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Historically the song has been referred to in Irish folklore, and since the late sixteenth century it has been noted in written records, although it is likely that some northern Atlantic fishing crews knew the song before these historical accounts were made.
The song is a staple for artists performing live music in Irish pubs. It is often considered to be a drinking song rather than a Temperance song. For many people, the Wild Rover is the stereotypical Irish drinking song. In the twentieth century the location of the song became a major concern due to its popularity, spurring continued debate amongst several European nations.
The Wild Rover is the most widely performed Irish song, although its exact origins are unknown.
The song tells the story of a young man who has been away from his home town for many years. Returning to his former alehouse the landlady refuses him credit, until he presents the gold which he has gained while he has been away. He sings of how his days of roving are over and he intends to return to his home and settle down.
According to Professor T. M. Devine in his book The Scottish Nation 1700 - 2000 (Penguin, 2001) the song was written as a temperance song. The song is found printed in a book, The American Songster, printed in the USA by W.A. Leary in 1845, and spread from Scotland to America from the Temperance movement. There is another USA printed version in the "Forget-Me-Not Songster" (c 1850), published by Locke. An alternative history of the song is suggested by the fact that a collection of ballads, dated between 1813 and 1838, is held in the Bodleian Library. The printer, Catnach, was based in the "7 Dials" area of Covent Garden, London. The Bodleian bundle contains "The Wild Rover". The Greig-Duncan collection contains no less than six versions of the song. It was compiled by Gavin Greig 1848–1917.
Raymond Daly and Derek Warfield describe how the fans of Celtic Football Club in Scotland  sing The Wild Rover at away matches. The chorus is well known throughout most Irish, Irish-American and British cultures, even among people who have no knowledge of the rest of the song.
As with Celtic Football Club, the chorus is sung by football fans throughout England, usually with the words adapted to suit the team in question.
Many popular singers and bands have covered the song, including: