Whether you prefer to strum along to lively Irish dance tunes or to accompany soulful Irish ballads, there’s no shortage of talented Irish bouzouki players to look to for inspiration. From Donal Lunny to Alec Finn and Andy Irvine these legendary players have done it all!
I often receive requests from Irish bouzouki and mandolin players who want to follow in the footsteps of these masters, but don’t know where to start.
More and more have listened to the likes of the brilliant Daoirí Farrell and want to flex their vocal chords, dust off the old pipes and dive into the world of Irish folk songs.
Many who do find themselves more than a little daunted at the vast repertoire of Irish folk songs and ballads available. Where do you start?
I’ve put together this handy list of some of the most popular Irish ballads making the rounds at Irish music sessions today.
These are some of my own personal favourites, but they also happen to be songs that are relatively easy to sing and to accompany. They’re sung in English too, to make them accessible to the non-Irish speakers amongst us.
I’ve avoided any of the more ‘political’ ballads to avoid landing you in any hot water. Most importantly however, I’ve also included links to chord charts, to help you on your merry way.
So what are you waiting for? Let’s get started. You’ll be singing and playing my favourites in no time…
Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore
Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore is one of my favourite Irish ballads of all time.
This now iconic song shares its haunting melody with the beautiful Gleanntáin Ghlas’ Ghaoth Dobhair, written by Irish musician Proinsias Ó Maonaigh.
The English language version first gained popularity in 1976 when it was recorded by the Scottish folk group Battlefield Band on their album Farewell to Nova Scotia.
In 1978 however, it was catapulted to fame when legendary Irish guitar player and folk singer, Paul Brady, recorded it on his iconic album, Welcome Here Kind Stranger. The rest is history. Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore is now engrained in the Irish folk music Hall of Fame.
Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore is one of many songs that tells the story of Irish emigration following the Great Famine of the 19th century. Many hoped to make a better life for themselves in the US, so they left their beloved country behind, hoping to return some day. Few did so:
We each of us drank a parting glass in case we might never meet more, And we drank a health to Old Ireland and Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore…
If fortune it ever should favour me or I to have money in store I’ll come back and I’ll wed the wee lassie I left on Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore.
In my opinion, nothing beats Paul Brady’s rendition of this melancholy lament. In the performance below he’s joined by the master himself, Andy Irvine, on mandolin and harmonica:
Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore has become a firm favourite with Paul Brady’s fans – so much so that it’s still a hit all these years later.
Here’s a more recent recording featuring Andy Irvine on the Irish bouzouki instead of the mandolin, as well as some enthusiastic audience participation. It’s always a good sign when you can get your listeners singing along!
If you’d like to add this song to your repertoire you can access the chords, and Irish bouzouki notation, here: Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore Irish Bouzouki Chord Chart
The Lakes of Pontchartrain
Despite its popularity in traditional Irish music sessions, this is actually an American folk song.
This song has been made popular by the playing of the mighty Bob Dylan, Planxty and Paul Brady himself (to name but a few) and has woven its way seamlessly into the Irish music tradition.
While the melody is thought to have originated some time in the 1800’s, the lyrics most popularly sung today were likely penned at a later date, during the Civil War era:
I stepped on board of a railroad car beneath the morning sun And I rode the roads ’til evening and I laid me down again All strangers here, no friends to me ’til a dark girl towards me came And I fell in love with a Creole girl from the Lakes of Pontchartrain.
The song speaks of taking a train from New Orleans to Jackson Town. This railway was completed shortly before the war and largely left in ruins after, making this the most likely timeframe for the song to have been written. But I digress…
The Lakes of Pontchartrain lends itself brilliantly to Irish bouzouki accompaniment, which is why I’ve included it here. You can find the chords and Irish bouzouki tab notation here: Lakes of Pontchartrain Irish Bouzouki Chord Chart
Here it is in the hands of the masters once again, Paul Brady and Andy Irvine:
Do You Love an Apple?
This is a song that some of my regular readers will already be familiar with, as it’s a favourite of mine.
The origins of Do You Love an Apple? are largely unknown. Various versions exist within the folk music traditions of Ireland, Scotland and England. The version most commonly sung at Irish music sessions however was popularised by The Bothy Band who recorded it in 1975.
You can hear it below sung by a young Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, accompanied by the legendary Donal Lunny on Irish bouzouki. Today, Tríona is considered one of the most influential vocalists in the world of Irish music, and rightly so:
Did you catch Tríona’s smirk at 00:48? Some who only halfheartedly listen to the lyrics have mistaken it for a pure love song, but those who listen carefully will realise the tongue in cheek nature of the song:
Before I got married I wore a black shawl, but since I got married I wear bugger all… But still I love him, I can’t deny him, I’ll be with him wherever he goes.
Now I already know what my regular readers are thinking: why on earth would I include this in my list of Valentine’s Day love songs?
In some versions of the song the object of the singer’s affections does far worse than rolling home drunk on a Saturday night. Tríona’s rendition is a bit more tame and overall, the sentiment is still quite sweet.
With playful lyrics and a simple memorable melody this is the perfect party piece for any Irish music session. You can find the chords here: Do You Love an Apple Chord Chart
Raggle Taggle Gypsy
The Raggle Taggle Gypsy is yet another song that originated from another folk music tradition – in this case, Scotland – but is now widely accepted as an ‘Irish’ ballad.
A version of the song was recorded by the famous folk song collector, Francis Child who published it under the title The Gypsy Laddie in his collection, English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The song is believed to date back to the early 18th century and is based on an old Scottish tune.
One of the most popular versions known today was recorded by Irish supergroup Planxty on their iconic 1973 debut album, earning its place in the Irish folk song tradition:
The Raggle Taggle Gypsy tells the story of a lady who leaves her husband and her lavish lifestyle behind to follow a handsome stranger on his travels. There’s much speculation as to who the scandalous subject of the song may be, but no one knows for sure. One thing that is evident from the lyrics however, is that she’s much happier with her new lot in life:
What care I for my house and my land? What care I for my money-o? I’d rather have a kiss from the gypsy’s lips I’m away with the raggle taggle gypsy-o!
You can find the chords to this moody number here: The Raggle Taggle Gypsy Chord Chart
The Rocky Road to Dublin
Often unfairly dismissed as a bawdy drinking song, this rousing ballad tells the story of an Irishman leaving behind his home in the west of Ireland to travel to Liverpool to earn his fortune – and the many adventures he encounters along the way. Believe me, belting out those fast-paced lyrics is no easy feat!
One two three four five Hunt the Hare and turn her down the rocky road And all the way to Dublin, Whack fol lol le rah!
Originally written by Irish poet DK Gavan in the 19th Century, The Rocky Road to Dublin is now most closely associated with The Dubliners. It’s become synonymous with Luke Kelly’s gravelly tone and thick Dublin accent:
While Luke Kelly was well known for accompanying his singing on the five string banjo, this arrangement relies on Jim McCann’s guitar accompaniment while the other instruments play the melody.
Barney McKenna’s banjo playing in particular is a masterclass in supporting the melody without dominating or getting in the way of the vocal line!
You can find the chords here: Rocky Road to Dublin Chord Chart
Ireland’s Favourite Folk Song
I couldn’t mention The Rocky Road to Dublin without giving a nod to one of the greatest folk groups to emerge from the Dublin music scene since The Dubliners themselves – Lankum.
In 2019, RTÉ ran a nation campaign to discover Ireland’s favourite folk song. The Rocky Road to Dublin was among the finalists, and although it didn’t win (it lost out to Raglan Road) it did result in this brilliant rendition by Lankum:
While this particular version doesn’t feature any instrumental accompaniment other than an atmospheric drone from the Shruti box, the group’s four part vocal harmony could inspire some exciting chord choices!
The Next Step for Irish Bouzouki Players
If you’re feeling inspired and want to take up the Irish bouzouki, why not check out our Online Music Store where we offer a range of string instruments including Irish Tenor Banjos, Five String Banjos, Irish Bouzoukis, Irish Guitars and Mandolins.
There’s something for everyone waiting to unleash their inner balladeer!