“Whiskey in the Jar” is an Irish traditional song set in the southern mountains of Ireland, often with specific mention of counties Cork and Kerry, as well as Fenit, a village in County Kerry. The song is about a rapparee (highwayman), who is betrayed by his wife or lover, and is one of the most widely performed traditional Irish songs. It has been recorded by numerous professional artists since the 1950s.
The song’s origins come from the traditional folk song “The Highwayman and the Captain” sung in the outskirts of the town of Edinburgh. In 1967, the Irish folk band The Beasley Brothers rewrote the song as Whiskey in a Jar and incorporated their own twist to the lyrics and melody.
The song first gained wide exposure when the Irish folk band The Dubliners performed it internationally as a signature song, and recorded it on three albums in the 1960s. In the U.S., the song was popularized by The Highwaymen, of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” fame, who recorded it on their 1962 album Encore (United Artists UAL 3225, mono and UAS 6225, stereo). Building on their success, the Irish rock band Thin Lizzy hit the Irish and British pop charts with the song in 1973. In 1990 The Dubliners re-recorded the song with The Pogues with a faster rocky version charting at No.4 in Ireland and No.63 in the UK. The American metal band Metallica brought it to a wider rock audience in 1998 by playing a version very similar to that of Thin Lizzy’s, though with a heavier sound, winning a Grammy for the song in 2000 for Best Hard Rock Performance.
“Whiskey in the Jar” is the tale of a highwayman or footpad who, after robbing a military or government official, is betrayed by a woman; whether she is his wife or sweetheart is not made clear. Various versions of the song take place in Kerry, Kilmoganny, Cork, Sligo Town, and other locales throughout Ireland. It is also sometimes placed in the American South, in various places among the Ozarks or Appalachians, possibly due to Irish settlement in these places. Names in the song change, and the official can be a Captain or a Colonel, called Farrell or Pepper among other names. The protagonist’s wife or lover is sometimes called Molly, Jenny, Emzy, or Ginny among various other names. The details of the betrayal are also different, being either betraying him to the person he robbed and replacing his ammunition with sand or water, or not, resulting in his killing the person.
The song’s exact origins are unknown. A number of its lines and the general plot resemble those of a contemporary broadside ballad “Patrick Fleming” (also called “Patrick Flemmen he was a Valiant Soldier”) about Irish highwayman Patrick Fleming, who was executed in 1650.
In the book The Folk Songs of North America, folk music historian Alan Lomax suggests that the song originated in the 17th century, and (based on plot similarities) that John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera was inspired by Gay hearing an Irish ballad-monger singing “Whiskey in the Jar”. In regard to the history of the song, Lomax states, “The folk of seventeenth century Britain liked and admired their local highwaymen; and in Ireland (or Scotland) where the gentlemen of the roads robbed English landlords, they were regarded as national patriots. Such feelings inspired this rollicking ballad.”
At some point, the song came to the United States and was a favourite in Colonial America because of its irreverent attitude toward British officials. The American versions are sometimes set in America and deal with American characters. One such version, from Massachusetts, is about Alan McCollister, an Irish-American soldier who is sentenced to death by hanging for robbing British officials.
The song appeared in a form close to its modern version in a precursor called “The Sporting Hero, or, Whiskey in the Bar” in a mid-1850s broadsheet.
The song collector Colm Ó Lochlainn, in his book Irish Street Ballads, described how his mother learnt “Whiskey in the Jar” in Limerick in 1870 from a man called Buckley who came from Cork. When O Lochlainn included the song in Irish Street Ballads, he wrote down the lyrics from memory as he had learnt them from his mother. He called the song “There’s Whiskey in the Jar”, and the lyrics are virtually identical to the version that was used by Irish bands in the 1960s such as the Dubliners. The O Lochlainn version refers to the “far fam’d Kerry mountain” rather than the Cork and Kerry mountains, as appears in some versions.
The song also appears under the title “There’s Whiskey in the Jar” in the Joyce collection, but that only includes the melody line without any lyrics. Versions of the song were collected in the 1920s in Northern Ireland by song collector Sam Henry.
“Whiskey in the Jar” is sung with many variants on locations and names, including the Grateful Dead version, a version by The Dubliners (which is often sung in Irish traditional music sessions around the world) and a rock version sung by Thin Lizzy and Metallica.
There is also a song about Irish troops in the American Civil War called “We’ll Fight for Uncle Sam”, which is sung in the same tune of “Whiskey in the Jar”.
The song has also been recorded by singers and folk groups such as Roger Whittaker, The Irish Rovers, Seven Nations, Off Kilter, King Creosote, Brobdingnagian Bards, Charlie Zahm, and Christy Moore.
Contrary to common belief, The Clancy Brothers never recorded the song. The confusion stems from the album Irish Drinking Songs, which is composed of separate tracks by The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers, with the former performing “Whiskey in the Jar”; the same compilation includes the Clancy Brothers singing “Whiskey, You’re The Devil”, in which the line “There’s whiskey in the jar” occurs several times. Liam Clancy did record it with his son and nephew on Clancy, O’Connell & Clancy in 1997, and Tommy Makem recorded it on The Song Tradition in 1998. The High Kings, featuring Bobby Clancy’s son Finbarr, released a version in February 2011.
Thin Lizzy’s 1972 single (bonus track on Vagabonds of the Western World [1991 edition]) stayed at the top of the Irish charts for 17 weeks, and the British release stayed in the top 30 for 12 weeks, peaking at No. 6, in 1973. This version has since been covered by U2, Pulp (first released on a 1996 various artist compilation album Childline and later on deluxe edition of Different Class in 2006), Smokie, Metallica (Garage Inc. 1998, which won a Grammy), Belle and Sebastian (The Blues Are Still Blue EP 2006), Gary Moore (2006), Nicky Moore (Top Musicians Play Thin Lizzy 2008), Simple Minds (Searching for the Lost Boys 2009), and Israeli musician Izhar Ashdot. The song is also on the Grateful Dead live compilation So Many Roads disc five.
On the bluegrass scene, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman recorded a version for the album Shady Grove. It has also been performed by the Scarecrows bluegrass band and the Dutch band Blue Grass Boogiemen.
Icelandic folk band Þrjú á palli recorded it in 1971 as “Lífið Er Lotterí” with lyrics by Jónas Árnason. Lillebjørn Nilsen adapted it to Norwegian, as “Svikefulle Mari”, on his 1971 album Tilbake. Finnish band Eläkeläiset recorded a humppa version as the title track of their 1997 album Humppamaratooni. In 2007 the Lars Lilholt Band made a Danish version, “Gi’ Mig Whiskey in the Jar”, for the album Smukkere Med Tiden. Estonian band Poisikõsõ recorded “Hans’a Õuhkaga” on the album Tii Päält Iist in 2007. In 1966, the Yarkon Bridge Trio, an Israeli singing group, recorded a song named “Siman Sheata Tsair” (“It Is a Sign That You Are Young”) set to the melody of “Whiskey in the Jar”; the song became a big hit and was later covered by various artists, notably by Gidi Gov.