The Tossers | Best Irish drinking songs
T. Duggins talks whiskey, poverty and Irish wisdom on St. Paddy’s Day.
Wed Mar 13 2013
The South Side’s answer to the Pogues, local Celtic-punk flag-bearers the Tossers have been turning out hard-driving (and -drinking) tunes for the last 20 years. The group’s latest for Victory Records, The Emerald City, landed earlier this month, and as the group heads to the Metro to both celebrate the album and ring in St. Paddy’s Day, it seemed only fitting to have frontman Tony Duggins run down his favorite Irish drinking songs, plus a few of his own for good measure.
“The Jug of Punch”
This is a classic song about life and death that I’ve heard just about every folk and ballad group play. I’ve always loved this one for its cheery melody, and its light and airy lyric, which eventually descends into a maudlin and defiant rant. It’s about a man who fondly recalls the pleasures of drinking on a “pleasant evening in the month of June.” But the old bastard gets sour pretty soon after that, telling everyone, “Well if I get drunk, well me money is me own / And them don’t like me they can leave me alone,” until finally giving his mourners instructions on how to carry out his wake. It’s a beautiful song that’s full of piss and vinegar, and a great place to start with Irish drinking songs.
“I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Everyday”
I once read Shane MacGowan describe this song as “a Jacobite rebel ordering his pint in a pub,” which is pretty much what it is. The lyric is one of a man greeting and welcoming the listener to sit next to him at the bar and to “be easy and free when you’re drinkin’ with me / I’m a man you don’t meet everyday / So come fill up your glasses with brandy and wine / Whatever it costs I will pay.” The Pogues did my favorite version of this song on their Rum Sodomy & the Lash album. The first thing you notice about the song is that it’s actually not sung by a man, but by Cait O’Riordan, then the Pogues’ bass player. It’s a painfully lonely but friendly song, sung in a warm, easy and embracing voice.
This is an old folk song about an aging prostitute named Dicey Riley, who “has taken to the sup,” and “will never give it up.” Dicey was an actual person. I heard Ronnie Drew [of the Dubliners] tell a funny story of an appearance she made in court. The IRA had been very busy in Dublin around that time and all sorts of petty criminals and thieves would address the (basically English) court with something to the effect of, “I refuse to recognize this court as the solemn and proper court of Ireland,” or whatever. So after hearing this all day, the judge asks Dicey, as she stands before him on a prostitution charge, “Madam, before we go any further, do you recognize this court?” and Dicey replies in true Dublin fashion, “Yes yer honor, I recognize every bloody one of yez.”
This was one of our first songs and I wrote it when I was very young, and although I wouldn’t write a song like this now, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to play. As the title suggests, it’s about a young Irish sailor, and every fantastically juvenile verse is followed by an equally childish shout of “Boozer,” “Hookers” and “Aye sir.” (Let’s face it, there will always be prostitutes, sailors and marines.) This song not only reminds me of a time in history, but also of my own childhood innocence, ignorance and adolescence. So let’s dedicate this song to all the prepubescent boys that the navy used to press gang into service, and who made up a great percentage of the English and American fleets back then. Scumbags.
“Buckets of Beer”
Another one of my songs. Much like the old Irish folk song “Whiskey in the Jar,” the chorus of “Buckets of Beer” doesn’t have all that much to do with the verses. When I started writing songs, the IRA was still in full effect in Ireland, and the violence was worse than it ever was before. Cell phones and the Internet didn’t exist, and abortions and divorce were still illegal. In the time before digital technology brought an economic boom to the world, Ireland was still a very poor country. I once heard or read someone say, jokingly, that at the time, Ireland’s most gainful form of employment was bank robbery. So that’s what the song is about: five fellas robbing a bank. I guess “Buckets of Beer” would be the spoils of that.
“The Break of Dawn”
“Here’s to a Drink with You”
These are two of our new ones, and the best examples of drinking songs that we have to date. (Well, I’m working on a song right now called “Whiskey,” but that’s for another time.) “The Break of Dawn” is an homage to Chicago’s one-time chief of police Francis O’Neill, a collector of Irish music, and concerns a fella sitting in with a priest on an all-night musical session loosely based in Chicago’s Chief O’Neill’s Pub. “Locking the door” and letting the “pipers blow and the glasses flow” give way to this guy’s walk down to Lake Michigan “to watch the small birds fly away / To the break of dawn,” and anyone who’s been to Chief O’Neills Pub knows how far of a walk it is to Lake Michigan. You’d have to be drunk to do it. Oh, and by the way, if anyone ever finds me out there in the morning, please leave me alone. The next song, “Here’s to a Drink with You,” is about summertime in the Chicago pubs. My favorite verse is: “Well there is no rest for a troubled mind / In these tough economic times / The rich stay rich, and we stay poor and we will forevermore / So here’s to a drink with you, early in the morning / Here’s to a drink with you till the rising of the moon.” Sláinte.
“Drinking in the Day”
This song was written by Bono and Simon Carmody and recorded by Ronnie Drew. It’s about an old man’s enchanted autumn romp around the ancient city of Dublin with a young school girl (a girl who I’ve met by the way, who isn’t a schoolgirl anymore). It’s a somewhat true story. Of course she has to pay for the drinks, but in return he gives her back a fund of wisdom on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that could never be learned in school. It’s a very contemporary song with a beautiful melody and haunting lyrics, yet it feels as old as time itself.
“Streams of Whiskey”
Perhaps the best drinking song ever written, it appears on the Pogues’ 1984 album Red Roses for Me. James Fearnley, the Pogues’ accordion player, described this one in his book, Here Comes Everybody, as a song about an enchanted place like “Tir Na Nog” or “the big rock candy mountains” where “the little streams of alcohol come trickling down the rocks.” The song begins with the dream of its author, Shane MacGowan, meeting the late playwright, author and renowned drinker Brendan Behan on the street: “When questioned of his views / On the crux of life’s philosophies / He had but these few clear and simple words to say / I am going, I am going / Any which way the wind may be blowing / I am going, I am going / Where the streams of whiskey are flowing.” The song is an individual ideology, one of enjoying a liberty that is usually not smiled upon by the general population. It is a song about the love of drinking and getting drunk, and a song of absolute freedom, and it is also a song full of hope. Maybe someday we will all find this place. Cheers.
The Tossers play the Metro Saturday 16.
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