St. Patrick’s Day is named in honor of the patron saint of Ireland (Eire). March 17th is Ireland’s national holiday to celebrate Irish heritage and culture but the day is observed now throughout the world. Good food, good drink, and wearing of the green everywhere signal a happy day as people wish each other good cheer.
In Gaelic the word used to signal this is Sláinte (slawn-cha), meaning a wish for good health. Did you know that in 1737 the very first St. Patrick’s Day in the United States was held in Boston, Massachusetts?
No celebration of the day would be complete without the familiar Irish songs that tell stories of the land and its people. Here are nine you will definitely hear on March 17th if you go to a parade, join a chorus in a pub, or just sing along at home with the radio, which is sure to be playing some of this irresistible music. A link to YouTube is given for each song if you want to add your own voice(s) into the singing there!
1. McNamara’s Band
This is a popular, uplifting song that was made famous by Bing Crosby, and along with “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” it is probably sung on St. Patrick’s Day more than any other. Shamus O’Connor and John J. Stamford wrote the music in 1945, and the lyrics were created by a group called The Three Jesters. The story the song tells is about the “life” of a real Irish band, the St Mary’s Fife and Drum, which began in 1885 in the county of Limerick.
2. A Little Bit of Heaven
This is a traditional Irish song used in the 1940s musical of the same name. A young woman in a struggling Irish family makes good as a radio singer. The movie explores how this affects the family, who in the end feel the value of the roots they share with each other.
3. Peg O’ My Heart
The song was a hit for the first time in the 1913 musical Ziegfeld Follies and composed by Fred Fisher and Alfred Bryan. It was also used as the theme for the BBC miniseries The Singing Detective (1986). In the YouTube excerpt here, a great clip, the singers include the Celtic punk band Dropkick Murphys and The Boss himself (Bruce Springsteen) in Boston.
4. When Irish Eyes Are Smiling
Chauncey Olcott (with George Graff, Jr.) wrote the lyrics for this spirited song in celebration of Ireland. The music was composed by their co-creator Ernest Ball for the play The Isle O’ Dreams that Olcott staged and produced. He also sang the title song.
The year this occurred was 1912, and during WW I it was recorded and received with great acclaim by the brilliant tenor John McCormack. Someone described it in the 1990s as a song that had the same kind of charisma as the opening to the iconic television show Cheers, (“Everybody Knows Your Name”) – it was, and remains, that popular.
Not only have well-known singers recorded the song, but it was also used as theme music in the movie Time of Your Life and in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (about Ireland on April 1916). The most recent use of the song was in the movie Return To Me.
5. Galway Bay
Composed by Frank Fahy in the early 1900s, it was sung to music by Tony Small, and known sometimes as “My Own Dear Galway Bay.” Another version of the music was composed by Dr. Arthur Colahan in 1947 – it is this version Bing Crosby made famous. Many Celtic singers have recorded it since. This version on YouTube has an unusual country western twang.
6. Danny Boy
This heartfelt ballad uses the tune of “The Londonderry Air” and holds special meaning for the Irish. No one is certain whether it is the story of a parent sending a son off to war or sending the son away as part of the terrible regret felt because of the Irish diaspora.
More than one source declares the song was written by a blind harpist. There are other interpretations, too, but one thing is for sure, it evokes great sadness and love. It’s been sung by every famous singer from Judy Garland to Renee Fleming (opera) to Eric Clapton and Judy Collins and is familiar worldwide.
7. I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover
Most people have heard this song whether they are Irish or not. It was written in 1927 by Mort Dixon and Harry M. Woods. It has been a regular part of the Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade, in a film with Chevy Chase, and even arranged by the jazz artist Coleman Hawkins.
8. The Rose of Tralee
The song is a 19th-century ballad about a beautiful woman named Mary who was called The Rose of Tralee. The origins are debated, so there is no absolute confirmation of who composed it. For 55 years there has been a Rose of Tralee International Festival in Ireland.
Out of a pantheon of young Irish women, the Rose of Tralee is selected (and they can come to participate and compete from any part of the world if they are of Irish descent). This is linked to our own internationally renowned Rose Parade.
9. Molly Malone
This haunting song has become the unofficial anthem of Dublin City. It tells the tale of a fishmonger who dies young of a fever but who caught the hearts of people in the streets of the city. Rumor has it that there was a real Molly Malone from the 17th century. The best-known version is by The Dubliners.
Which Irish songs do you like the most? Is there one you especially care for that isn’t in this list? If so, let me know in the comments, and that way others can learn of another grand melody to celebrate the day!