Opinion: folk songs are handed down from generation to generation because they remain relevant to each one

RTÉ’s search for Ireland’s Favourite Folk Song has sparked a great deal of passionate and heated debate about the importance of Ireland’s songs. The competition has served to highlight the consistent popularity of the tradition, but the songs themselves have already stood the test of time. From Christy Moore regularly selling out concert halls across Ireland and the UK to Dervish devoting their newest album to the Great Irish Songbook to Ed Sheeran’s recording of "The Parting Glass", evidence of the power and relevance of Ireland’s folksongs is everywhere. 

So why are folksongs still so relevant today? At first glance, this may seem surprising. Most of the songs on the RTÉ shortlist have long outlived the social and historical contexts which gave rise to them - and yet they are sung and appreciated today with as much enthusiasm as they must have been given centuries ago. 

Freddie White sings "The Parting Glass" for Ireland's Favourite Folk Song

The answer to this question is not entirely a simple one. There are as many reasons to sing folk songs as there are songs and people who sing them. But central to the enduring popularity of the songs is their ability to combine a personal narrative with a universal emotional core, which remains as relatable today as when it was written. 

Take, for example, "The Parting Glass", the song which can perhaps claim to be the oldest on the RTÉ shortlist. It is likely to have had roots in the early 1600s and it has been a very long time indeed since the parting glass or stirrup-cup referred to in its title was a formal part of leave-taking. Yet the song has remained perennially popular and has been rearranged and reinterpreted countless times in recent years, including recordings by everyone from the Clancy Brothers to Ed Sheeran. 

The act of parting, and the complicated emotions which accompany it, are things which we all experience, and which remain as bittersweet and painful today as they were when the song was written. We all have regrets and longings, and while they are not the same as those expressed by the song’s narrator, the emotions are identical. 

Niall Hanna and Niamh Farrell perform "The Green Fields Of France" for Ireland's Favourite Folk Song

The result is a song which is both poignant and adaptable. It is at once incredibly personal, but also as universal as loss. The song is sung at funerals and by gravesides, at retirement parties and concerts, at the end of friendly gatherings, and doubtless in endless other circumstances, including closing time in pubs. The combination of a specific personal story with a universal experience makes "The Parting Glass" instantly relatable and eternally relevant. 

Another of the shortlist songs which illustrates the same thing in a slightly different way is Eric Bogle’s beautiful song "The Green Fields of France". In the song, the narrator stops by a grave marker to reflect on the tragedy of war, questioning the grave’s occupant about the manner of his death, and reporting to him the failure of humanity to eradicate the scourge of war.

The details of the song are quite specific: the grave is that of a 19-year-old Irish soldier named Willie McBride who died on the battlefields of France in 1916, and as the narrator rests by the grave, the summer sun is shining, the poppies blowing in a light wind. The image is vivid, but the real power of the song lies in its ability to transcend specific details. Willie McBride may have fallen in France, but the tragedy of war and violence continues to haunt us, and Willie could just as easily have fallen on a thousand other battlefields—past, present and future. 

Lankum perform "Rocky Road to Dublin" for Ireland's Favourite Folk Song

In telling the story of a specific moment by a specific graveside, the song stirs timeless emotions of loss and sorrow that we all experience. The song outgrows its original story and becomes a powerful reminder of the tragedy of violence and our continuing failure to halt it. 

Grief over the waste of life caused by violence; the longing thought of things we would do if we had the time and the money; the bittersweet knowledge that we must leave, and the hope that we will at least be missed when we are gone; these things are part of our experience as humans, things we all experience. Folk songs remain relevant not as relics of a bygone age, but as living expressions of emotions and experiences which we all recognise. 

Villagers perform "On Raglan Road" for Ireland's Favourite Folk Song

The great song scholar Barre Toelken once wrote that "a folk song is worth a thousand pictures" and it is tempting to think that he undershot the mark. Songs are handed down from generation to generation because they remain relevant to each one. The stories they tell belong to all of us in one way or another, and remind us that our ancestors had the same longings, joys and fears that we experience today—however much we think things have changed.

By asking us to vote for our favourite folk song, RTÉ’s competition asks us to pick our favourite emotional connection to ourselves, our past and our fellow humans. With all this at stake, don’t be surprised if the search becomes a lot more heated as it comes to a close. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ