Coming from a culture known for its rich music, poetry, and storytelling, Irish songwriters are some of the greatest on Earth.
Their creative traditions are centuries old and stamped into their genetic makeup. But who are the greatest Irish songwriters?
There are many, but we did some thinking and came up with five of our favorites.
Let’s jump in!
Why Are Irish Songwriters Some of the Greatest?
Ireland is a country rich in folklore, mysticism, and musical heritage. The Irish are born with centuries of musical tradition coursing through them. The first traces of music in Ireland date back to 500 BC. Their music has a strong oral tradition, heavily influenced by the East.
Their most well-known instrument, the Celtic Harp, is of Egyptian descent. In the 10th century, Harpists were employed as professional performers by ruling chieftains. English invaders then uprooted the chieftains in the 17th century. This forced musicians to travel around the country to make a living. These traveling minstrels strengthened their oral traditions.
British colonization unfortunately stifled Irish music and culture. Later, in 1844, the Potato Famine caused over one million Irish deaths. It also led to the emigration of Irish people to countries across the globe, spreading their cultural and musical traditions.
For centuries Irish have overcome famine, colonization, war, disease, and prejudice. Despite their troubles, they channeled their emotions into writing and music. It’s no wonder Irish songwriters are some of the greatest!
#1 Bono and The Edge
About the Songwriter: Bono was born Paul David Hewson on May 10, 1960, in Dublin, Ireland. He was given his nickname and stage name Bono by a childhood friend. Bono is short for Bono Vox, which means good voice. The Edge, of Irish heritage, was born David Howell Evans on August 8, 1961, in Barking, England.
They formed U2 in 1976 in Dublin with Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton. Their third studio album, War, was released in 1983 and cemented them as a political and socially conscious band. U2 began as punk-influenced alt-rock but evolved over the years.
Their significant influences were bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, Television, and Joy Division. Bono has also said that Bob Dylan was a huge inspiration to him.
Bono and The Edge have explored many themes in their writing. Ireland itself has been a meaningful subject for them, writing about the troubles in Northern Ireland, nuclear proliferation, drug addiction, and death. Their songwriting also contains hopefulness and resilience, a trademark of the Irish.
Greatest Song: Pride is one of their greatest songs. It represents their early punk rock ethos that pushed them to stardom. The lyrics showcase the poetic and cause-driven writing by Bono and The Edge.
#2 Dolores O’Riordan
About the Songwriter: Dolores O’Riordan was born on September 6, 1971, in Ballybricken, Ireland. The youngest of seven in a Catholic working-class family, Dolores had to overcome many personal challenges throughout her life. In spite of her childhood, she sang and wrote music from an early age.
O’Riordan struggled with depression and pressure from success but channeled her emotions and struggles into her music. Doctors diagnosed her with bipolar personality in 2015, plus she had addiction problems. In fact, alcohol dependence eventually led to her death by drowning due to alcohol intoxication in 2018.
Greatest Song: Zombie was the protest song that thrust O’Riordan and The Cranberries into rock stardom. The song was her response to the 1993 Warrington bombing.
#3 Shane MacGowan
About the Songwriter: Shane MacGowan was born on Christmas Day, 1957, in Kent, England. His mother had been a traditional Irish dancer and singer. Surrounded by Irish music and culture, he began writing poetry at a young age. MacGowan was influenced early by punk rockers, such as The Clash and The Sex Pistols.
In 1976 he formed the punk band The Nipple Erectors. Later, he was the founder and lead singer of The Pogues, which had a more traditional Irish sound. Irish nationalism, history, and personal struggles influenced MacGowan’s songwriting. He’s been open about his alcohol and drug struggles, stating he had his first drink with his father when he was 5.
He’s infamous for his physical problems due to his addictions. He lost most of his teeth and has been in a wheelchair for the last few years because of a broken hip. In 1992 he was fired by the band because of his drunken behavior on tour. He then formed Shane MacGowan and The Popes. He has since performed with The Pogues and many other famous artists.
Greatest Song: Fairytale of New York, an Irish-style ballad that’s a duet with Kirsty MacColl, has to be his best piece. The song is about an Irish couple living in New York, reminiscing about Ireland while experiencing wild alcohol-related mood swings. In the UK, it’s the most played Christmas song of the 21st century.
#4 Sinead O’Connor
About the Songwriter: Sinead O’Connor was born September 8, 1966, in Glenageary, Ireland. She’s the third of five children. When she was 15, she got into trouble for shoplifting and truancy. Her family sent her to live in a Magdalene asylum. These asylums were essentially penitentiary workhouses that exploited the labor of young women.
O’Connor channeled her emotions and fear into writing and music during this time. She was only 21 when her first album, The Lion and the Cobra, hit gold status. She was nominated for a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. Some of the artists who influenced her debut album include Bob Dylan, Siouxsie and The Banshees, and The Pretenders.
O’Connor considers herself a protest singer and not a celebrity. She has always had a shaved head to protest traditional views toward women. But perhaps her most controversial act was her appearance on Saturday Night Live on October 3, 1992. She sang Bob Marley’s War, then tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II while chanting “Evil.”
This is one of many controversies she created over the years. She has also been open about her mental health struggles. She was diagnosed with bipolar, PTSD, and borderline personality disorder.
Greatest Song: Her most well-known song is Nothing Compares 2 U, released in 1990. Prince wrote it, but her passionate and searing vocals created a smash hit. Her first self-written hit was Mandinka on The Lion and The Cobra, released in 1987.
#5 Van Morrison
About the Songwriter: Sir George Ivan Morrison was born on August 31, 1945, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His career as a singer-songwriter, instrumentalist, and record producer span seven decades. Morrison’s mother was a singer and tap dancer, and his father had one of the largest record collections in Northern Ireland.
Van Morrison grew up listening to artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Lead Belly, and Ray Charles. He was deeply influenced by their music plus Celtic traditional and jazz. His style of music is known as Celtic Soul. In the 1960s, he was the lead singer for the Northern Irish band Them, and his first smash hit was the famous song Gloria.
Morrison started his solo career in 1967 with the release of Brown-Eyed Girl, and his third album, Moondance, was his first million-selling album.
He has received many major music awards, including two Grammys. Van Morrison was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Songwriters Hall of Fame, and The Irish Music Hall of Fame. The Queen made him a Knight Bachelor in 2015.
Greatest Song: Brown-eyed Girl is the most famous Van Morrison song. It’s his “signature” song. It’s been in several blockbuster films such as The Big Chill and Born on The Fourth of July. Ironically Van Morrison says because of an ill-advised contract, he’s never received any royalties for Brown-Eyed Girl.
Who’s Your Favorite Irish Songwriter?
The Irish are born with music and poetry singing through their blood. We think Ireland has produced some of the greatest writers and musicians in the world.
Which of these Irish songwriters do you think is the greatest? Or do you have someone else at the top of your list?