- Written by
This is a tale of an Irish highwayman who robs an English military or government official but is later betrayed by his wife or sweetheart. The song's exact origins are unknown but it is thought to have originated in the 17th Century. Several similarities with another folksong suggest it might have once been specific to the crimes of Patrick Flemming, an Irish highwayman circa 1650, who maimed and killed many travellers before being executed. He was caught because his weapon had been intentionally dampened so it would malfunction.
Different versions of the song are set in various places throughout Ireland and the names of characters also change; the official can be a Captain Farrell or a Colonel Pepper and the highwayman’s companion Molly or Jenny. The details of the betrayal can also differ, such as handing him over to the authorities, hiding his weapon or switching his ammunition. In some cases, he ends up in prison; in other cases, he escapes with his brother and they both hide in the mountains.
Despite its violent content, the song is delivered as a light-hearted celebration of debauchery and is usually a communal sing-along.
At some point in the colonial period, the song was carried to the United States where it was popular for its irreverent attitude toward British officials. Some American versions deal with American characters in American settings such as the Ozarks or Appalachians.
The 1967 release by the Dubliners brought the song to a wide audience and the 1972 arrangement by Thin Lizzy, with Eric Bell's distinct guitar line mimicking Uilleann pipes, has been very influential.
- Request a synchronization license