Maps to the Music: Irish Place Names in Songs

With its long history, beguiling landscapes and millions of intertwining lives, Ireland has inspired countless poems and songs over the millennia. Many of the places namechecked in these works still stand, and you can still stroll down Raglan Road or take a trip to the Fields of Athenry.

Here are some of the most memorable Irish places immortalised in song, and how to get there.

We’ll start with a truly iconic one…

Lisdoonvarna

Christy Moore’s loveable, cheeky classic was written in the 1980s. Contrary to what some believe, he’s singing about the short-lived Lisdoonvarna music festival, not the legendary matchmaking one. “If it’s music you want, you should go to Clare” he (accurately) sings.

The song namechecks everything from the Galway Races to tours from American musicians like Jackson Browne, but Christy has been known to change and modernize the lyrics for live performances. Lisdoonvarna (the song) recently made headlines for its inclusion alongside works by Patrick Kavanagh, WB Years and Sheamus Heaney in the Penguin Book of Irish Verse.

As for the village, Lisdoonvarna sits in County Clare, a small but utterly charming place with a population of about 739 (according to a 2011 census). The matchmaking festival attracts lonely hearts from all over the world- sometimes up to 40,000. Clare matchmakers are often a family business, in some cases connecting people for four generations.

The Fields of Athenry

A ballad tinged with tragedy, The Fields of Athenry tells the story of a man who steals food during the Famine and is sent to prison in Australia’s Botany Bay. Alone in his cell, he reminisces about the glorious fields of his homeland.

Of course, this song is known to Irish sports fans throughout the land. And it was even the subject of a dance remix that filled floors in Irish clubs since the 1990s. It’s been recorded by Daniel O’Donnell, Ronan Tynan and The Dubliners, including many others – including punk and reggae bands.

Athenry itself is in County Galway, 25 kilometres east of Galway City. Some of its buildings date back to medieval times (as far back as the 13th Century). Appropriately enough, given the song’s sporting presence, Athenry has a tremendous record on tracks and fields: It’s the home of highly accomplished St Mary’s GAA Club; Athenry FC, one of the most successful soccer clubs in the country; and two Olympians – sprinters Martina McCarthy and Paul Hession.

Raglan Road

On Raglan Road is another song that’s been covered many times, though this one arguably has a definitive version in the form of Luke Kelly’s performance with The Dubliners. A much younger Dublin native, Andrew Scott has a good stab at it in the film, The Stag, and non-Dubliner Billy Joel performs it too.

The song, with lyrics from a poem by Patrick Kavanagh, tells of a doomed love affair that started on a South Dublin street.

Raglan Road itself is a quiet, upper middle-class neighbourhood in Dublin 4, a different neighbourhood from Kavanagh’s native Monahan and Kelly’s Sherriff Street.

N17

Some might say that The Saw Doctors’ N17 is a spiritual cousin to The Proclaimers’ Letter from America. Both songs are considered jaunty and fun hits from the 90s, but both songs are sad tales of emigration and homesickness.

It’s easy to forget how big the Saw Doctors were in the 1990s: The Tuam band had 18 top 30 singles, including three number ones, one of which (I Usedta Love Her) was number one for nine weeks.

The catchy, banjo-led N17, tells of an Irish emigrant who remembers the road he travelled many times, and its stone walls and green grass.

That road is now seeing a lot less use: After the opening of the M7, fewer motorists passed through Tuam (The Saw Doctors’ hometown). So, young people like Davey portrayed in the song would be a lot less likely to take the N17.

Rest assured, though: The band has confirmed on social media that they’ll still sing about the famous road, with no changes to the lyrics.

Down by the Salley Gardens

“Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet…” is the opening for a beautiful poem by William Butler Yeats, and later a song that used the poem as lyrics.

Yeats said that poem was “an attempt to reconstruct an old song from three lines imperfectly remembered by an old peasant woman in the village of Ballisodare, Sligo, who often sings them to herself.” That poem, written in 1889 got a new lease of life and an audience spanning generations when it was put to music.

Clannad, Dolores Keane, The Waterboys and even actress Emma Thompson have performed the song.

On the Road

OSi has mapped the entire country, from the N17 to Raglan Road and everywhere in between and beyond.

Plan your inspiring journey with an OSI map from our Online Store.

Check out the Discovery series Maps for each song title below.

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