It's a Long Way to Tipperary - an Iconic Song

Off to Tipperary? Reenactors in Great War uniforms.
© Bernd Biege 2014

Everybody knows that "It's a long way to Tipperary, it's a long way to go." But how did the distance to this Irish town (or county) become the subject of one of the most popular Irish soldiers' songs of all time? 

The iconic and catchy song seems to have a straightforward title but there are actually a lot of questions about why it is a long way from Tipperary. Like: where was the distance being measured from? And does it have an Irish connection at all? One might think that Tipperary is a very special place, after all even Johnny Cash lamented the girl he left in Tipperary Town (in "40 Shades of Green", not to be confused with "Fifty Shades of Grey" or "sixty shades of red"). The history of the famous song turns out to be a bit more to the point than it might first seem.

Betting Man

From what we know, the naming of the song and lyrics all can together by accident. It might as well have been the way to Caerphilly or Glasgow City because Tipperary was picked by chance. The song was written by Jack Judge and Harry Williams as a music hall and marching song in 1912.

Legend has it that Judge accepted (and subsequently won) a bet that he couldn't write a hit song overnight. So he penned "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", taking the name of what was then an obscure Irish town (or county) that somebody had mentioned now and then. It was an instant hit the simple structure and few words of the chorus making it easy to sing (or at least) hum along to.

In 1914 columns of marching soldiers from the Connaught Rangers made the song known and popular first in the British Army, then on the whole Western Front. Daily Mail correspondent George Curnock witnessed the Irish soldiers marching and singing in Boulogne on August 13th, 1914, reporting this soon after.

"It's a long way to Tipperary" soon became the definitive song of the Great War and immortal (unlike most of the soldiers singing it). It's popularity is still going strong and it has appeared in such diverse contexts as the musical "Oh What a Lovely War", the animated "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown", and the movie "Das Boot."

A Long Road from Tipperary to Where?

The chorus makes it clear with "Goodbye Piccadilly, farewell Leicester Square!" It is, in fact, a long way from Tipperary to London, England, and no other place. And while it became associated with soldiers, the song was not written with army life in mind (or with any allusions to military service at all). The lyrics of the song is about the feeling of homesickness experienced by Irish expatriates in the British capital, the navvies and workers. Indeed, in 1912 the way from London to Tipperary was a long one by any means.

There are, however, several persistent attempts at making more local sense out of the "long way to Tipperary". One such attempt involves the distance between Tipperary town and the nearest railway station. While this might have given a certain poignant meaning to the song for locals and soldiers billeted there, the London references make it a far-fetched explanation without any real basis in fact. Not to mention that the song only references Tipperary, a large county, not the town of Tipperary specifically.

Still Fighting

The melody of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" has been used for several other songs. Amongst these are "Every True Son", a fight song for the University of Missouri (Columbia), and the University of Oregon's "Mighty Oregon".

The Lyrics of "It's A Long Way To Tipperary"

It's a long way to Tipperary,
It's a long, long way to go.
It's a long way to Tipperary
To the sweetest girl I know.
Goodbye Piccadilly,
Farewell Leicester Square,
It's a long long way to Tipperary,
But my heart lies there.

Up to mighty London came
An Irish lad one day,
All the streets were paved with gold,
So everyone was gay!
Singing songs of Piccadilly,
Strand, and Leicester Square,
'Til Paddy got excited and
He shouted to them there:


Paddy wrote a letter
To his Irish Molly O',
Saying, "Should you not receive it,
Write and let me know!
If I make mistakes in spelling,
Molly dear", said he,
"Remember it's the pen, that's bad,
Don't lay the blame on me".


Molly wrote a neat reply
To Irish Paddy O',
Saying, "Mike Maloney wants
To marry me, and so
Leave the Strand and Piccadilly,
Or you'll be to blame,
For love has fairly drove me silly,
Hoping you're the same!"


Rousing Renditions

Maybe the best-know modern version of the song (using an old recording, however) is from the movie "Das Boot". As far as singing on a submarine goes, this might only be surpassed by the underwater truckers in "The Abyss", and the Soviet crew in "The Hunt for Red October".

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