The Wild Rover – an Irish drinking song or an English temperance song?

in Music

When most people think of the Irish folk song, the Wild Rover, they immediately think of fun, laughter and above all, drinking.

However, this may not be the correct way to interpret the song. It may, in fact, be a temperance song designed to warn against the damage that can be done by alcohol.

The Wild Rover is arguably the most widely performed Irish song ever and yet its exact origins are unknown. In fact, it may not even be Irish and could have originated in England or Scotland.

The song has been popular since at least the early 19th century and although it seemed to fall out of favour in the first half of the 20th century, it made a storming comeback in the folk revival in the 1960s.

Folk clubs and Irish music centres were springing up all over the English speaking world in those days and soon every singer was adding it to his repertoire.

The Wild Rover tells the story of a dissolute young man to who drinks his way through life spending all his money on whiskey and beer. To amuse himself, he goes to an alehouse and asks for credit. The landlady refuses saying she can get that kind of business any day.

However, he then takes bright sovereigns from his pocket making “the landlady’s eyes open with delight”. In the final verse, however, he says he’ll reform like the prodigal son of the bible. Are we to believe him?

For many people, the Wild Rover is the stereotypical Irish drinking song.

In this interpretation, the Wild Rover’s promise to reform in the final verse isn’t taken seriously. To others though, it was written as temperance song with its origins in Scotland or England. The lyrics in the final verse certainly give some credence to this where the singer promises to give up dissolute lifestyle.

“I’ll go back to my parents confess what I’ve done, and I’ll ask them to pardon their prodigal son.

“And if they caress me as oft times before then I never will play the Wild Rover no more.”

The lyrics to the Wild Rover are sufficiently general to allow it to be seen as a good time drinking song or as a temperance song. Most people, however, continue to see it as a harmless good time song to be enjoyed as part of general sing song on a night out.

As such, its popularity shows no sign of waning.

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Michael Curran has 10 articles online

Michael Curran is a keen student of Irish music such as Wild Rover. He writes for and likes to perform Irish songs at his local folk club.

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The Wild Rover – an Irish drinking song or an English temperance song?

This article was published on 2011/01/07