Irish Songs To Love

13th April 2020

Table of Contents

Greetings, music lovers! In this blog, authored by Collie and Niamh, we are going to chat about Irish songs and artists – not the ones that enjoy global fame, but those with which you may be less familiar. We want to take you down a musical road less traveled, but a very rewarding road nonetheless. Now- your faithful bloggers here, Collie and Niamh, do not necessarily share the same taste in music – although we do agree on a lot of must-listen-to stuff, but we are going to try and make this selection eclectic and fun for you. We will shortly be recording an ISAI podcast, and you’ll get a chance to pop into our regular conversation about what we love in Irish culture. You can also read Collie’s Movie blog here, and Niamh’s poetry blog here. This blog will be updated as inspiration strikes us, and will have input from all the team here at the ISAI. This means the quality of writing and taste in music may fluctuate wildly. But the enthusiasm and a wish to spread the word about Irish music, whether new or just new to you, will remain a constant.

Collie here. It has always surprised me that The Cranberries became huge stars globally in the mid-nineties but that Irish bands Something Happens or The Frames, to name two, did not.
This is not to say The Cranberries didn’t deserve their success, but strangely, they did not initially have the same fame in Ireland as they did abroad- and bands, like those mentioned above, were incredibly popular in Ireland, but never made the breakthrough elsewhere.There are hundreds of bands and thousands of songs that have lain under the radar, that we want to introduce to you. We have also included a spotify playlist with these songs and a few others- but we would say if you fall in love with some of these artists like we did, maybe go see them live, buy some merch or invest in some vinyl.   As is shown later, streaming don’t play the bills.


Don’t Believe A Word – Thin Lizzy

We’ve run the computer simulations, crunched the numbers, tested the data. There can be no doubt. Philip Parris Lynott is

 the coolest Irish man ever.  Tall, handsome, a sublime lyricist, vocalist and bassist, with a cheeky Dublin strut and a poet’s soul, we are all agreed he is the Irish high priest of Rock and Roll.

Possibly a lot of you know the band Thin Lizzy. The Boys are back in town is the go-to soundtrack for every

movie montage and fight scene. Whiskey in the Jar is used in many a movie with an Irish background.

But there was so much more to this band, and Philo, then this. They could write a barnstorming 70s rocker like Boys, Chinatown or Jailbreak. There was also the sensitive poet who wrote Sarah, Still In Love With You or Parisienne Walkways. There was the man searching for his identity with Emerald or Ode to a Black Man.  His solo classic Old Town is Dublin’s unofficial anthem.

My choice today however is Don’t Believe A Word. A perfect combination of Lynott’s nuanced lyrics with a scorching guitar riff.

James Hetfield of Metallica meets Phil

Lizzy super-fan Bono said this about it in legendary Irish rock journal Hot Press

I remember us trying to work out ‘Don’t Believe A Word’ and I couldn’t understand exactly what he meant. ‘Don’t believe me when I tell ya/Not a word of this is true/Don’t believe me when I tell ya/I’m in love with you’ – just a great lyric device. We tried playing that, just murdered that one.

Originally written as a ballad , most fans agree the faster track is the superior version. Why ?  You’d have to talk to song exploder for that, we just want to point you in the direction of a few tunes that we hope you enjoy. We don’t want to over-analyse the process and forget why we wrote this blog. .
Besides, we can’t top this comment from YouTube

“Alright boys, we’d like a perfect rock song with some meaningful words and a great guitar solo and…er….by the way you have to fit it all in in 2 mins and 20 secs – fecking brilliant!”

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Murphy’s Law – Róisín Murphy

I would imagine when you think of Irish music you don’t think of the club scene.

But Róisín Murphy has been packing dance floors all over the world for 25 years. Róisín (Roh-sheen) is from Arklow Co. Wicklow. She moved to England in her teens and in 1994 formed trip-hop band Moloko who had massive hits with Sing It Back and The Time Is Now.  She went solo in 2005 and hasn’t looked back since.

Described as Ireland’s queen of the avant-garde, her amazing voice, daring fashion sense and effortless cool has made her the darling of the club scene and a mainstay of hip radio stations like 6music. All while keeping her wicked Irish sense of humour. At Glastonbury introducing one of her hits she called out, “Come and have a dance with your mum” before cutting a rug.

I for one am a dyed-in-the-wool rocker but there is something about Murphy’s music that makes me get my dance on. And in her late 40’s she might just be producing the best work of her career.
She seems to be releasing  stone cold banger after stone cold banger.  Murphy’s law, her new single is an instant classic. But we could have put in Narcissus or Incapable. All have rare quality of sounding both cutting edge and like a disco classic.
So if I’ve piqued your interest why not have a listen. After all , the time is now.

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Wired to the Moon The Revs

How about something a bit more local? The Revs hailed from Kilcar near Sliabh Liag and burst onto the scene at the start of the Millennium with catchy, witty surf-rock style. As a matter of fact, we brought our summer camp to one of their early gigs so I’m sure there are a few attics and basements in the U.S. with dusty Revs merch.

While far from one hit wonders, they are best remembered for the debut single Wired to the Moon, the video for which was filmed right here in Bundoran. It’s an instant ear-worm with perhaps questionable lyrics, and scandalously not on Spotify or apple music.
The band made three albums before calling it a day. Lead singer Rory Gallagher (no relation but absolutely named after the great man) popped up again with the cult hit Jimmy’s Winning Matches to celebrate Donegal’s all Ireland victory in 2012.

A well-reviewed reunion show in 2017 means we may hear more for them. Rory ran a very successful music pub in Lanzarote for years and is just about to open a music bar in Edinburgh. Drop in when everything is open again and tell him we sent you.

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Heyday – Mic Christopher

Bill Hicks might not approve but the next song was brought to you courtesy of an advertising campaign. Mic Christopher was an American born Irish singer. Admired on the Irish music scene, his band The Mary Janes never had a breakthrough hit despite touring widely. Upon their breakup Mic went solo and seemed on the verge of something really special when he tragically passed away after a fall while touring with The Waterboys.  His family and friends helped finish off his solo album Skylarkin and release it. It won industry awards and sold well.

However to many of us it only came to the attention of many of us when the brilliant Heyday was used in the iconic Guinness ad “Quarrel”
In the ad, Michael Fassbender, strides across Ireland and makes his way to New York to say the hardest word.  It was an instant hit with those who love the black stuff, great music and brooding handsome, troubled Irish men. Yeah basically everyone.

Damien Rice’s album O is dedicated to Mic and his music has become a mainstay of The Frames set list. It’s sad to ponder what could have been. Perhaps that’s why his music was such a brilliant choice for the ad. A soundtrack for someone wanting to make amends before it was too late. There is a new documentary coming out about Mic’s life that will hopefully reintroduce the world to his music. Perhaps he will have his heyday at last.

Jealous – Sinéad O’ Connor

Sinéad O’ Connor is better than you think she is.  Sure, you say “I love Sinéad  – Nothing Compares 2 U, Mandinka, the one about the babies…?  Or maybe “Yeah she can sing but remember that fuss with the Pope and Frank Sinatra and the Muslim stuff…she’s kinda hard work”. Fair enough. I personally am totally guilty of expressing this sentiment in the past. And I guess we’re all entitled to our opinions. But Sinéad O Connor is better than you think she is.

Like Lizzy, there are so many songs we could talk about. I was very tempted to say Troy which is criminally underrated. I just don’t have the literary chops though. We’ll have to wait for Dr Niamho for that one next time we talk about Sinéad’s back catalogue. Instead I like to visit the album Faith and Courage from 2000.

I clearly remember being in a record store in Dublin (ask your parents) and marching up to the counter and asking to buy whatever they were playing on the sound system. The song was the slightly NSFW “Daddy I’m fine” from the album Faith and Courage. Memory plays tricks at this point.  Sinéad is so distinctive and had been mega-famous in Ireland for over a decade I must have known it was her. But I don’t think I’d ever heard her sound like this. I brought the album home (again, ask your parents) and listened to it. There are several excellent songs on it, No Man’s Woman, Dancing Lessons, Daddy I’m fine. But the song that has stuck with me is Jealous.


Sineád breaks our hearts again describing longing and toxic relationships in this poignant torch song. Maybe it’s because her personal life and struggles with mental health have been played out in public, but her fragile , beautiful voice make you feel she has lived every blow and cruelty in the song.

After some dark times, Sinéad is back touring again and seems at peace and happy.

And if you know her battles with authority here and elsewhere , there is something triumphant when you here the crowd roar in triumph when she performs The Emperor’s New Clothes and belts out

“They laugh ’cause they know they’re untouchable
Not because what I said was wrong”

But after all,  Sinéad O Connor is better than you think she is.

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Dance of the Cherry Trees by John Spillane

This one will never make it past Institute of Study Abroad blog quality control. This is more an ear-worm than a Desert Island disc.
John Spillane is an Irish folk singer and Irish language advocate.
After starting off in rock and jazz bands adopting a mid-Atlantic drawl, he returned to his true love, traditional Irish music . He has made several albums of traditional Irish songs but he also releases quirky, funny folk songs all in his distinctive Cork accent.

However, this charming little song has been in my head recently.
Writing this in the time of the lockdown, there is so much anger, fear and uncertainty. Yet it’s a beautiful spring day and all week I’ve been reading about the extraordinary efforts of ordinary people. Kindness and empathy abound. I’m very proud of how our island have clubbed together so far under this challenge. I guess I’m saying, ‘well done everyone’.

Emer’s Dream – Colm Mac Con Iomaire

The Gleniff Horseshoe

Colm Mac Con Iomaire is one of Ireland’s most respected musicians. He plays violin and sings with The Frames, is a founding member of Kila and is world famous session musician (Playing on honorary Irish man David Grays classic White Ladder among others.)

His first solo album The Hare’s Corner was introduced to me by my friends Niall and Aideen. Niall is a big fan of hardcore punk music, but also loves traditional Irish ballads. Aideen adored Morrissey (pre his recent statements, I hasten to add),  and Abba. We were touring the beautiful Gleniff horseshoe and they told me they had the perfect soundtrack for the scenery. Curious to hear what kind of music united their very different tastes,  I put the record on.

It was as if the music had been composed by the mountains and streams themselves. It was brilliant modern music, yet it had a timeless quality, and provided the perfect soundtrack for  Toraíocht Diarmuid and Gráinne – ‘The pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne’ – a famous Irish legend. It was said that the eloping couple spent their first night together in the cave gouged into the side of the Gleniff Horseshoe.
The whole album is great, but the standout track is Emer’s Dream, a lush and evocative piece of violin  that calms a raging mind.

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Pull Your Jocks up / God Slap  – The Scratch

By far the newest band here so far, The Scratch are a 4-piece acoustic act from Dublin. They were forged from from a shared love of acoustic guitar, metal and traditional Irish music, and not giving a damn what anyone thinks.  Their debut album is literally called Couldn’t Give a Rats.

Full of brilliant musicianship, offbeat themes and lots of attitude, The Scratch are part of a really interesting movement in Irish music at the moment. Musicians that take their influences from all over the globe. Musicians who see no problem with the juxtaposition of hiphop and Sean-nós, high art and pop-culture, heavy metal and trad music, politics and bawdy Irish humor . A Lazarus Soul, Junior Brother,  Lankum, Ballyboyz and the Rubber Bandits to name a few .

The Scratch won’t be for everyone and a lot of it is definitely for adult ears only (really!). I’m definitely a convert though. I only heard of them for the first time on Easter Sunday. I decided to give the album a try on Spotify, by the fourth song I was looking for tickets for their next gig.

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Jenny Kelly / Tie Me Up With Jackets
– Fight Like Apes

One of the common themes of conversation during the Covid 19 lockdown in Ireland, is that modern technology has made shelter-in-place a little more tolerable.  We are lucky to be alive in a time when all sorts of streaming services bringing us instant entertainment, and almost every song ever recorded is available at the push of a button or by asking Alexa. Yet there is a downside too, and the Irish band  Fight Like Apes  were one of the first to make me see it.

Fight Like Apes always stood out in Ireland’s small but talent-filled music scene. They claimed to have formed over a shared “extremely optimistically cynical outlook on life”.  And boy, did they show it.
Their mix of synth-pop meets rock, showcasing a love of B-movies, computer games and wrestling, was quite the contrast to the moody, introspective singer songwriters that dominated. I love Damien Rice as much as the next man, but I don’t see him releasing an album with  Do You Karate? ,  I’m Beginning to Think You Prefer Beverly Hills 90210 to Me , or  Recyclable Ass ! 

They wrote infectious tunes with funny, poignant and often quite rude lyrics,  and lead singer MayKay was one of Ireland’s great front women.
The music was great, and won them many notable fans, including The Prodigy, Steve Lamaq and Jonathan Ross. They released three well reviewed albums and seemed on the brink of a breakthrough. But it was not to be.

In 2016 they announced their breakup with this statement on their Facebook page

″Stick a fork in us, we’re done. We’ve been quiet for a while now. We’ve had a lot of thinking and talking to do. We’d be here all year if we started listing the people we wanted to thank, so we’ll just do that in our own time. You’ll see us all again under different musical guises but, these 3 shows will be Fight Like Apes’ last. We want to call it a day while we’re all still pals and are proud of what we’ve done. And we are very, very proud. It’s a deadly time in so many ways to be in a band; you can have so much control over your work if you’re clever; you can release it how and when you like and in our opinion, right now, Ireland is the healthiest it’s ever been in terms of talent and diversity.

But, there are massive challenges for a lot of bands, mostly financial, that make this a tough job and sadly, those obstacles have become too big for us. I think we all know that we’re going to hear announcements like this more often. A lot of people don’t seem to understand that we can’t keep producing records if you keep not paying for them. Bands are having to sell beautiful albums for €2.99, labels can’t give you as much support since they’re losing income too and our alternative radio stations* are practically non existent now, meaning so many wonderful bands will not get a chance to get played on radio as they’ll be competing with huge pop acts. Please buy your music in independent record stores or directly from the band. Don’t fool yourself in to thinking that your £10 subscription to Deezer and Spotify helps us at all. It does not. Look how many bands are on there and do the maths. Please go to gigs. Please buy merch. Thanks to all you entirely crazy, wonderful people who have supported us and danced and screamed with us over the past 10 years. We could never thank you enough. I still can’t believe some of the amazing things we’ve done together and how far we came.″

Maybe Ireland was always too small a market for such a unique band. But I can’t help but think in other times there would have been enough support for them to stick it out. And they are a timely reminder that free music doesn’t mean there is no cost.

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 You I’m Thinking Of – Relish

Ken and Carl Papenfus formed Relish with Darren Campbell in Downpatrick in the late 90s. The brothers were the sons of famous South African musician Jane Londis and author and percussionist Stan Papenfus. Jane and Stan’s  interracial marriage was banned by the apartheid system, so they fled to Belfast in the early 70s. Not the place at that time one would have immediately thought of for refuge, but their decision gave us two mega-talented Irish musicians and one of my all time favourite Irish singles.

It’s you I’m thinking of is a pure slice of pop perfection. Summery laid-back romantic sounds with lovely harmonies that brings to mind Minnie Ripperton and Paul Weller.  The band were probably best known for “Hey Whatever” the slightly altered Westlife cover version of their “Rainbow Zephyr”

Despite some excellent reviews the band never really hit the heights. Campbell left the band in 2013. The brothers Papenfus are probably best known now as very successful touring musicians, playing with Sinéad O Connor and Paul Brady and writing and playing on the wonderful Sing Street movie soundtrack.  But the band are still touring and releasing excellent music and are well worth catching if you get the chance.

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 In a Little While – U2

It often surprises US visitors how divisive Irish opinion is on U2. The reasons why are worthy of an undergraduate course by itself. Let’s just say Irish people see nothing contradictory in being immensely proud of and deeply annoyed by the Dublin band. Often at the same time.

U2 need no introduction but casual fans may be less familiar with this gem from All you can’t leave behind.  It’s a love song written by Bono for his wife Ali (the pram reference alludes to the teasing he got for dating Ali, despite her being a year younger)  However when performing it live , Bono often talks about how one of his personal heroes, Joey Ramone,  loved it and that it was the last song the punk icon ever heard. It’s also a good reminder that while nobody does stadium fist-pumping anthems quite like U2, they can do small and beautiful too.

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Long Balconies – A Lazarus Soul

2019 was a strong year for Irish Albums. Along with Fontaines DC’s debut album Dogrel, (which we will definitely cover in the future), we had The D they put between the R & L. This was the fourth album by A Lazarus Soul but the first time they came to my notice. The album got rave reviews and they played a string of sold-out shows.

Brian Branigan is the heart of the band. Nicknamed Lazarus by his mother because of two severe childhood illnesses, he uses music to give voice to many of the oppressed of his native Dublin. This particular song is about social housing and the gentrification of Dublin. Full of traditional and modern references, A Lazarus Soul is another example of the big Irish crossover scene between folk music, pop and hip-hop sensibilities.

A mishmash that, judged on the ingredients, could have been terrible but somehow really works. But I guess when you think about it, Woody Guthrie, Christy Moore and Chuck D have always had a lot in common. The album may be a little bit of an acquired taste but embrace it, and like me, you might just find yourself returning to it again and again.

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Switch – Biig Piig

A lot of this list is about music you may have missed at time of release, but here is one to catch at the start of her career. Biig Piig is Jess Smyth, a London based Irish singer and rapper who was born in Spain. The name was apparently inspired by a pizza menu. She says it’s ambiguity suits her. Nobody quite knows what to expect and that is the way she likes it.  She can be a mess or cute depending on her mood.

Her work is nearly as diverse as her upbringing, with thick hip hop beats, western guitars, swing and anything else you care to throw in. She’s already released three very interesting EPs and is tipped to be big (Biig?) by all those in the know. However, it is her brand-new single Switch (March 2020)  that has really got my attention. It’s going to be fun to see what she does next.

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I fall Apart – Rory Gallagher

Regular visitors to Institute of Study Abroad may already be familiar with Rory Gallagher. Many of our tours include our neighbouring town of  Ballyshannon, and we often stop for a photo beside the Rory statue. After learning a little of the Ballyshannon-born rocker’s history, they often learn forward with a conspiratorial whisper and say, “I didn’t realise he was such a big deal”  Let me be honest with you, dear reader, neither did I.

Growing up a rock fan in Dublin in the 80s and 90s, I was only vaguely familiar with Rory Gallagher’s music. He’s the blues guitar guy that’s big in Germany, right?  Maybe it was because Rory was all about the music and was deeply suspicious of celebrity. Maybe it was the arrogance of youth, thinking the bands of our generation were the best, or most daring, as if they had appeared out of the ether. As if they weren’t standing on the shoulders of giants. Whatever the reason, it was only the outpouring of grief after his premature death in 1995 and my subsequent exposure to the Rory Gallagher festival in Ballyshannon that the penny really dropped for me.

Rory Gallagher was born In Ballyshannon in 1948 on March 2nd. A birth date shared, incidentally, with Lou Reed, Jon Bon Jovi and Dr Niamh Hamill. Raised in Cork, he first came to prominence with Irish showband Fontana, then with acclaimed Taste. A trio to give Cream a run for their money.

But it was when he went solo that Rory really found his voice. In the 70s he released a string of successful albums and was invited to join The Rolling Stones. But that would have been too showbiz for Rory. He wanted to play his own music. And when Slash, Brian May, Alex Lifeson, Johnny Marr and The Edge all count you as a major influence you are doing the right thing. Eric Clapton credited him as the guy who got him back into Blues.

To learn more about Rory, check out the website, the treasure trove of material on YouTube or better still come to Rory Gallagher festival – 3 days of fun, friendship and exceptional guitar playing.  Rory is usually best known for his foot stomping rockers but the song I have selected is a slow one. A slice of blues ballad brilliance that showcases his guitar playing of course but also his underrated singing. There are quite a few versions available, but for sound quality I have chosen this one from his debut solo album.

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Dearg Doom – Horslips

The most recognizable guitar riff in Irish music, Bar none.  From the original song to its use as Ireland’s word cup anthem, a McDonalds ad and a band reunion, that distinctive Celtic loop has been ubiquitous in Irish media for nearly 50 years. But first a story my friend Enda told me. Its small-town Ireland in the grey 1970s. Paddy & Mick, two auld boys are in the pub. They are discussing the band that are playing in the village dancehall. All long hair, loud music and arrogance, the boys don’t approve at all. Still they are curious and decide to head to the hall. They know the guy on the door and convince him to let them in just as the encore begins. Just as the band reached their crescendo the firework display was ignited. Paddy leans towards his friend and says knowingly “That’ll be all the drugs going off” Ok it is almost certainly an apocryphal tale. I am sure there are versions of the story with Slade in Wigan or Kiss scandalizing small town America. But the point of the impact of Horslips holds still. Yes, we had Lizzy and Rory and Van, but they were Irish people who played rock music. Horslips combined Celtic instruments and traditions with rock tunes, elaborate costumes and rock star swagger. And did this while staying and playing all over Ireland, creating the template for U2 to do the same. Horslips formed in Dublin at the start of the 70s. They got their name from a spoonerism for the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse, (They were originally The Four Poxmen of the Horslypse). Already accomplished musicians and poets, they wanted to do it all. Put their own uniquely Irish stamp on rock, but also design their own record sleeves, stage wear and posters. Led Zeppelin and Yes were mining mysticism and mythology for their material, why couldn’t they? Ireland had a rich vein of such stories, waiting to be tapped. That and a willingness to never take themselves too seriously (unlike some prog rock peers) made them Ireland’s hottest ticket. Dearg Doom is from their second album, The Táin. It was based on the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), one of the most famous legends of early Irish literature, dealing with the war between Ulster and Connacht over a prize bull. Dearg Doom is kind of pidgin Gaelic for Red Destroyer, referring to Cú Chulainn legendary Irish warrior. You can read more about the Táin here, it’s a brilliant story full of weird and wonderful characters and a lot of hyperbole. But to be honest, a lot of Irish people grew up loving the tune without knowing what the hell they were referring to. That tune is based on a traditional tune, O’Neill’s Cavalry. Played on electric guitar, mandolin and uilleann pipes, it is one of the most recognisable riffs in modern Irish music. It became even more famous, if possible, when it was used by Larry Mullen JR as the hook in “Put em under pressure” the official theme song for Ireland’s iconic 1990 soccer world cup campaign. Despite some European success the band were never quite able to build on their platform and broke up in the 90s.  Happily, the band reformed at the start of the century and gig regularly to this day. In fact, they are going to be headlining the next Rory Gallagher festival in neighbouring Ballyshannon whenever we can start such things again.  
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