“Whiskey in the Jar,” a Traditional Irish Ballad

A traditional Irish song, “Whiskey in the Jar,” is about a Rapparee or Highwayman, whose wife/lover betrayed him. It is a widely popular tune that had know a number of professional recordings including: Séamus Ennis, Burl Ives, The Highwaymen, the Limeliters, the Seekers, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Darby O’Gill, Metallica, Celtic Thunder, Roger Whittaker and the Irish Rovers.  The sound’s “action” takes place in the County Cork and County Kerry in the Mangerton Mountains, with specific mention of Fenit, a village in Kerry. 

The song likely dates back to the 17th Century and deals with the exploits of Patrick Fleming, a highwayman. Poems have been written about Fleming’s deeds named, including The Ballad of Patrick Flemming or Patrick Flemmen he was a Valiant Soldier. These poems are said to be the foundation for Whiskey in the Jar. Many believe that the song and legend inspired John Gay to write The Beggar’s Opera in 1728. The song’s origins come from the traditional folk song “The Highwayman and the Captain.” The song became a “signature song” of the Irish folk band, the Dubliners. It appears upon three of their albums. 


Fair Use ~ via Wikipedia ~ This is the cover art for the 7-inch single “Whiskey in the Jar” by the artist Thin Lizzy. The cover art copyright is believed to belong to the label, Decca Records, or the graphic artist(s).

 According to Wikipedia, “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, 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 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.”

LYRICS: As I was a goin’ over the far famed Kerry mountains
I met with captain Farrell and his money he was counting
I first produced my pistol and I then produced my rapier
Saying “Stand and deliver” for he were a bold deceiver

Mush-a ring dumb-a do dumb-a da
Wack fall the daddy-o, wack fall the daddy-o
There’s whiskey in the jar

I counted out his money and it made a pretty penny
I put it in me pocket and I took it home to Jenny
She sighed and she swore that she never would deceive me
But the devil take the women for they never can be easy

Mush-a ring dumb-a do dumb-a da
Wack fall the daddy-o, wack fall the daddy-o
There’s whiskey in the jar

I went up to my chamber, all for to take a slumber
I dreamt of gold and jewels and for sure ‘t was no wonder
But Jenny blew me charges and she filled them up with water
Then sent for captain Farrell to be ready for the slaughter

Mush-a ring dumb-a do dumb-a da
Wack fall the daddy-o, wack fall the daddy-o
There’s whiskey in the jar

And ‘t was early in the morning, just before I rose to travel
Up comes a band of footmen and likewise captain Farrell
I first produced me pistol for she stole away me rapier
I couldn’t shoot the water, so a prisoner I was taken

Mush-a ring dumb-a do dumb-a da
Wack fall the daddy-o, wack fall the daddy-o
There’s whiskey in the jar

There’s some take delight in the carriages a rolling
and others take delight in the hurling and the bowling
but I take delight in the juice of the barley
and courting pretty fair maids in the morning bright and early

Mush-a ring dumb-a do dumb-a da
Wack fall the daddy-o, wack fall the daddy-o
There’s whiskey in the jar

And if anyone can aid me ‘t is my brother in the army
If I can find his station in Cork or in Killarney
And if he’ll go with me, we’ll go rovin’ through Killkenney
And I’m sure he’ll treat me better than my own a-sporting Jenny

Mush-a ring dumb-a do dumb-a da
Wack fall the daddy-o, wack fall the daddy-o
There’s whiskey in the jar

Listen to Metallica’s “Whiskey in the Jar”

Listen to Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey in the Jar” 

Listen to the Dubliners’ “Whiskey in the Jar”  (my preferred version)

Additional Resources: 

The History of Lyrics of ‘Whiskey in the Jar’

The Long and Winding Road of ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ 

“Whiskey in the Jar”: History and Transformation of a Classic Irish Song




About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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3 Responses to “Whiskey in the Jar,” a Traditional Irish Ballad

  1. How lovely to learn the history of one of my favourite songs. The Dubliners is my favourite version too, though a very talented brother and sister combo that plays at my local pub come a close second!

    • I was raised in an Appalachian home and was familiar with the song long before I first heard the Dubliners’ version. Have you ever seen a movie called “The Songcatcher”? It has Janet McTerr, Aidan Quinn, Emmy Rossum (her debut), and Jane Adams. If not, I think you would enjoy it. It speaks of how the old ballads of England, Scotland, Ireland, etc., were carried to the America by the immigrants, and after they were lost (or forgotten) by the British public, songcatchers (men like Francis Child) came to America to relearn the songs left behind. It was filmed here in NC, in the Asheville area. I used to use the movie and the soundtrack in my classrooms to teach cultural heritage.
      IMDb gives this summary: “After being denied a promotion at the university where she teaches, Doctor Lily Penleric, a brilliant musicologist, impulsively visits her sister, who runs a struggling rural school in Appalachia. There she stumbles upon the discovery of her life – a treasure trove of ancient Scots-Irish ballads, songs that have been handed down from generation to generation, preserved intact by the seclusion of the mountains. With the goal of securing her promotion, Lily ventures into the most isolated areas of the mountains to collect the songs and finds herself increasingly enchanted – not only by the rugged purity of the music, but also by the raw courage and endurance of the local people as they carve out meaningful lives against the harshest conditions. It is not, however, until she meets Tom – a handsome, hardened war veteran and talented musician – that she’s forced to examine her motivations. Is the “Songcatcher,” as Tom insists, no better than the men who exploit the people and extort their land?”

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