Hair),” a traditional song covered by musicians as diverse as Burl Ives and Nina Simone, and one he learned while on tour in Scotland in the 1960s. Another of Moore’s great love songs is his interpretation of the sorrowful 19th-century classic “Bogey’s Bonnie Belle,” which is about a farm laborer who gets his employer’s daughter Belle pregnant in a doomed love affair. Few can match the intensity of Moore’s singing on rousing ballads of yesteryear.

Christy Moore’s fun songs

(Joxer Goes to Stuttgart, The Crack Was Ninety in the Isle of Man, Delirium Tremens, Lisdoonvarna)

Christy Moore finds humor in everything from football, politics, drinking, and the class system to the “miracle” airport built in Knock and supposedly secretly funded by NATO. Although his songs are often serious and plaintive, some of the best are witty and sardonic. A Christy Moore concert ranges in content from heartbreak to comedy, from human fallibility to political corruption. There is always great “craic,” laughter, and emotion at his gigs – one of the reasons that some of his best albums are his live ones. Moore’s sharpened wit is deployed to expose the quirks of human nature in the anthemic “Joxer Goes to Stuttgart,” about a group of Irish fans in 1988 who travel to the European football championships.

Moore has talked candidly about his past problems – admitting he “sought oblivion” in a frenzy of alcohol and drugs that led to a “total nervous breakdown” in 1997. Even though he has been clean for quarter of a century, he has continued to sing humorous songs about drink, including his cover of Rush’s “The Crack Was Ninety in the Isle of Man,” which is about a group of young men on holiday and the “mighty session” they have in a pub called Dick Darbies.

Moore’s own hilariously satirical “Delirium Tremens” is about the hallucinations he suffered after a bout of drinking. The song is full of offbeat lines that resonated with a public who knew the references. For example, there was a famous Guinness advert showing a man holding a drink while on a surfboard, something Moore lampooned in the lines, “As I sat lookin’ up the Guinness ad/I could never figure out/How your man stayed up on the surfboard/After 14 pints of stout.”

Moore’s gift for a clever turn-of-phrase (he is a natural ad-libber on stage) and flights of fancy came together to produce his comic masterpiece “Lisdoonvarna,” a song so infused with mocking social commentary and striking imagery that it gained entry in The Penguin Book of Irish Verse, alongside the poems of W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney. The anthology editor described “Lisdoonvarna” as a “burlesque on 1980s Irish public life.” The song, about a now-defunct music festival in a small spa town in County Clare, is a tour-de-force in his live shows and one of the many reasons he was named Ireland’s “Greatest Living Musician” in RTE’s People of the Year Awards in 2007. Christy Moore is truly a unique figure in modern music.

Think we missed one of Christy Moore’s best songs? Let us know in the comments below.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Georgina Jones

    June 7, 2021 at 6:06 pm

    Hello
    Love the article & Videos.
    Where may we purchase Christy Moore Music Sheets for Guitar, Please?
    Desperately trying to Purchase sheet music or a book, for My dad, as a gift. He is a musician & Loooves Christy. I’d love to surprise him.
    thank you.

    GalwaygGirlGina

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