If there is one song that rock bands visiting Ireland assuredly know will lift up an audience rollercoaster-style and then drop them to the ground, then it is “Whiskey in the Jar.” Best known by generations of music lovers through Thin Lizzy’s boisterous rendition (which gave the band their first, and highest charting, UK hit single in 1973), the song has roots that reach as far back as the 1600s.
The exact origins of the song are unclear. Some agree its storyline of a highwayman deceived by his lady friend echoes that of a broadside ballad dating from the 17th century. In his book The Folk Songs of North America, respected folk music historian Alan Lomax suggested the song’s beginnings were influenced by the era’s common-folk regard for these so-called “gentlemen of the road” that deprived the nobility of their cash and jewels.
The song as we know it today, however, appeared in a mid-19th century broadsheet as “The Sporting Hero,” or “Whiskey in the Bar.” In the late 19th century, meanwhile, according to Irish folklorist and musician Colm Ó Lochlainn, the song (the title of which had morphed into “There’s Whiskey in the Jar”) finally had lyrics similar to the one we know today.
In contemporary terms, “Whiskey in the Jar” first rose to prominence in the 1960s, with the song’s inclusion on the 1962 live album, Encore, by folk group The Highwaymen. Along with New York-based Irish folk/ballad group, The Clancy Brothers, The Highwaymen substantially shaped the early 60s US folk scene, which at that point included aspiring social-commentary songwriters such as Bob Dylan. The same influences all-too inevitably found their way over and, indeed, back to Ireland and beyond.
By the close of the 60s, “Whiskey in the Jar” had become a staple of virtually every traditional Irish music session you chanced upon. Nonetheless, rock musicians and their followers steered clear of the song because it was viewed as a relic of a different time, place, and culture. Such traditional ballad/folk songs sung by people in Aran sweaters and preppy attire were remnants of an era beloved by their parents. And then along came Thin Lizzy.
It began as a joke during a lull in afternoon rehearsals in an upstairs room of the Duke of York pub in London’s King Cross area. Lead singer Phil Lynott had known the song for years, having performed it many times during the 60s in his formative days on Ireland’s folk music circuit. With Thin Lizzy members Eric Bell and Brian Downey taking a breather between songs, Lynott picked up a guitar, singing bits of this song and pieces of that song until he launched into “Whiskey in the Jar.” As they were playing, their Irish co-manager Ted Carroll walked in, noting the song sounded like a potential hit single.
The band was unconvinced, but Lynott’s friendship with the Irish band Horslips – formed in 1970 and pioneers of what has become known as Celtic rock – made Lynott particularly sympathetic to the commercial possibilities of “rocking up” such a well-known traditional folk song. The die was cast, however, when Dick Rowe, head of Decca Records, heard the rearranged song and overthrew the initial decision to include it as a mere B-side to their debut Decca single (“Black Boys On The Corner”).
The rest is Thin Lizzy lore: Released in the winter of 1972, “Whiskey in the Jar” quickly reached the top of the charts in Ireland, but took a few months to achieve chart success in the UK. The song’s commercial success opened necessary doors through which the band would run at full speed, but it soon turned into a creative albatross. Ironically, despite the band’s antipathy towards it, Thin Lizzy’s is now the definitive version, Eric Bell’s guitar lines the template as to how it is now performed.
And for any rock or pop band to endear themselves to an audience, Irish or otherwise, it’s a song for the ages. Just ask Metallica or U2, Bryan Adams or Simple Minds. They’ve all covered it over the years, secure in the knowledge that folks around the world will know it well.
Looking for more? Check out our best Irish songs of all time.