A Balladeer Leads Tours of Dublin in Song

Sean Fitzgerald tunes his fiddle as he waits. The body of the instrument is covered in rosin and stray strings fray off the bow.

After a few minutes, a tour group of eight American students join him at the back of the Smock Alley Theatre on West Essex Street.

Fitzgerald has been singing and performing for years, while also working in construction, he says.

“I was always passionate about history and stories, and lesser-known stories from history and the comedic side of history,” he says.

Combining the music and the history, he came up with Ballad Tours – walking tours with songs, storytelling and his fiddle.

“I saw that I could tie in this apex of Irish history together with songs and explain them very well and just decided to do it because I was following my vocation,” he says.


On West Essex Street, Fitzgerald clears his throat and launches into the first song: “Poor Old Cock Robin”. In it, one robin laments over another, which has passed away.

“Most of them wouldn’t be the songs that you know from the Dubliners, they would be songs of lesser-known Irish canon,” says Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald passes blue booklets out among the group. Inside are the lyrics of some lesser-known traditional Irish songs, the ones he’ll be singing for them.

“I found a lot of my songs through songs of Irish chivalry and old books and I had to come up with airs that hadn’t been sung for centuries,” Fitzgerald said later, on the phone.

Many came from Thomas McCarthy, a song collector from Offaly, he says. “He’s probably like our version of the Sistine Chapel. He’s our last living bard.”

He teaches the group the chorus of “Poor Old Cock Robin”. “Tralala lalala,” it goes.

“Don’t worry, it’s not hard to sing,” says Fitzgerald, to the group.


“Music is about losing yourself with your surroundings and bonding with strangers,” he says to the group, as they walk up towards Fishamble Street on West Essex Street.

He sings in a nasally sean-nós style. His voice is soft enough to flow up and down scales, yet still being loud enough to hear down the street.

People look up from their phones as they walk by. Some linger for a while at the back of the group.

As they stand in Wood Quay Amphitheatre, beside the Dublin City Council offices, a man six storeys up turns his face from his computer, his hands still on the keyboard, to look down on the tour group.

On the street below, Fitzgerald sings “Madam, I’m a Darlin”.

The song goes back to the 19th century, around the time of the Dolocher killer of Black Dog prison, he says. (Some date the Dolocher legend to the 18th century.)

Some events of the story – of which there are many versions – occurred on Cook Street, just across the road from where the tour group now stands, Fitzgerald tells the group. His version of the tale is of a murderer who roamed the area, dressed in pigskin, killing children.

He takes out his fiddle and introduces his next song: “Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh”. He sings of the Viking invasion of Ireland in 967 and the battle of 1014 at Clontarf.

“This will be the oldest song you’ve ever heard … maybe … probably not … well, it’s the oldest song I know,” he says.


The main aim of the tour is “to inspire people on songwriting and what songs express”, says Fitzgerald, later on the phone.

Songwriting is more of a trade for all, than an an art form for a select few, he says.

There’s an idea of the greats – of the Nick Caves, and Leonard Cohens, and Bob Dylans, he says.

“In reality, it’s everyone,” he says. “Hundreds of people have written beautiful songs. It’s a bit more like being a carpenter than being like a divinely inspired poet.”

On the tour, in a small alleyway, Fitzgerald sings “Ye Men of Sweet Liberties Hall”.

That’s by Zozimus ‘‘a local character of Dublin”, he says, before reeling off other well-known characters: Bang Bang, Stoneypockets, Forty Coats.

Dublin Castle is the final stop of the tour. Fitzgerald points out its original features, and newer additions.

The castle was intentionally blown up to stop a fire spreading to the part of the castle where gunpowder was being stored, he says.

“So they blew the castle, to prevent the castle blowing up which is the most Irish thing ever,” he says.

[CORRECTION: This article was updated on 8 January at 15:23 to correct the year of the battle of Clontarf and at 9.23 on 9 January to correct a line mistaking rosin for chalk. Apologies for the errors.]

Sign up here to get our free email newsletter each Wednesday, with headlines from the week’s online edition, updates from inside the newsroom, and more. It’s a little reminder when we have a new edition out, and a way for you to stay in touch with what we’re doing without having to check social media.

Sign up to get our free Dublin Inquirer email newsletter each Wednesday, with headlines from the week’s online edition, updates from inside the newsroom, and more. It’s a little reminder when we have a new edition out, and a way for you to stay in touch with what we’re up to.

Filed under:

Author:

Donal Corrigan: Donal Corrigan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. He covers transport, and the southside. To get in contact with him, you can email him on [email protected]

Reader responses

Log in to write a response.

Understand your city

We do in-depth, shoe-leather reporting about the issues that shape Dublin. We're not funded by advertisers. We're funded by readers like you.

We use first-party cookies to allow visitors to log in to our website and read our articles.