Four years after we brought home our dog from the Animal Rescue Fund kennels and gave her the cute, little, old-fashioned floral name of Sweet Pea, I have finally realized what we should have named her, instead: Captain Farrell.
Are you familiar with the traditional Irish tune “Whiskey in the Jar”? It’s told from the perspective of a highwayman, a bold deceiver and drunken carouser who meets with an English officer, Captain Farrell, on the Cork and Kerry Mountains. The highwayman draws his pistol, and then he draws his rapier, to rob Captain Farrell of his gold coins, but when he carries the money home to his girl, Jenny, she betrays him, pouring water into his pistol and stealing his sword. When he wakes up drunk in her bed, between 6 and 7, he finds Captain Farrell and his soldiers in the chamber. Captain Farrell drags him to jail, where — with nothing left but his fists — he punches a sentry on the way into his cell.
There are many verses of and many variations on “Whisky in the Jar.” Sometimes it’s set in Gilgarra Mountain or Kilgary Mountain or Ruberry Mountain, or the “far-famed Kerry Mountains.” Sometimes, the highwayman carries a blunderbuss instead of pistol and rapier. Sometimes Jenny is Molly or Sportin’ Jenny, and the soldiers are footmen. Sometimes Captain Farrell is Colonel Pepper, which is also a good name for a dog. Sometimes it’s the officer who is a bold deceiver, not the highwayman. Sometimes he escapes prison with the help of his brother, a soldier with the army in Cork or Killarney, and they hide out in the mountains of Kilkenny.
The song also has many alternative titles — “Sportin’ Jenny” or “Gilgarra Mountain” or “The Sporting Hero” — but whatever you call it, “Whisky in the Jar” is one of the best songs ever, and maybe the most rock and roll of all rock and roll songs. It has everything, whisky, lust, betrayal, jail, cunning women, death.
Alan Lomax, the folk musicolo gist, wrote that “Whisky in the Jar” had probably originated almost 400 years ago, with a confession ballad about a poor boy from County Roscommon named Patrick Fleming. The echo chamber of the internet repeats one basic story of who the real Patrick Fleming was, basing its biographical “facts” on an account in “The Newgate Calendar” — a proto-true-crime publication produced a century and a half later, in London, with the intention of improving readers’ morals while also gratifying their thirst for gore. If “The Newgate Calendar” is to be believed (and I rather think it is not), Fleming was a sociopath who cut off Sir Donough O’Brian’s nose, lips, and ears during one robbery and threatened to cook the 4-year-old son of the Countess of Baltimore into a pie.
The origin ballad, however, suggests this Irish highwayman was something more like a guerrilla or partisan — one of the rapparees of southern Ireland who hid out in wild and remote areas and harassed the English authorities. “Patrick Flemmen Was a Vallient Soldier” was its title, and that certainly sounds like a statement. Its lyrics make him out to be a wife-stealing rake of a Robin Hood rather than an unmitigated monster. The composition may have been what’s called a “good-night,” a sensational story-song of the 1640s and 1650s written and printed up as a broadside for sale to the crowds on the occasion of a criminal’s execution. It is a matter of historic record that Fleming was executed and strung up with chains as a warning on the high road to Dublin in April of 1650.
You can hear admiration for Patrick Fleming’s bravado in the lyrics of “Vallient Soldier.” You can also feel time, the distance of time and the closeness of the past, when you listen to this headbanger from 1650 in the year 2022.
The best recorded version of “Whisky in the Jar” is the 1972 hit version by Thin Lizzy. Eric Bell, Thin Lizzy’s guitar player, added a lick that takes the whole thing to a sublime level. I also like the haunting version by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman on acoustic guitar and mandolin, from the album “Shady Grove,” and a random, lo-fi version by a bar band in Dublin called Hot Whiskey, which you can hear on YouTube. Actually, you should go to YouTube or Spotify right now and listen to all three of these. If you have ears, you will enjoy this.
If you fall down a Spotify rabbit hole, as I did, you will also find recordings by a bunch of corny early-1960s folk groups, plus great versions by the Pogues, the Grateful Dead, Pulp, and Belle and Sebastian. Metallica won a Grammy in 1998 for its take, but that one is basically a straight-up cover of Thin Lizzy’s version, cribbing Mr. Bell’s unique guitar riff and adding some cheap snarling. The 1960s folkies the Highwaymen sang the line “for I am a bold deceiver” as “for I am a bold receiver,” which strikes me as humorous. The worst version ever is by Peter, Paul, and Mary — so wimpy, so limp, so bad it helps you understand why punks hated hippies.
I love this song for the melody. The melody of “Whisky in the Jar” is absolutely the keenest, sharpest, most deadly, most murderously rapier-sharp expression of the outlaw spirit as that spirit overlaps with melancholy. (And the true outlaw spirit is melancholy by definition. An outlaw lives with the awareness that his days of wild freedom are numbered.) I think the word people use for this musical effect, between joy and sadness, may be “wistful,” but the truth of a universally beautiful melody goes beyond words. It corresponds to the subconscious. The melody of “Whisky in the Jar” expresses adventure and mortality, to me. Not to sound like a jerk.
Even the nonsense words of the chorus of “Whisky in the Jar” make total sense, because of the perfection of the melody. If I could sing, I would sing “musha ringum duram da” and, to paraphrase Paul Simon, everybody here would know exactly what I was talking about.
There’s no jar of whisky in “Patrick Flemmen Was a Vallient Soldier.” Some people say that the refrain “there’s whisky in the jar” was added by some later singer calling out for a drink while he performed. Phil Lynott, the lead singer of Thin Lizzy, added an “o” and an extra up-note to the last word of the chorus — “there’s whisky in the jar-o” — which was another stroke of musical genius, because it fixes the only thing wrong with the traditional rendering of this song, which is the slightly plodding effect of the chorus resolution, which settles the chorus-ending phrase “whisky in the jar” with a too-tidy plod-plod-plod-plod, going from a “so” to a “mi” to a “re-re” and “do.” (See: the Dubliners’ 1968 version.)
We don’t know the biographical facts about the man who inspired “Whisky in the Jar,” but the melody tells truth about who the songwriters believed him to be. It is a tune of daring and sadness. And while we are talking about the mystery of Irish genius, and I am making unsolicited suggestions, you might want to sidle over to YouTube to watch Shane MacGowan of the Pogues singing “Lullaby of London” live at the Town and Country Club in 1988. His family was from Tipperary, not all that far from the Bog of Allen, where Patrick Fleming hid out and harassed Captain Farrell and Colonel Pepper.