Music of Ireland

Ireland is an island in the North Atlantic that is currently politically divided into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The area 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; indeed, it has itself influenced many forms of music, such as country and roots music in the USA, which in turn have greatly influenced rock music in the 20th century. It has occasionally also been modernised, 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.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the distinction between traditional and rock musicians became blurred, with many individuals regularly crossing over between these styles of playing as a matter of course. This trend can be seen more recently in the work of bands and individuals like U2, Clannad, The Cranberries, The Corrs, Van Morrison, Thin Lizzy, Sinéad O'Connor, My Bloody Valentine, Rory Gallagher, and The Pogues.

Nevertheless, Irish music has shown an immense inflation of popularity with many attempting to return to their roots. There are also contemporary music groups that stick closer to a "traditional" sound, including Altan, Capercaillie, Gaelic Storm, Déanta, Lúnasa, and Solas. Others incorporate multiple cultures in a fusion of style, such as Afro Celt Sound System and Loreena McKennitt.

Recordings by commercially successful musicians and bands certainly are a valid way to learn about current trends in music. However, the traditional music of Ireland and other closely associated musical forms is played 'live' worldwide in homes and pubs by ordinary people from all walks of life, and is passed on from generation to generation in the oral tradition. To hear the music of Ireland all one must do is find an Irish pub anywhere in the world and ask about for where a session can be heard. Then go and listen in real time to the "Music of Ireland".



Social role

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 artists 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 1800). 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-19th century, 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 bodhrán, once known in Ireland as a tambourine, is generally first mentioned in the nineteenth century. 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.

Music for Dancing

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 mazurkas. Polkas are a type of tune mostly found in the Sliabh Luachra area, at the border of Cork and Kerry, in the south of Ireland. The main differences in these types of tunes are the time signature, rhythm, and speed.

Set dancing

Main article: 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 forms of the Irish traditional dances, revived along with other Irish cultural forms, during the Celtic Revival period of the nineteenth century, 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".


Main article: Irish dance

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 nineteenth century 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.

Sean Nós Dancing

Modern step dancing evolved from Sean Nós dancing. Sean Nós dancing contains a huge element of improvisation, and also uses more upper body movement (and humour!) than Step Dancing. Props are also used sometimes - for example, in "The Brush Dance" the dancer uses a sweeping brush as a prop. Sean Nós Dancing remains very popular.


Main article: 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 Eurovision Song Contest 1994. 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. Despite this the majority of those who play Irish Music look on Riverdance disparagingly, claiming that it has little to do with the tradition.

Instruments Used in Traditional Irish Music


Main article: 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, James Kelly, Tommy Peoples, Maire Breatnach and Gerry O'Connor. 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.

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. However, most fiddlers will generally tell you that Clare is probably the most emulated regional style of Irish fiddling (though there's lots to dispute that, as well).

Other established fiddlers include(d) Clare's Frank Custy, Paddy Canny, Bobby Casey, Jack Mulcaire, John Kelly, Patrick Kelly, Peadar O'Loughlin, Pat O'Connor (fiddler), Junior Crehan and P. Joe Hays, while Donegal has produced Seán Reid, Néllidh Boyle, James Byrne, Vincent Campbell, Francie Bynre, John Doherty, Proinsias Ó Maonaigh, and Bridget Regan. Sliabh Luachra, a small area between Kerry and Cork, is known for Julia Clifford, Séamus Creagh, and Pádraig O'Keefe.

Flute and Whistle

Main articles: flute and tin whistle

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 (or "fluters" as they're often called) include Matt Molloy, Kevin Crawford, Michael McGoldrick, Desi Wilkinson and Emer Mayock, while whistlers include Paddy Moloney, Sean Ryan, Mary Bergin, Denis Ryan and Packie Byrne.

Uilleann pipes

Main article: Uilleann pipes

A kind 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 Rowsome 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 (regulator) with double reeds and keys.


Main article: 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. Thomas Connellan, a slightly earlier Sligo harper, composed the tunes behind such well-known songs as "The Dawning of the Day"/"Raglan Road" and "Carolan's Dream". Modern traditional players include Laoise Kelly, Grainne Hambly, 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

Main articles: 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 Paddy O'Brien (of Tipperary), Kieran O'Loughlin of Clare and James Keane [Dublin and New York]

Concertinas are of several types, the two most common in Irish traditional music being the English and the Anglo systems. Each differs from the other in construction and playing technique. The Anglo is the more common in Irish music and its use in that genre precedes the English. The most distinctive characteristic of the Anglo system is that each button sounds a different note, depending on whether the bellows are compressed or expanded. Anglo concertinas typically have either two or three rows of buttons that sound notes, plus an "air button" located near the right thumb that allows the player to fill or empty the bellows without sounding a note.

Two-row Anglo concertinas usually have 20 buttons that sound notes. Each row of 10 buttons comprises notes within a common key. The two primary rows thus contain the notes of two musical keys, such as C and G. Each row is divided in two with five buttons playing lower-pitched notes of the given key on the left-hand end of the instrument and five buttons playing the higher pitched notes on the right-hand end. The row of buttons in the higher key is closer to the wrist of each hand.

Three-row concertinas add a third row of accidentals (i.e., sharps and flats not included in the keys represented by the two main rows) and redundant notes (i.e., notes that duplicate those in the main keys but are located in the third, outermost row) that enable the instrument to be played in virtually any key. A series of sequential notes can be played in the home-key rows by depressing a button, compressing the bellows, depressing the same button and extending the bellows, moving to the next button and repeating the process, and so on. A consequence of this arrangement is that the player often encounters occasions requiring a change in bellows direction, which produces a clear separation between the sounds of the two adjacent notes. This tends to give the music a more punctuated, bouncy sound that can be especially well suited to hornpipes or jigs.

English concertinas, by contrast, sound the same note for any given button, irrespective of the direction of bellows travel. Thus, any note can be played while the bellows is either expanded or compressed. As a consequence, sequential notes can be played without altering the bellows direction. This allows sequences of notes to be played in a smooth, continuous stream without the interruption of changing bellows direction.

Despite the inherent bounciness of the Anglo and the inherent smoothness of the English concertina systems, skilled players of Irish traditional music can achieve either effect on each type of instrument by adapting the playing style. On the Anglo, for example, the notes on various rows partially overlap and the third row contains additional redundant notes, so that the same note can be sounded with more than one button. Often, whereas one button will sound a given note on bellows compression, an alternative button in a different row will sound the same note on bellows expansion. Thus, by playing across the rows, the player can avoid changes in bellows direction from note to note where the musical objective is a smoother sound. Likewise, the English system accommodates playing styles that counteract its inherent smoothness and continuity between notes. Specifically, when the music calls for it, the player can choose to reverse bellows direction, causing sequential notes to be more distinctly articulated.


Main article: banjo

The four-string tenor banjo is favoured by most Irish traditional players, and is commonly tuned GDAE, an octave below the fiddle. It is normally not strummed, instead being played as a melody instrument using either a plectrum or a "thimble". While the instrument's percussive sound can add greatly to the "lift" of a session, a poorly played or overly loud banjo can be disruptive. Skilled and sensitive players will generally find themselves welcomed in "open" sessions, provided no more than one plays at a time. Barney McKenna of 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, Angelina Carberry, Fergus O'Byrne and Kevin Griffin.


Main article: guitar

Guitars have become commonplace in modern sessions. They are generally strummed to provide backing for the melody players. Melody playing on the guitar is certainly possible, but tends to be drowned out in a session environment by the louder instruments such as fiddle and flute. Masters of the guitar in Irish traditional music include Arty McGlynn, Loughy(Kieran O'Loughlin) and Steve Cooney.


Main article: 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.


Main article: mandolin

The mandolin is becoming a more common instrument among Irish traditional musicians. The instrument is usually tuned like a fiddle and is plucked with a plectrum, or pick. Unlike a fiddle, it has frets, like a guitar. Tunes originally created by fiddle players in standard tuning are relatively accessible for quick apprehension by a mandolin player because of the identical fingering by the left hand (for right-handed players - vice versa for left-handed players). In recent decades, plucked instruments like the mandolin have become common session instruments by melody and rhythm players.

Although each of the different types of non-electrified mandolin can fit into Irish traditional music, many players prefer flat-backed instruments with oval sound holes rather than bowl-back mandolins or those with f-holes similar to the type seen on violins. Instruments built by British luthier Stefan Sobell are among the most favored mandolins for Irish traditional music, although many other makers also build instruments well suited to that genre.

Many American bluegrass mandolin players and mandolinists from many backgrounds have discovered that Irish traditional music is an ideal stepping stone to another channel of discovery and creativity on the mandolin. However, the Irish style and rhythm of playing jigs and reels is quite distinct from bluegrass and old-time mandolin, and requires some amount of effort and listening to learn properly. Chord-strumming on the mandolin (particularly bluegrass-style "chop" strumming) does not blend well in an Irish traditional music setting.

Great players include Andy Irvine, Mick Moloney, Paul Kelly, and Claudine Langille.


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 nineteenth century), and quickly became popular. Great players include Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh, Colm Murphy and Fergus O'Byrne (of Ryan's Fancy).

Because it appears to be an easy instrument to play, the bodhrán has become immensely popular with newcomers to the playing of Irish traditional music. Unfortunately this can often lead to disruption of a music session by players who do not have the understanding or skill to provide a sympathetic rhythmic accompaniment, or even by multiple conflicting bodhráns being beaten simultaneously.


Main article: 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).

Modern revival

A movement of revival took place (based in London and Dublin) in the early twentieth century. 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 Rowsome, 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

Main article: Irish traditional music session

Pub sessions are now the home for much of Irish traditional music, which takes place at informal gatherings in urban pubs. The first known of these modern pub sessions took place in 1947 in London's Camden Town at a bar called The Devonshire Arms (although some ethnomusicologists believe that Irish immigrants in the United States may have held sessions before this); 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.

1960s and 70s: Revival...again

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 and Clannad in the 70s.

The 1960s saw a number of innovative performers. Christy Moore and Donal Lunny, for example, first performing as a duo, and later creating two of the most well-known bands of the era, Planxty and Moving Hearts (in the 1980s). 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 and Clannad 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. (One can often find The Bothy Band under "Rock" in some stores.) 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. Blues guitarist Rory Gallagher was renowned for his masterful guitar playing. The heavy metal band Thin Lizzy occasionally used Irish musical traditions in their songs. For example, the song Emerald used a jig (6/8) time signature, and a melody that was influenced by traditional Irish music. Also, the song "The Black Rose" contained a traditional Irish reel being played by guitar, bass, and drums. Most famously, their reworking of the traditional folk staple, "Whiskey in the Jar" was a huge hit. Singer and songwriter Phil Lynott is often said to be a modern incarnation of the Irish poetry tradition.

Late 20th century: Rock and More...

Traditional music, especially sean nós, played a major part in Irish popular music later in the century, with Van Morrison, Hothouse Flowers and Sinéad 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 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 critically acclaimed That Petrol Emotion, the renowned underground band My Bloody Valentine and the popular punk sound of Ash.

The 80s also saw the rise of Irish international stars. The biggest Irish musical performer of any kind is undoubtedly U2, who entered the mainstream beginning in 1980 with Boy, and continuing to incorporate a number of styles on later albums into the next century. Other rock bands of the era included The Undertones, Energy Orchard and The Boomtown Rats. 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, Sinéad O'Connor's confrontational style won her a legion of fans as well as controversy.

In the 1990s, pop bands like the Corrs, B*witched, Boyzone and The Cranberries also became internationally renowned. 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.

In 1998, a crew called Exile Eye released the Optic Nerve EP, which generated a great deal of interest in hip hop and inspired a number of newer hip hop crews, though Exile Eye was not the first Irish hip hop performers, as Scary Éire and others came first. These included Homebrew, Third Eye Surfers and Creative Controle.

In the 2000's Danú is the youngest major instrumental band.

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


  • Download recording - Irish harmonica tune from the Library of Congress' California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collection; performed by Aaron Morgan (harmonica) on July 17, 1939 in Columbia, California


  • O'Connor, Nuala. "Dancing at the Virtual Crossroads". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 170-188. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  • Mathieson, Kenny. "Ireland". 2001. In Mathieson, Kenny (Ed.), Celtic music, pp. 10-53. Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-623-8
  • Carson, Ciaran. "Last Night's Fun"

See also

External links

fr:Musique traditionnelle irlandaise


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