Japanese Army Officer

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How robbery and rebellion make Whiskey in the Jar a classic Irish song

When a country is occupied by a foreign power as Ireland was for several hundred years then music is often used as a way of poking fun at the establishment.

This is a large part of the appeal of that hugely popular Irish song, Whiskey in the Jar, which has been recorded by folk and rock bands alike, including Metallica.

Whiskey in the Jar features love, robbery and betrayal, and is set to a rollicking, irresistible tune, so it’s not hard to see why it has become so popular, not only in Ireland but across the world – particularly in America.

Whiskey in the Jar tells the story of a highwayman who stalks the Cork and Kerry mountains in Ireland. He is bold enough, or reckless enough, to rob Captain Farrell, an officer in the British army. The British had occupied and controlled Ireland for centuries and were resented by many Irish people who staged numerous rebellions.

Anyone who dared to rob a British army officer would be very popular with the local people and be looked upon as a sort of Robin Hood character.

The highwayman counts out the money and then gives it for safe keeping to Jenny – his wife or maybe his lover. Jenny promises that she will never deceive him but she proves to be false.

When the highwayman goes to rest after his exploits, Jenny puts water into his gunpowder, rendering his pistol ineffective. She is setting him up to be captured.

The next morning as the highwayman ventures out again, he finds himself ambushed by Captain Farrell and his footmen.

He tries to shoot at them but his pistol won’t work because the powder is wet. He reaches for his sabre but the deceitful Jenny has already taken it from him.

Rendered defenceless, he is captured and taken prisoner.

While in jail, he curses his deceitful Jenny but doesn’t linger in despair for long. Soon he is looking to the future and considering whether his brother could come and help him.

He hopes that his brother will be able to help him escape from jail and return to the highwayman lifestyle.

Whiskey in the jar
is one of the most widely recorded Irish folk songs and has even crossed over to appeal to rock audiences following recordings by Thin Lizzy and Metallica.

A sense of rebellion has always appealed to young rock fans and that may be part of the appeal of Whiskey in the Jar, in which the highwayman dares to challenge the establishment.

But there are also the universal themes of love and betrayal which have added to the appeal and helped to make Whiskey in the Jar a classic Irish folk song.

Michael Curran is a keen student of
Irish music
such as
Whiskey in the jar
. He writes for www.irishmusicforever.com and likes to perform Irish songs at his local folk club.

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