FolkWorld #50 03/2013
© Seán Laffey

Songs That Made History

Christmas 2012 and the Dubliners made their final appearance in their native town. After 50 years as a ballad group and with none of the original members remaining it was time to put the instruments back in their cases and take a well earned rest. Have you ever wondered, of all their ballads, which one song gave the Dubliners their start?


I've been a wild rover for many's the year
I've spent all me money on whiskey and beer
But now I'm returning with gold in great store
And I never will play the wild rover no more

 And it's no, nay, never
 No, nay, never, no more
 Will I play the wild rover
 No never no more

I went in to an alehouse I used to frequent
And I told the landlady me money was spent
I asked her for credit, she answered me "nay
Such a customer as you I can have any day"

I took up from my pocket ten souvereigns bright
And the landlady's eyes opened wide with delight
She says "I have whiskeys and wines of the best
And the words that you told me were only in jest"

I'll go home to my parents, confess what I've done
and I'll ask them to pardon their prodigal son
And when they've caressed me as oft times before
I never will play the wild rover no more

 Listen to The Wild Rover from:
    Mick West, Maeve Mackinnon

 Watch The Wild Rover from:
    The Dubliners (2012)
    Ronnie Drew, Luke Kelly

The Dubliners, Tønder 2002

Dubliners @ FolkWorld:
FW#23, #37, #39, #41, #44, #48, #50 |

The Wild Rover

Perhaps it is The Wild Rover, a song that at one time was dubbed the second National Anthem of Ireland. A cautionary tale in which a prodigal repents his wayward adventures.

Somehow when the Dubs sang it, we got a feeling that, the cry "No Nay Never", was the black grip of a porter hangover, soon to be chased away with ball of malt and a pint of the cure.

So where did the song originate? Let's take the Dubliners as our starting point and box around the compass from there.

It was the opening track on their debut album, released in 1964, in the days when they were a four piece (before John Sheehan joined on fiddle). It has been sung since then any time a few Irishmen meet to celebrate hatching, matching or dispatching.

The Dubliners probably got the song from Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger's 1960 album The Singing Island. MacColl had collected it from the Norfolk fisherman Sam Larner in 1959 and it was the final track on Larner's 1961 album Now is the Time for Fishing. Larner wasn't always to be trusted when it comes to a song's provenance. MacColl sang his newly composed Shoals of Herring to Larner who immediately replied to its author: "Oive known that song all me loife..."

Perhaps Larner had the Wild Rover from A.L. Lloyd's 1958 album Across the Western Plain? The simple fact is the song was doing the rounds of English folk clubs at the height of the folk revival. Newcastle singer Louis Killen took the Wild Rover from London to America and taught it to the Clancy's, such was the fluidity of folk in the early 1960's.

Ronnie Drew

Before LP's, there was print, the Wild Rover is known from mid-19th century American song sheets where its puritanical character was championed. Earlier still it can be found on broadsides from the London printer Catnach, which are undated but are certainly before 1838.

Trace a trail further back and we end up around 1670 with Thomas Lanfiere, a writer of sombre disposition, whose songs are warnings to lead a good and godly life. The prototype Wild Rover is Lanfiere's original 13-verse song. Reprinted in 1889 as part of the Hertford Ballad Society's Roxburghe Ballads. Lanfiere's song had a long winding title: The Good Fellow's Resolution; Or, The Bad Husband's Return from his Folly being a Caveat for all Spend-Thrifts to beware of the Main Chance. One verse runs as follows:

I have been a bad busband this full fifteen year
And have spent many pounds in good ale and strong beer.
I have ranted in ale-houses day after day
And wasted my time and my money away
But now I'll beware, and have a great care
Lest at the last poverty falls to my share
For now I will lay up my money in store,
And I never will play the bad husband no more.

The Dubliners made The Wild Rover Irish by association. It sits comfortably with an open gregarious and hospitable Celtic nature, combining camaraderie with a delicious sting of guilt. George Best, the infamous Belfast footballer, took its message to heart when he summed up his own career: "I spent most of my money on booze and women and the rest I just squandered!"

The Wild Rover


As I was going over far fam'd Kerry Mountains
I met with Captain Farrell and his money he was countin'
I first produced my pistol, and I then produced my rapier
Sayin': "Stand and deliver for you are my bold deceiver"

 Musha ring dum a doo dum a da
 Whack fol de daddy Oh
 Whack fol de daddy Oh
 There's whiskey in the jar

I counted out his money and it made a pretty penny
I put it in my pocket, and I took it home to Jenny
She sighed and she swore that she never would deceive me
But the devil takes the women for they never can be easy

I went into my chamber all for to take a slumber
I dreamt of gold and jewels and for sure it was no wonder
But Jenny drew my charges and she filled them up with water
Then sent for Captain Farrell to be ready for the slaughter

'Twas early in the morning just before I rose to travel
Up comes a band of fottmen and liekwise Captain Farrell
I first produced my pistol for she stole away my rapier
But I couldn't shoot the water, so a prisoner I was taken

If anyone can aid me 'tis my brother in the army
If I can fidn his station in Cork or in Killarney
And if he'll go with me we'll go roving in Kilkenny
And I'm sure he'll treat me better than my darling sporting Jenny

 Listen to Whiskey in the Jar from:
    Brian Roebuck, ThingumaJig 

 Watch Whiskey in the Jar from:
    The Dubliners (2012)
    Seán Cannon, Luke Kelly

Whiskey in the Jar

The most common version of this song was made popular in the 1960's by the Dubliners, who had it from Colm O'Loughlin, author of Irish Street Ballads. Contrary to popular belief the Clancy brothers never recorded this song, it was left to Liam Clancy to put it onto CD with Robbie O'Connell and Donal Clancy. In their version Liam shifted the action to the leafy highlands of the Kilmoganny Mountains which lie a few miles north of his native Carrick on Suir.

Luke Kelly

The song evolved in the Victorian musical halls and by the 1850's it had acquired its chorus, at this time the story became centred on the mistrustful relationship the narrator has with his "Sporting Jenny".

So how much truth is there in the song, how far do we have to step back to find and original version, and was there a Jenny?

For a sensational history consult "The Complete Newgate Calendar (or Malefactor's Bloody Register)" which was first published in five volumes by R. Sanders in 1760. It retells the details of crimes and their punishment up to that date. The preface to the first volume claimed "it will not be just a bare recital of grisly facts, but a book fraught with the romance and colour of human lives which, if not always of the most exalted, are certainly among the most vivid."

In that volume there is the story of Patrick Fleming, "An Irish Highwayman who held Sway near the Bog of Allen and, after numerous Murders, was executed On 24th of April, 1650."

Barney McKenna

Fleming was a servant in the employ of the Catholic Lord Antrim, but after an embarrassing incident with the family priest he was banished from the house, he left taking £200 (about €370,000 in today's money). He fled to Athenry and began a life of serious crime, including six years in a gang of housebreakers in Dublin, where his exploits were "so great as to make him the subject of public conversation all over the city."

As a highwayman he had a particular fondness for the clergy, among his victims were the Archbishops of Armagh and Tuam and the Bishop of Rapho. He kidnapped the four year old son of Lady Baltimore, "whom he took from her, and obliged her to send him a ransom within twenty four hours, or else, he told her, he would cut the young puppy's throat and make a pie of him."

He was captured in Cork, sentenced to be hanged but escaped from the jail by climbing up a chimney. He continued his evil ways until one night together with fourteen members of his gang they lodged at an Inn in Maynooth. The inn keeper added water to the ruffians' black powder chargers (alas there was no Jenny to do this). The inn keeper then sent for the local Sherriff, who arrived, surrounded the inn with a force of men and Patrick and his gang were taken off to Dublin to wait the pleasure of the law.

A broadside ballad was composed to commemorate the life and times of this highwayman, called "Patrick Flemmen he was a Valiant Souldier". It became the template for Whiskey in the Jar.

Whiskey in the Jar

The Dubliners The Dubliners The Dubliners

First published @ Irish Music Magazine #215, March 2013, and #186, July 2010, respectively (

Photo Credits: (1)-(2), (4)-(5), (7)-(9) The Dubliners (Walkin' Tom, unknown); (3) "The Wild Rover", (6) "Whiskey in the Jar" (unknown).

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