January 15, 2011

The 6 Best Celtic Songs About Boston

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Boston has served as the setting or central theme for several great songs, like Dirty Water by The Standells and Rock & Roll Band by Boston. This post is only highlighting Boston songs that have Celtic roots or "vibes." I found it difficult to rank them numerically, so instead I categorized them by lyrical content and style. Let me know if there are any other great Celtic songs about Boston out there.

The Boston Burglar  The Coming-of-Age Song


"I was born and raised in Boston, a place you all know well"

The lyrics of The Boston Burglar date back to 1881, but the melody is undoubtedly a bit older. A Bostonized version of the British folk song, Botany Bay, which is about a convict shipping out from England to a penal colony in Australia, The Boston Burglar follows a convict riding the train from Boston to a prison in Charlestown. While he was "brought up by honest parents," our protagonist got on the wrong side of the law at age 23, earning himself a 20-year sentence. I wonder what he did...

Charlie On The M.T.A.  The Political Song

"Now you citizens of Boston, don't you think it's a scandal?"

While some might call Charlie on the M.T.A., or simply M.T.A, a bluegrass, folk or Americana song, I've always thought of it as a classic Celtic voyaging tune, in the vein of The Irish Rover. The melody of M.T.A. comes from the 1865 Henry Clay Work song, The Ship That Never Returned, but Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes reworked the lyrics in 1949, transforming the song into a campaign-booster for the mayoral candidate Walter O'Brien. M.T.A. follows the exploits of Charlie, who is unable to pay an exit fare on a Massachusetts [Bay] Transit Authority subway car and -- as a result -- must  "ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston." The Kingston Trio, originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, made the song famous with their 1959 recording.

Further Reading: MIT: Charlie on the MTA

Boston Rose  The Love Song

"There's a girl in Massachusetts, south of Boston town"

Boston Rose was written by Liam Reilly, an Irish singer/songwriter and one of the founding members of the Celtic band Bagatelle, which formed in Co. Louth in 1978. The song is a lament of the "girl in Massachusetts", who is originally from Ireland -- like the narrator -- but "had to fly across the ocean wide." The Wolfe Tones recorded the most popular version of the song in 1989. However, I couldn't bring myself to embed their music video due to its extreme creepiness. If you're up for a laugh, check out The Wolfe Tones Boston Rose music video on YouTube.

I'm Shipping Up To Boston  The Romp

"Shipping out to Boston / To find my wooden leg"

I decided to show my Celtic/folk band -- Devaney's Goat -- playing this one at the Irish Embassy Pub on St. Patrick's Day 2010 in Montreal (I'm the one howling the lyrics into the mic, in case you were wondering). I think the clip, which also includes our take on Drunken Sailor, helps exemplify why I'm Shipping Up To Boston is such a romp: a romp being defined as "a spell of rough, energetic play." Legendary American folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie penned the lyrics, but it was the Dropkick Murphys, as you may already know, who put those lyrics to music and made a hit. 

 Missing Galway  The Critical Song

 "People say that Boston is just one big Irish town"

A native of Co. Galway, musician Don Stiffe spent the 1990s in Boston and didn't necessarily enjoy himself. He writes, "Well it wasn’t like the Lisheen or the pubs up in Clonbur / But the people here in Boston like to make you feel as if it were." Despite commending Bostonians for their hospitality, the bottom-line is that Don wants to get the hell out of Beantown and go back to Ireland: "Each mornin’ when I wake up and I start a brand new day / I look forward to going back to Galway."  Regardless of its take on the city, the song has vibrant instrumentation and a great traditional Celtic feel.

Further Reading: Don Stiffe's Website

The Mermaid  The Best Name-Drop

"I have a wife in Boston by the sea"

Several Celtic songs mention Boston in a verse or chorus without elaborating much further or using the city as a central theme. Examples include Boys Of The County Cork (traditional), When The Boys Come Rolling Home (by Tommy Sands), Inter Milan (by Mick Chinford), Body Of An American (by Shane MacGowan), You're Not Irish (by Robbie O'Connell), No Time For Love (by Christy Moore), St. Patrick's Day (by Derek Warfield, founding member of The Wolfe Tones) and The Flight Of The Earls (by Liam Reilly). My favorite name-drop, in quotes above, comes from the traditional Celtic song The Mermaid. Also known as The Wrecked Ship and Waves On The Sea, The Mermaid dates back to at least the mid-18th century.

P.S. Hey there! If you liked this post, I have a hunch you'll love NEON DRUID: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy. It's a collection of 17 short stories all rooted in Celtic mythology.

P.P.S. You can also check out my new blog, Irish Myths, where I unveil the secrets of Celtic mythology, Irish mythology, and Irish folklore.


  1. Great Blog! My husband voted for The Boston Burglar- I'm Shipping Up To Boston (I was born there)is my favorite- especially as performed by Devaney's Goat!

  2. First Snowfall of December by Matt Heaton

  3. Thanks for mentioning that song!

    People who are interested can listen to it on Matt & Shannon Heaton's MySpace page:


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