The Rocky Road to Dublin is a wild, comical adventure story as a young man sets off from his home in Tuam in Galway to seek his fortune.
He’s a confident young man and he must think he’s a hit with the women because he considers that his departure “left the girls of Tuam nearly broken hearted”. We don’t get to hear what the girls think!
We learn straightaway that he likes a drink as before setting off, he sips “a pint of beer, my grief and tears to smother.”
After that though, it’s on with the journey as he rattles along the rocky road in his “brand new pair of brogues” frightening all the dogs along the way.
Robbed on first night in Dublin
When he arrives in Dublin he takes a walk round the city and strolls among people he thinks are the quality but he has shock waiting for him.His bundle which he carries on the end of his stick is stolen. When he asks for help in catching the thief he finds the native Dubliners are not very helpful. They tell him his “Connaught brogue wasn’t much in vogue” in Dublin.
Rock bottom down among the pigs
The traveller then sets off to sail to Liverpool but the captain tells him there’s no room aboard.
But this is not a man who accepts refusal so he jumps aboard anyway.
He has to travel with the pigs and although he “danced some hearty jigs” to keep up his spirits, by the end of the sailing he wishes he was dead or back on the rocky road to Dublin.
From Dublin to Liverpool but no change of luck
His luck shows no sign of improving when he arrives in Liverpool. The locals call him a fool until he can no longer stand it. Then they begin to insult his native Ireland.
Blood began to boil, temper I was losin’
Poor ould Erin’s isle they began abusin’
He is not a man who backs down so he attacks his tormentors with his shillelagh.
He is outnumbered but some other Galway boys are nearby and when they hear him they join the fight and together “they quickly cleared the way for the rocky road to Dublin”.
The Rocky Road is musical tour de force
The Rocky Road to Dublin is a difficult song to perform and is usually best left to the master crafsmen.
It’s much loved by instrumentalists, particularly fiddle, banjo and penny whistle players, but can be a bit daunting for singers as it’s so fast and unrelenting.
It’s a slip jig, which means it’s in 9/8 time rather than 6/8 time like standard jigs. Slip jigs are traditionally played quite slowly when accompanying very graceful dances. However, rightly or wrongly, the Rocky Road to Dublin is usually played fast.
The Irish writer and the English singer behind the song
The words are generally attributed to D K Gavan who wrote numerous verses and was known as the Galway poet. He wrote the song for the English music hall singer Harry Clifton who made it popular in the mid 19th century.
Another earlier source may be a poem called The Dance at Marley written Patrick J McCall. The opening verses are similar to the Rocky Road. It’s possible, of course, that both McCall’s and Gavan’s versions were based on an earlier Irish folk song.
See the often quoted definitive version by Luke Kelly of Rocky Road to Dublin, and other performers