As a BBC Radio presenter with a keen interest in Irish country, showband and traditional music, Henry Wymbs decided a while ago to find out what his listeners considered to be the top 20 traditional Irish songs of all time – with an emphasis on the most memorable lyrics.

Music and the lyrics that accompany those melodies can have a powerful impact on the human spirit, helping to combat feelings of loneliness and boredom. It is well known that music can have great therapeutic benefits providing comfort in times of grief and joy during sad times in our lives.

Of course, the so-called music experts can talk all they want about a classy melody, a good rhythm or a song destined to make it big, but the bottom line is that the listener sat at home will always be judge, jury and executioner.
As good as a song may be, if people don’t want to listen to it, it ain’t going to make it. What I have listed here are personal choices made by my listeners, with my own thoughts pitched in and some background information included on a wide-ranging choice of songs, with the number one being top of the pile.


20 – The Ferryman by The Dublin City Ramblers
‘The little boats are gone…’ They surely are. The last of the ferries across the river Liffey was the workers’ ferry and new bridges saw their demise. But that’s life I suppose! Love this version by lead singer Patsy Watchorn, with such an earthy voice, you would sit in snow to listen to him. The purity in his voice is something exceedingly rare as he captivates an audience with a song born out of real feelings and sung with a passion few singers can match.

19 – When Irish Eyes Are Smiling by John McCormack
The lyrics tell their own story. McCormack is one of Ireland’s favourite sons. He was born in the town of Athlone in 1884 to working class parents and became Ireland’s greatest tenor and first global superstar. McCormack made his first recording in 1904 and his last in 1942. He gripped the imagination of people, particularly in America, and the legacy of recorded music he left stands testimony to his brilliance. He died a relatively young man in 1945.

18 – The Spanish Lady by Johnny McEvoy
This lady is reputed to have been the mistress of the 18th century Viceroy of Ireland who, although domiciled in the Phoenix Park (now the presidential residence), kept his paramour in Montague Street. It is said the bow window, in which she sat preening herself, was bricked up by him when he first heard the ballad. Today it has been restored but the lady has long gone.

Continue reading in this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Annual