A proud, passionate country steeped in folklore, Ireland has lived through a turbulent history and frequently felt the hot breath of oppression. Yet the nation is also well known as the land of saints and scholars, so it’s no surprise the Irish have frequently excelled in the power of song. As we celebrate St Patrick’s Day, let’s drink to that unquenchably fiery Celtic spirit by enjoying 11 of the best Irish songs, from some of the most legendary Irish musicians to walk the earth.
Van Morrison: Cyprus Avenue (from Astral Weeks, 1968)
Arguably the centerpiece of Van Morrison’s sophomore solo LP, Astral Weeks, “Cyprus Avenue” is a heady, seven-minute fusion of blues, jazz, and folk which references an actual street in Morrison’s hometown of Belfast. Its influential parent album has since been cited as a touchstone by artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello, and remains an inspiration to all Irish musicians who have followed it.
Rory Gallagher: Tattoo’d Lady (from Irish Tour ’74, 1974)
Unlike many musicians who avoided Northern Ireland during the Troubles-torn 70s, Belfast-born, Cork-raised blues-rock trailblazer Rory Gallagher made a point of playing north of the border whenever he toured. Arguably the closest Gallagher got to trapping his lightning in a bottle was on the brilliant Irish Tour ’74 live double-album, which features the blazing “Tattoo’d Lady” and proves why Gallagher is one of the most revered Irish musicians of all time.
Thin Lizzy: The Boys Are Back In Town (from Jailbreak, 1976)
Led by the charismatic Phil Lynott, Dublin stalwarts Thin Lizzy threatened to go global after their funky cover of the traditional Irish ballad “Whiskey In The Jar” hit the UK Top 10 in 1973. They finally made the US Top 20 with their signature hit “The Boys Are Back In Town:” an ageless hard rock anthem full of characteristic Lynott bravado and thrilling interplay from lead guitar duo Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson.
The Undertones: Teenage Kicks (from The Undertones, 1979)
Forever synonymous with John Peel, The Undertones’ first single, “Teenage Kicks,” reputedly made the BBC Radio 1 DJ cry tears of happiness when he first heard it in September 1978. Though out of step with the nihilism of punk, this delectable, lovelorn punk-pop anthem also scored the Derry quintet a deal with Seymour Stein’s Sire imprint and was followed by a further clutch of classic singles including “Jimmy Jimmy” and “My Perfect Cousin.”
The Boomtown Rats: Banana Republic (from Mondo Bongo, 1981)
The Boomtown Rats’ signature hit remains their November ’78 UK chart-topper “Rat Trap,” yet the Dun Laoghaire new wavers’ most unsung moment is surely “Banana Republic,” an infectious reggae/ska-flavored track over which outspoken frontman Bob Geldof launched a scathing attack on political corruption in Ireland. Despite the song’s content, it still peaked at No.3 in the UK and went silver.
Clannad: Theme From Harry’s Game (from Magical Ring, 1983)
Hailing from Gweedore in remote but beautiful County Donegal, Clannad’s lengthy career has spanned five decades and their elusive muse has absorbed elements of traditional folk, jazz, pop, and ambient music. Their ethereal signature song remains “Theme From Harry’s Game.” Originally used in the Yorkshire TV series Harry’s Game, it’s still the only UK Top 10 hit sung entirely in Irish.
U2: With Or Without You (from The Joshua Tree, 1987)
As Rolling Stone so succinctly put it, U2’s fifth album, the Brian Eno – and Daniel Lanois-produced The Joshua Tree, turned the Dublin quartet “from heroes to superstars,” making them arguably the most famous group of Irish musicians in history. Released as that landmark record’s first single, the glorious, aching ballad “With Or Without You” topped the US Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks and set The Joshua Tree on course for global sales of over 25 million copies.
Aslan: This Is (from Feel No Shame, 1988)
Full of gritty anthems including the evergreen “This Is,” Aslan’s debut, Feel No Shame, went gold in Ireland, and the band seemed prepared to follow their Dublin neighbors U2 into the mainstream. Sadly, personal problems threatened to derail them, but Aslan survived, and they have maintained a fanatical fanbase at home and abroad – including U2 themselves, who recorded an inspired cover of “This Is” in honor of the group.
My Bloody Valentine: Feed Me With Your Kiss (from Isn’t Anything, 1988)
Akin to sonic terrorists The Jesus And Mary Chain, proto-shoegazing Dublin quartet My Bloody Valentine somehow married delicious pop melodies with coruscating white noise. One of the most groundbreaking outfits of the late 80s, their twin peaks remain debut Isn’t Anything and 1991’s startling Loveless. As anyone who witnessed it can attest, Isn’t Anything stand-out “Feed Me With Your Kiss” was always devastatingly good live.
The Cranberries: Zombie (from No Need To Argue, 1994)
Though much darker in hue than their breakthrough debut, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, Limerick quartet The Cranberries’ second LP, No Need To Argue, nonetheless sold a whopping 17 million copies worldwide. Arguably its most affecting moment remains “Zombie,” a dense, IRA-related protest song powered by Dolores O’Riordan’s keening, angst-fueled vocal – a formidable instrument in and of itself, and which has contributed to a stunning body of work left behind by the late, and deeply missed, singer.
Therapy?: Nowhere (from Troublegum, 1994)
Their mainstream breakthrough, Therapy?’s fourth LP, Troublegum, scooped the prestigious Mercury Music Prize for the hard-working Northern Irish trio. Deftly straddling metal, angsty alt-rock, and blazing punk-pop, the album eventually sold over a million copies and yielded three UK Top 30 hits, including the irrepressible “Nowhere.”
The Pogues: Fairytale Of New York (from If I Should Fall From Grace With God, 1988)
Their genealogy suggests we should theoretically refer to The Pogues as ‘Anglo-Irish,’ but has any band has done more to promote Irish culture than these singular Celtic folk firebrands over the past five decades? Certainly we think not. Featuring the much-missed Kirsty MacColl, their Christmas classic, “Fairytale Of New York” will always be their signature song, but really all their Shane MacGowan-fronted albums, from Red Roses For Me to Hell’s Ditch are good enough to broker their admittance here.
The Hothouse Flowers: Don’t Go” (from People, 1988)
The Hothouse Flowers began their career busking on the Dublin streets, but after gaining some heavyweight support (Rolling Stone called them “the best unsigned band in Europe”) they secured a deal with PolyGram subsidiary, London Records. A showcase for frontman Liam Ó Maonlaí’s soulful voice, 1988’s People became Ireland’s most successful debut album, debuting at No. 1 at home and at No. 2 in the UK, and since Amazon Prime’s The Grand Tour featured their cover of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”, The Hothouse Flowers have flourished all over again.
Snow Patrol: Chasing Cars (from Eyes Open, 2006)
Scotland can also lay claim to Snow Patrol in that they formed in Dundee in 1994 and were latterly based in Glasgow. However, four of the band (including frontman Gary Lightbody) hail from Northern Ireland, so they definitely belong in this list. Their lengthy rise to prominence required fortitude, but they broke through with their Fiction Records debut, Final Straw in 2003 and staked a more permanent mainstream claim with 2006 follow-up, Eyes Open. That year’s best-selling UK album, it included Snow Patrol’s signature hit, the plaintive “Chasing Cars”, which achieved the distinction of being named the UK radio’s most played song of the 21st Century in 2019.
Sinead O’Connor: Nothing Compares 2 U (from I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, 1990)
In a 1991 NME interview, Sinead O’Connor memorably said “I’m proud to be a troublemaker.” It’s a great quote, but in retrospect, it’s a shame that some of the various controversies she’s been embroiled in have obscured the fact that she remains one of Ireland’s most singular talents. Away from the hubris, she’s amassed an impressive catalog, with lesser-known gems such as 2002’s Sean-Nós Nua, as well as blockbuster titles I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, featuring her transcendent cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Looking for more? Discover the best Irish musicians of all time.