Music of Ireland


Ireland is an island in the North Atlantic politically divided between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is internationally known for its folk music, which has remained a vibrant tradition throughout the 20th century, when many traditional forms worldwide lost popularity to pop music In spite of emigration and a well-developed connection to music imported from the United Kingdom and United States, Irish music has kept many of its traditional aspects. It has occasionally also been modernized, however, and fused with rock and roll, punk rock and other genres. Some of these fusion artists have attained much mainstream success, at home and abroad, including Sinead O'Connor, Van Morrison, The Pogues, The Chieftains, The Cranberries, Enya, Rory Gallagherand the Afro-Celt Sound System.

It is important to know that most "traditions" of modern Irish traditional music and dance are, to some extent, guesswork and extrapolation. Through politics and military upheavals, the cultural arts of Ireland were systematically eradicated to a large extent (to weaken national identity) and then the job was finished during the Great Famine. Travellers (the gypsies of Ireland, most of whom began their dynasties when forcibly ejected from their lands; they call themselves the Pavee), people (covertly, during periods of active occupation) trying to save knowledge from eradication, and refugees saved what we know of languages and artforms.

Regional style, once a major distinction of Irish traditional music, is gradually being eroded by the ease of travel and access to recordings. It was once not unheard of for a villager to never leave the immediate area of their village; in those days, you could often tell the region an Irish player came from by simply his playing or the setting of a tune used.

Singing often is seen as something very different from the music. This can be seen in many sessions in pubs in Ireland. While the musicians are playing, the rest of the gathering may treat them as largely background music. When a singer is invited to sing, however, there is generally not a sound to be heard other than murmurs encouraging the singer. Oftentimes, listeners may sing along with choruses. There is a type of traditional song called loobeen, in which each singer improvises a verse, followed by a chorus sung by the entire group. It is generally felt among traditionalists that the music is largely for amusement, while songs distill within them the true spirit of Ireland. An example of a traditional song that has received much exposure as the result of being recorded by many modern artistes is "She Moved Through the Fair".

Traditional music

Irish traditional music, like all traditional musics, is characterized by slow-moving change, which usually occurs along accepted principles. Songs and tunes believed to be ancient in origin are respected. It is, however, difficult or impossible to know the age of most tunes due to their tremendous variation across Ireland and through the years; some generalization is possible, however, for example, only modern songs are written in English, with few exceptions, the rest being in Irish. Most of the oldest songs, tunes, and methods are rural in origin, though more modern songs and tunes often come from cities and towns.

Music and lyrics are passed aurally/orally, and were rarely written down until recently (depending upon your definition of "recently", there are many examples of written music previous to the 1800's). Though solo performance is preferred in the folk tradition, bands or at least small ensembles have probably always been a part of Irish music since at least the mid-1800s, although this is a point of much contention among ethnomusicologists. For instance, guitars and bouzoukis only entered the traditional Irish music world in the 1960s. The bodhran, once known in Ireland as a tambourine, is generally first mentioned in the 1800s. Ceilidh bands of the 1940s often included a drum set and stand-up bass as well as saxophones. As of current writing, the first three are now generally accepted in traditional Irish music circles (although not in the most purist of venues), while the latter three are generally not. More recently, traditional Irish music has been "expanded" to include new styles and variations performed by bands, although arguments run rife as to whether you may then call this music "traditional". Unaccompanied vocals in the sean nós (which means, simply, "old style") tradition are considered the traditional norm, usually either solo or as a duo. Harmony is simple, and instruments are played in unison. Counterpoint is mostly unknown to traditional music. Structural units are symmetrical and include decorations of the rhythm, text, melody and phrasing, though not usually of dynamics, due to instrumentation issues while Irish music was developing.

Modern revival

A movement of revival took place (based in London and Dublin) in the early 1900s. A commission was formed, and the arts encouraged. The public was invited to actively take part, and a great passion was discovered for the arts of Ireland.

The uillean pipes play a prominent part in a form of instrumental music called Fonn Mall, descendents of ancient songs, as well as in the unaccompanied vocal music called sean nós. Willie Clancy, Leo Rowesome, and Garret Barry are among the many pipers famous in their day. Paddy Keenan, Davy Spillane and Robbie Hannon play these traditional airs today, among many others. Many Pavee families, such as the Fureys and Dorans and Keenans, are famous for the pipers among them.

Pub sessions are now the home for much of Irish traditional music, which takes place at informal gatherings in urban pubs. The first of these modern pub sessions took place in 1947 in London's Camden Town at a bar called The Devonshire Arms; the practice was only later introduced to Ireland. By the 1960s pubs like O'Donoghues in Dublin were holding their own pub sessions, and the Fleadh Ceoil music festival was sparking increased popular interest in traditional music.

Seán Ó Riada's The Chieftains, The Clancy Brothers, The Dubliners, Sweeney's Men and Planxty were in large part responsible for a second wave of revitalization of Irish folk music in the 1960s, followed up by The Bothy Band in the 70s.

The 1960s saw a number of innovative performers. Christy Moore and Donal Lunny, for example, performed as a duo before separating and creating two of the most well-known bands of the era, Planxty and Moving Hearts. The Clancys broke open the field in the US in the early part of the decade, which inspired vocal groups like The Dubliners, while Ceoltóirí Chualann's instrumental music spawned perhaps the best-known Irish traditional band, The Chieftains, which formed in 1963.

By the 70s, bands like Planxty had set the stage for a major popular blossoming of Irish music. Formed in 1974, The Bothy Band became the spearcarriers of that movement; their debut album, [1975] (1975), inspired a legion of fans. New groups that appeared in their wake included Davy Spillane's Moving Hearts.

The 70s saw the beginning of fusions of Irish traditional music with American and British rock and roll, beginning perhaps with the band Horslips. Singer-songwriter Van Morrison is also renowned from the trad-rock scene, and is known for incorporating soul and R&B to great effect. The heavy metal band Thin Lizzy did not often use Irish musical traditions in their songs (though their reworking of the traditional folk staple, "Whiskey in the Jar" was a huge hit), but singer and songwriter Phil Lynott is often said to be a modern incarnation of the Irish poetry tradition.

Traditional music, especially sean nós, played a major part in Irish popular music later in the century, with Van Morrison, Hothouse Flowers and Sinead O'Connor using traditional elements in popular songs. Enya achieved success with New Age/Celtic fusions. The Pogues, led by Shane MacGowan, helped fuse Irish folk with punk rock to some success beginning in the 1980s, while the Afro-Celt Sound System achieved considerable fame adding West African influences and drum n bass in the 1990s.

In the 1980s, major bands included Relativity, De Dannan, Altan, Arcady and Patrick Street. Punk rock entered Ireland in full in the late 1970s, and flowered in the following decade with performers like Gavin Friday and Bob Geldof, while the Belfast scene inspired a legion of punk bands from Northern Ireland, of whom the Stiff Little Fingers are the most well-known. Later in the 80s and into the 90s, Irish punk, like the scene in the UK, US and elsewhere, fractured into new styles of alternative rock, which included the renowned underground band My Bloody Valentine and the popular punk sound of Ash.

The 80s also saw the rise of Irish international stars. A growing interest in Irish music at this time helped many artistes gain more recognition abroad, including Mary Black, Andy White, Sharon Shannon, Hothouse Flowers and others. The BBC screened a documentary series about the influence of Irish music called Bringing it all Back Home (a reference to both the Bob Dylan folk song and the way in which Irish traditional music has travelled, especially in the New World following the Irish diaspora, which in turn has come back to influence modern Irish rock music). This series also helped to raise the profile of many artistes relatively little known outside Ireland. The fashionability of Irish folk music at this time may be judged from the huge success that non-Irish band The Waterboys enjoyed with their albums Fisherman's Blues and Room to Roam, both of which are full of Irish folk influences. Meanwhile, Sinead O'Connor's confrontational style won her a legion of fans as well as controversy.

In the 1990s Ireland had developed the Celtic metal scene, part of the black metal style which was common throughout much of Europe, and soon evolved into Celtic battle metal, Celtic doom metal and Celtic pagan metal. Artists included Waylander, Bran Barr, Cruachan and Geasa.

The London Fleadh music festival has become an annual event and showcase for Irish music. It is held in Finsbury Park during the summer.


Irish traditional music was largely meant (to the best of our current knowledge) for dancing at celebrations for weddings, saint's days or other observances. Tunes (songs have words, tunes do not) are most usually divided into two eight-bar strains which are each played twice to make a 32-bar whole; Irish dance music is isometric. (16 measures are known as a "step", with one 8 bar strain for a "right foot" and the second for the "left foot" of the step. Tunes that are not so evenly divided are called "crooked".) This makes for an eminently danceable music, and Irish dance has been widely exported abroad. Traditional dances and tunes include reels, hornpipes, jigs and slip jigs, as well as imported polkas and mazurkas.

Set dancing Set dancing, generally danced by groups of varying sizes (a "set" is a group of a certain number of dancers), is one of the most popular of the Irish traditional dances, revived along with other Irish cultural forms, during the Celtic Revival period of the 1800s, and again re-popularized after the success of the Broadway-style musical Riverdance in 1994. It is not uncommon for young people in Ireland's cities (and other large cities around the world) these days to go set-dancing as others of their contemporaries go "clubbing".

Stepdancing Stepdancing, in the Munster or southern style form, is the most widespread of the Irish dance forms, although there are many others (including the Connemara style and other forms of Southern style dancing not under the auspices of An Coimisiun). Modern stepdancing is connected to the Irish cultural revivals of the 1800s in one long line. Modern stepdancers are athletes as well as dancers; champions train in a manner similar to ice skaters and gymnasts. It is largely a solo dance form, although group dances or figures exist in a set curriculum of ceilidh, or party, dances. The litmus test of the solo stepdancer is the non-traditional set dance (not related to set dancing, where groups of dancers form figures) which is generally choreographed by a dancer's teacher for that dancer or for the teacher's dancing school.

Riverdance No modern description of the arts of Ireland would be complete without some mention of the Broadway musical Riverdance. A musical and dancing interval act starring Michael Flatley and Jean Butler was performed during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. Popular reaction to the act was so immense that an entire musical was built around the act. Riverdance's appeal was such that the arts of Ireland were once again globally popular in a very short time. Dancing school enrollments skyrocketed, Irish sessions found their numbers swelling with new musicians wishing to take part, and interest in Irish arts are at an all time high.

Traditional instruments

Flutes and whistles -- Flutes have long been an integral part of Irish traditional music, and its cousin the tin whistle or low whistle are also popular. Modern flautists include Matt Molloy, Kevin Crawford, Michael McGoldrick, Desi Wilkinson and Emer Mayock, while whistlers include Paddy Moloney, Sean Ryan, Mary Bergin and Packie Byrne.

Bouzouki -- A fairly recent import from Greece, the bouzouki was introduced in the late 1960s by Johnny Moynihan and then popularized by Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, and Alec Finn.

Bodhrán -- A frame drum, the bodhrán is considered a relatively modern addition to traditional dance music. It was introduced/popularized in the 1960s by Sean Ó Riada (although there are mentions of "tambourines" without zils being played as early as the mid-1800s), and quickly became popular. Great players include Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh and Colm Murphy.

Harmonica -- A well-known instrument found in many kinds of traditional music, the Irish harmonica tradition is best-represented by Eddie Clarke and Brendan Power (the latter being of New Zealand).

Banjo -- The four-string tenor banjo is favoured by most Irish traditional players, and is commonly tuned GDAE, an octave below the fiddle. Though it is normally played as a melody instrument using either a plectrum or a "thimble", the banjo's percussive sound can add greatly to the rhythm or "lift" of a pub session. An opposing point of view is that many traditional musicians find the sound of a banjo loud, machine-gun like and disruptive in a session. Barney McKenna of the The Dubliners is often credited with paving the way for the banjo's current popularity, and is still actively playing. Great players include Kieran Hanrahan, John Carty, Gerry O'Connor, Angelina Carberry, and Kevin Griffin.

Fiddle  --  One of the most important instruments in the traditional repertoire, the fiddle is played differently in widely-varying regional styles. Modern performers include Martin Hayes, Paul Shaughnessy, Matt Cranitch, Frankie Gavin, the Glackin brothers, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, and Tommy Peoples. Sligo fiddlers like Michael Coleman did much to popularise Irish music in the States in the 1920s. The best-known regional fiddling traditions are from Donegal, Sligo, Sliabh Luachra and Clare. Most fiddle tunes are structured with two strains, eight bars in length; both are played twice, and then the 32 bar set is repeated. In live performances, two or three tunes are usually played with no break in between them to form a single set. The fiddling tradition of Sligo is perhaps most recognizable to outsiders, due to the popularity of American-based performers like James O'Beirne, Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran; Irish Sligo fiddlers include Andrew Davey, Martin Wynne, Fred Finn and Kathleen Harrington. Other established fiddlers include Clare's Frank Custy, Paddy Canny, Bobby Casey, Jack Mulcaire, John Kelly, Patrick Kelly, Peadar O'Loughlin, Junior Crehan and P. Joe Hays, while Donegal has produced Seán Reid, Néllidh Boyle, John Doherty and Proinsias Ó Maonaigh. Sliabh Luachra, a small area between Kerry and Cork, is known for Julia Clifford, Seamus Creagh and Pádraig O'Keefe.

Uilleann pipes -- A king of bagpipes, uilleann pipes (pronounced ill-yun) are complex and said to take years to learn to play. Its modern form had arrived by the 1890s, and was played by gentlemen pipers like Seamus Ennis, Leo Roswome and Willy Clancy, in refined and ornate pieces, as well as showy, ornamented forms played by travelling pipers like John Cash and Johnny Doran. The uilleann piping tradition had near died down before being re-popularized by the likes of Paddy Moloney (of the Chieftains), and the formation of Na Píobairí, an organization open to pipers that included such legends as Rowsome and Ennis, as well as researcher and collector Breandán Breathnach. Liam O'Flynn is one of the most popular of modern performers along with Paddy Keenan, John McSherry, Davy Spillane, Mick O'Brien and many more. Uillean pipes are the most complex form of bagpipe; they possess a chanter with a double reed, three single reed drones for continuous accompaniment, a two-octave range and an optional set of three pipes (regulators) with double reeds and keys.

Harp -- Played as long ago as the 8th century, the harp is a symbol of Ireland and its players are widely-respected. Many tunes were written by Turlough Ó Carolan, a blind 18th century harpist who is considered by many to be the unofficial national composer of Ireland. Modern traditional players include Laoise Kelly, Máire Ní Chathasaigh and Bonnie Shaljean. Irish harp music is built around particular chords of the scale. The most renowned Irish harpist of recent decades is likely Máire Ní Chathasaigh. Other notable recent Irish harpists include Laoise Kelly (of The Bumblebees), Mary O'Hara, Antoinette McKenna, Derek Bell (of The Chieftains) and Aine Minoque.

Accordion and concertina -- The accordion plays a major part in modern music. Popular players include John Williams, Sharon Shannon and Dave Hennessy. Concertina players include Niall Vallely and Noel Hill. The accordion spread to Ireland late in the 19th century. In its ten-key form (melodeon), it was popular across the island, and was recorded early by John Kimmel and Irish-American Peter Conlon. There are numerous ways to play the accordion, including the "push-and-draw" method pioneered by Joe Cooley, and the "outside in" system from the United States, championed by Joe Derrane, Joe Burke and Paddy O'Brien (of Tipperary).




  • (cordofoni) guitars Harp Fiddle  Banjo Bouzouki

  • (aerofoni) Flutes and whistles Uilleann pipes

  • (ancia libera) Accordion and concertina

  • (membranofoni) Bodhrán

  • (idiofoni)

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