Emigration has long been a central theme of Irish music. There are countless songs and ballads inspired by nostalgia and love for Ireland – as well as feelings of loss and exile.
Some songs about emigration during the famine have endured and remain popular today – think ‘Skibbereen’ and ‘The Streams of Bunclody’. But continual emigration in the 50s, 80s and right through to recent years means emigration remains a part of Irish music – and many people still relate to this theme today.
As many Irish people living abroad can’t make it home for Christmas this year, we’ve pulled together some emigrant songs from the past 30 years that will remind you of home.
N17 – The Saw Doctors
“Yes, I wish I was on that N17 – stone walls and the grasses green.”
The Saw Doctors were formed in Tuam back in 1986. But the band’s original vocalist, Mary O’Connor, left a year later to emigrate to England.
‘N17’ describes an Irish emigrant’s reasons for leaving Tuam – as well as his longing to return. He thinks back to his schooldays and the last drive he took along the N17 towards Shannon airport. Now, he dreams of driving back along it towards Galway.
Released in December 1989, ‘N17’ was the band’s first single. The cover features a road sign for the N17 – and they sometimes brought one on stage too.
During the 1980s, emigration significantly increased because of Ireland’s economic problems. But, unlike in the past, most of those leaving were well-educated. By the end of the decade, around 30% of college graduates left to find opportunities abroad in what became commonly called the brain drain.
With so many leaving just before the song was released, ‘N17’ struck a chord. Though it didn’t hit the Irish charts when it was first released, it reached number one on Christmas of the following year.
Deep Blue – Mango X MathMan
“No matter where I go, I know you’re going to be there waiting for me.”
This recent release from rap and producer duo Mango X Mathman is a love letter to Dublin. It also features the vocals of Lisa Hannigan and orchestration from Crash Ensemble.
As part of the album Casual Work, ‘Deep Blue’ reflects on why people continue to leave Ireland today. The lyrics also describe a sense of belonging and pride in the city of Dublin.
The video also shows some familiar scenes for any Dubliners missing home this year. You’ll see great shots of Sandymount and the Liberties. You’ll also experience a pang of longing when you see the Irish breakfasts, chippers chips and proper pots of tea on screen too.
Flight of the Earls – The Wolfe Tones
“We’ve got Bono and U2. All we’re missing is the Guinness and the rain.”
This is another song inspired by Ireland’s 1980s brain drain. Released in 1987, ‘Flight of the Earls’ is named after the historic event of 1607 when Gaelic leaders permanently left Ireland and set out for mainland Europe.
It highlights the recurring trend of emigration among the Irish and describes the journey from Dublin to places like London, Baltimore, Boston and New South Wales.
Westlife – My Love
“Overseas from coast to coast, To find a place I love the most.”
Released in 2000, as part of Westlife’s second album, ‘My Love’ is about missing home – as well as someone left behind. So, for anyone with a love interest back in Ireland, this song is sure to hit home.
The music video shows off some familiar places too. Starting off in Shannon Airport, it then moves around locations in Limerick and Clare. The grand finale features Westlife singing on the Cliffs of Moher.
If you’re a Westlife fan, the band’s cover of Michael Bublé’s Home is a must-listen this Christmas too.
Thousands Are Sailing – The Pogues
“And in Brendan Behan’s footsteps, I danced up and down the street.”
A list of Irish emigrant songs wouldn’t be complete without mentioning The Pogues. There’s no doubt you’ll hear some version of ‘Fairytale of New York’ during the Christmas season. But ‘Thousands Are Sailing’ covers the ups, as well as the downs of the modern emigrant experience. Released in 1988, it describes the excitement of being in Manhattan – as well as the heartache. It also remembers the Irish who left during the famine.
However, if you originally hail from Tipperary, you should give ‘The Broad Majestic Shannon’ a listen instead.
Apple Of My Eye – Damien Dempsey
“I feel the city’s lure. The apple of my eye, I cherish her.”
Few Irish songs celebrate the opportunities that can come with emigration. But this last song is a reminder that many emigrants love their new homes too.
Back in August 2001, Damien Dempsey wrote this song in a boiling basement in Brooklyn. After the release of his first album, he was struggling to get gigs so he took a break from performing and moved to New York. Here, he slept on a friend’s couch and got a job in an Irish bar.
At the time he was questioning his choice of career. But despite the hard time he was going through, he fell in love with the city. Luckily, he continued to record and play music upon his return to Ireland.