Down by the Liffeyside was written by Peadar Kearney who also wrote the Irish national anthem, The Soldier’s Song.
Kearney was both a talented songwriter and a staunch republican. He took part in the 1916 Easter Rising and his songs often reflected his republican sympathies, even when the lyrics weren’t overly political.Down by the Liffeyside is essentially a love song giving a light-hearted view of Dublin style courtship for working class people in the early 20th century.
The opening lines make it clear that this is a down to earth song with no pretence at sentimental romanticism. The courtship takes place by Anna Liffey – a local name for the river Liffey – where there’s “slushy mud” underfoot and the whiff of fish and chips fill the air.
A “wan and wan” was a fish and chip meal served in paper for people to eat outside. This would constitute taking your girl out for slap up meal in working class Dublin of the 1920s.
The song has political references in keeping with Kearney’s republican views. The young man loves the girl but when she becomes a Sinn Feiner she makes him feel even more proud.
The final verse is the most political, referring to sending guns against the English. This verse was dropped by most performers after the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s.
Kearney usually only wrote the lyrics to his songs. The melody for Down by the Liffeyside is taken from a song with a similar title, Down by the Tanyard Side, which in turn was taken from a much older song called The Slaney Side, which appears in the Irish Country Songs collection by Herbert Hughes.
The same tune was used for a song called The Piper of Crossbarry, which recounts stories about the Third West Cork Brigade in 1921.
Down by the Liffeyside has been recorded by major artists including The Dubliners, The Wolfe Tones and Dominic Behan.