The Parting Glass is a beautiful example of that particular gift the Irish seem to have in abundance – being able to combine joy and sorrow in a way that is both sad yet wonderfully uplifting at the same time.
It’s a song of farewell, sung for and to close friends. It conjures up the same feeling as Shakespeare’s “parting is such sweet sorrow”.
It may make you cry, but in a moving and life-affirming way.
The singer must depart but where is he going? Does he simply have to leave the area or the town? Will he ever return? Or is he foreseeing that he does not have long to live and this really is the final farewell?
It’s never made clear so we can interpret it in our own way, depending on what suits our circumstances at any given time.
The opening verse makes it clear that this is a person who is comfortable with himself.
He seems to have had a happy go lucky approach to life. He’s never had very much money but what he had he spent in good company.
It doesn’t sound like he’s the kind of person who ever did much wrong but, in any case, whatever harm he may have done, it was only to himself.
As for mistakes, he may have made several but he can’t remember them. It’s like an Irish forerunner to Edith Piaf’s Je ne regret rien – No Regrets.
Any mistakes he may have made, through want of wit or whatever, no longer matter. He can’t even remember them. All that matters is the here and now, the impending departure and the need to be at peace with friends.
The parting glass comes with a toast: Good night and joy be with you all.
This is a popular man who is welcome wherever he goes. All the friends he has ever had are sorry when he leaves them; his many sweethearts always wished he could stay at least another day.
But something is happening that is beyond his control. His comrades may stay but he must leave. He will do so with the kind of warmth and quiet dignity that we suspect has accompanied him all his life.
I gently rise and I softly call,
Goodnight and joy be with you all
The Parting Glass is one of many Irish songs that were made popular again in the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. It will always be associated in many people’s minds with The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem who sang it as the final song at many of their concerts.
The Dubliners also did notable versions and then bands like The Pogues brought the song to a new audience in the 1980s. More recent artists like Loreena McKennitt and Cara Dillon have reinterpreted it for a new generation.
Click here for the history of the Parting Glass