Dicey Reilly or Dicey Riley as it is sometimes spelt is a song about a woman alcoholic from Dublin.
Despite the seriousness of the subject, the song is warm and light hearted. It’s uncertain whether Dicey was a real person, and if she was, whether or not she used prostitution to finance her drinking.
Most versions of the song only feature two verses and a chorus, which focus purely on Dicey’s drinking habits. However, there is also a longer version made popular by the Dublin singer and songwriter Dominic Behan, which introduces the theme of prostitution.
The shorter version is still the best known and tells the story of how Dicey has taken to drink and will never give it up.
The word ‘pop’, which is used in the chorus, is Dublin slang for pawn shop. This suggests Dicey’s daily routine is to visit the pawn shop to get money to buy drink. The ‘heart of the rowl’ refers to the end part of a roll of chewing tobacco. The end of the roll was generally considered to be the best because it had more time to mature.
The “heart of the rowl” therefore came to mean the best, which suggests that for all her faults, Dicey was liked and considered to be a good person at heart.
The longer version as performed by Dominic Behan refers to ‘time catching up with her like many pretty whores’. Her looks fade and she has to resort to chasing men along the street soliciting her services.
There is some debate in folk circles as to where these verses came from. The consensus seems to be that they were added by Dominic Behan when he recorded the song. This seems quite likely for two reasons. First, Behan was a talented songwriter who might find it hard not to add to a song if he thought he could improve it.
Secondly, performers get no publishing royalties on traditional songs. However, if they add to the song they become entitled to at least some of the publishing royalties. This is why many recordings from the folk revival of the 1960s list songs as traditional but arranged by the singer or some other modern writer.
It meant that as well as any creative impulse Behan might have felt, it was also in his interests financially to modify the song.
Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners often performed the song and is perhaps the singer most associated with it. He would often tell a story of how Dicey, or some other unfortunate woman like her, had to appear in court charged with soliciting.
At that time in Ireland in the early 1920s, Ireland was in the process of breaking away from British rule. Many nationalist were charged with offences which they saw as political. Consequently, when they were charged they said that were political prisoners and they refused to recognise the court.
Drew said that after a while, even people charged with ordinary criminal offences such as theft or prostitution would claim to be political prisoners and refuse to recognise the court.
This began to waste time and judges became increasingly irritated by it. According to Drew, many of the judges and lawyers were not above using the services of Dicey and others of her trade. On the day that Dicey was brought in on a charge of soliciting, the judge began the formalities by asking her if she recognised the court: “Oh yes yer honour,” she replied. “Every bloody one of you.”
The story always brought the house down and got everyone in the right mood to enjoy the song.