Dirty Old Town has been performed to such acclaim by bands like The Dubliners and The Pogues that it is sometimes mistakenly thought of as an Irish song.
In fact, it was written by the Anglo-Scottish singer Ewan MacColl about the town of Salford near Manchester in the north west of England. MacColl was one of the leading lights of the folk revival in England from the 1940s onwards.
He wrote many great songs like Shoals of Herring which have since become part of the folk tradition.
MacColl was also a playwright and theatre producer. In 1948 he wrote a play called Landscape with Chimneys, which was set in Salford where MacColl was born and brought up.
MacColl is said to have had a love-hate relationship with the town. He loved its people and was keen to champion their rights, but he disliked the dour, depressing outlook and the poor conditions in which people had to live in the 1930s and 40s.
Dirty Old Town written to help MacColl’s play
When Landscape with Chimneys was first due to be performed in 1949, MacColl was concerned about a difficult scene change which would take two or three minutes to accomplish. He decided to solve the problem by having a musical interlude featuring a song about Salford where the play was set.
That song turned out to be Dirty Old Town. It’s perhaps ironic that MacColl only wrote it as an afterthought to help with his play because it went on to become his best known and most widely recorded song.
Dirty Old Town has been a standard on the folk circuit ever since it was written and remains as popular as ever today.