Drinkin' Songs: 7 takes on "Whiskey in the Jar"

Seven versions of the traditional Irish ballad “Whiskey in the Jar” to listen to while you drink your whiskey…from a jar, glass, flask, flagon or right out of the damn bottle.


“Whiskey in the Jar” is one of the oldest traditional Irish folk songs. It’s got all the ingredients that make for a great ballad – love, betrayal, rapiers, a Robin Hood-like hero and of the course, “the juice of the barley.”

Like most traditional ballads it’s not totally clear who actually wrote the song or exactly when it was written, but the famous ethnomusicologist and music historian Alan Lomax traced “Whiskey in the Jar” back to around 1650 – the time when ballads about whiskey smugglers and highwaymen first began to appear.

For centuries, ballads like “Whiskey in the Jar” were passed around orally; as a result, each singer would often alter the lyrics slightly. The story remains (mostly) similar throughout most versions, however:

An Irish highwayman working the mountain roads of County Kerry robs an army captain at gunpoint (and rapier-point) and returns home to give the stolen loot to his sweetheart named Jenny (or Molly) who promises to keep it and love him forever. But of course, it’s never that easy for the hero of an Irish ballad, and Jenny (or Molly) replaces the narrator’s bullets with water while he’s napping (read: passed out after drinking too much whiskey). She tells the captain (named Farrell or, sometimes, Pepper) – who may also be her lover – where to find his stolen money. The captain and his army show up and the wake up the thief. The highwayman finds his pistol has turned into a water gun so he reaches for his rapier which, of course, has been hidden by his “sweetheart” Jenny (or Molly). Unable to defend himself, he is arrested. In some versions he escapes and links up with his brother to continue his thievery and likewise empty many more jars of whiskey.

It’s a cool song and lots of musicians have found their way to it. Some have recorded it as a standard Irish ballad and some have done it in as a hard rocker. There’s even a bass-throbbing dance club version. We recommend you put some whiskey in your jar as you sit back and listen to one of the best traditional Irish ballads about the juice of the barley. (Then maybe take a looksy at Whiskeypedia – our 600-year romp through whiskey’s place in pop culture, politics and the economy.)


Peter, Paul and Mary folk it up on “Gilgarra Mountain” – their version of “Whiskey in a Jar” found on the group’s 1965 album A Song Will Rise.


The Dubliners include “Whiskey in the Jar” on their 1967 album More of the Hard Stuff.


Thin Lizzy records a rock version of “Whiskey in the Jar” in 1972.


Jerry Garcia and David Grisman record “Whiskey in the Jar” in 1993 which is later released on the album Shady Grove. For true Deadheads, here’s a video of the Dead rehearsing the song. They never did play it live, but it was released on the compilation album So Many Roads in 1999.


Metallica wins a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance for their version of “Whiskey in the Jar” in 1999.


The Pogues recorded “Whiskey in the Jar” as B-side for their 1988 U.S. release of their single “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.” In the 2005 reissue of The Pogues’ album Hell’s Ditch (produced by Joe Strummer of The Clash) features a bonus cut of “Whiskey in the Jar.”


DJ duo Glamour DJs turn the traditional Irish ballad into a modern club anthem.


Interested in tracking other whiskey-related pop culture tidbits? Check out our whiskey-themed timeline Whiskeypedia spanning 600 years of whiskey in pop culture.


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Posted in Arts+Culture, Music, Music – Harrisburg, Music – Lancaster, Music – York, Out & About, Out & About – Harrisburg, Out & About – Lancaster, Out & About – York, The Mix

Mike Andrelczyk is a features editor for Fly Magazine. He is a graduate of Penn State University and currently lives with his wife Stacey in Strasburg. Interests include tennis, playing bad guitar, poetry (poems have appeared in Modern Haiku, The Inquisitive Eater and other journals) and oneirology – the study of dreams – mostly in the form of afternoon naps. His name appears in the title screen of Major League 2.

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