“Whiskey in the Jar,” a song about a notorious Irish highwayman Patrick Fleming who was hanged in 1650, has become one of Ireland’s most beloved songs, a true rebel air that stirs the passions.

“Whiskey in the Jar” became a hit for Irish performers like The Dubliners and Thin Lizzy and has even been covered by Metallica and Grateful Dead, but its origins aren't as widely known as the tune itself.

Fleming was no hero. He murdered, robbed, and maimed rich and poor alike, including women and children before being hunted down. He made a legendary escape from his death cell by scrambling up a chimney but was eventually recaptured. In death, he acquired a heroic air and many poems were written about him.

One, in particular, became the basis for one of the most loved ballads of all time.

“Whiskey in the Jar," written around the time of Cromwell's invasion of Ireland, the blackest episode in Irish history until The Famine, tells the tale of a highway robber betrayed by his lover, Molly, and ending up in a ball and chain in prison.

Whiskey in the Jar was originally written about Patrick Fleming, a highwayman.

Whiskey in the Jar was originally written about Patrick Fleming, a highwayman.

Historian Alan Lomax says songs of highwaymen attacking the agents of the crown were very popular with Irish and British peasants.

The folk of 17th-century Britain liked and admired their local highwaymen, and in Ireland (or Scotland) where the gentlemen of the roads robbed English landlords, they were regarded as national patriots. Such feelings inspired this rollicking ballad.

Not surprisingly given mass emigration, the song was exported to America probably by Irish indentured servants and several different versions of it can still be heard in the South today.

The song appeared in wording very close to its modern version in a ballad called "The Sporting Hero," or "Whiskey in the Bar," in a mid-1850s broadsheet.

During the American Civil War the famed Fighting 69th, composed of almost all Irish, adopted the song as their own anthem but changed the lyrics and called the song “We'll Fight for Uncle Sam.”

Their song goes as follows: 

We’ll Fight for Uncle Sam
Air: Whiskey in the jar.

I am a modern hero: my name is Paddy Kearney;
Not long ago, I landed from the bogs of sweet Killarney;
I used to cry out: Soap fat! bekase that was my trade, sir,
Till I 'listed for a Soger-boy wid Corcoran's brigade, sir.
Chorus: For to fight for Uncle Sam;
He'll lead us on to glory, O!
He'll lead us on to glory, O!
To save the Stripes and Stars.
Ora, once in regimentals, my mind was bewildher.
I bid good-bye to Biddy dear, and all the darling children;
Whoo! says I, the Irish Volunteers the devil a one afraid is,
Because we've got the sugar bowl, McClellan, to lead us.
Chorus: For to fight for Uncle Sam, c.
We soon got into battle: we made a charge of bayonets:
The Rebel blaggards soon gave way: they fell as thick as paynuts.
Och hone! the slaughter that we made, bedad, it was delighting!
For, the Irish lads in action are the devil's boys for fighting.
Chorus: They'll fight for Uncle Sam,
Och, sure, we never will give in, in any sort of manner,
Until the South comes back again, beneath the Starry-Banner;
And if John Bull should interfere, he'd suffer for it truly;
For, soon the Irish Volunteers would give him Ballyhooly.
Chorus: Oh! they'll fight for Uncle Sam, 

The reference is to George B. McClellan, the fired general who was very popular with the Irish troops but was replaced by Abraham Lincoln because of a refusal to fight aggressively.

In an unquoted verse, the song also refers to Corcoran's Brigade, led by Irish Civil War hero Michael Corcoran who famously refused to salute the visiting Prince of Wales.

In the modern era, Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy created a magnificent new version of the old tune in the early 1970s.

Since then, it has never been more popular. U2 have even done their own version of it as have Irish ballad groups, such as The High Kings and Celtic Thunder though surprisingly the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem never recorded it.

Incredible to think a long ago written ballad about a highwayman, in 1650 or so, remains as popular today.

Check out some great versions of "Whiskey in the Jar" here:

* Originally published in 2020, updated in Jan 2024.