Folk music of Ireland

Folk music of Ireland

The folk music of Ireland (also known as Irish traditional music, Irish trad, Irish folk music, and other variants) is the generic term for music that has been created in various genres on the entire island of Ireland, North and South of the Border.


There are several collections of Irish folk music from the 18th century, but it was not until the 19th century that ballad printers became established in Dublin. Important collectors include George Petrie, Edward Bunting, Francis O'Neill, Canon James Goodman and many others. Though solo performance is preferred in the folk tradition, bands or at least small ensembles have probably been a part of Irish music since at least the mid-19th century, although this is a point of much contention among ethnomusicologists.

Irish traditional music has survived more strongly against the forces of cinema, radio and the mass media than the indigenous folk music of most European countries. This was partly due to the fact that the country was not a battleground in either of the two world wars.Fact|date=May 2008 Another significant factor was that the economy was largely agricultural, where oral tradition usually thrivesFact|date=May 2008. From the end of the second world war until the late fifties folk music was held in low regard.
Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (an Irish traditional music association) and the popularity of the Fleadh Cheoil (music festival) helped lead the revival of the music. The English Folk music scene also encouraged and gave self confidence to many Irish musicians. Following the success of The Clancy Brothers in the USA in 1959, Irish folk music became fashionable again. The lush sentimental style of singers such as Delia Murphy was replaced by guitar-driven male groups such as The Dubliners. Irish showbands presented a mixture of pop music and folk dance tunes, though these died out during the seventies. The international success of The Chieftains and subsequent musicians and groups has made Irish folk music a global brand.

Historically much old-time music of the USA grew out of the music of Ireland, England and Scotland, as a result of emigration. By the 1970s Irish traditional music was again influencing music in the USA and further afield in Australia and Europe. It has occasionally been fused with rock and roll, punk rock and other genres, as in certain recordings of Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy, The Corrs, The Chieftains, Enya, Clannad, Riverdance and Van Morrison.

Music for singing

Like all traditional music, Irish folk music has changed slowly. Most folk songs are less than two hundred years old. One measure of its age is the language used. Only modern Irish songs are written in English, with few exceptions. The rest are in Irish. Most of the oldest songs and tunes are rural in origin. Modern songs and tunes often come from cities and towns.Fact|date=May 2008

Unaccompanied vocals "ar sean-nós" ("in the old style") are considered the ultimate expression of traditional singing. This is usually performed solo (very occasionally as a duet). "Sean-nós" singing is highly ornamented and the voice is placed towards the top of the range. A true "sean-nós" singer will vary the melody of every verse, but not to the point of interfering with the words, which are considered to have as much importance as the melody. To the first-time listener, accustomed to pop and classical singers, "sean-nós" often sounds more "Arabic" or "Indian" than "Western".

Non-"sean-nós" traditional singing, even when accompaniment is used, uses patterns of ornamentation and melodic freedom derived from "sean-nós", and, generally, a similar voice placement.

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 are most usually divided into two eight-bar strains which are each played as many times as the performers feel is appropriate; 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 (4/4), hornpipes (4/4 with swung eighth notes), and jigs (the common double jig is in 6/8 time), as well as imported mazurkas, polkas, and highlands (a sort of Irished version of the Scottish strathspey). Jigs come in various other forms for dancing — the slip jig and hop jig are commonly written in 9/8 time, the single jig in 12/8. (The dance the hop jig is no longer performed under the auspices of An Coimisiun.) The form of jig danced in hardshoe are known as double or treble jigs (for the doubles/trebles performed with the tip of the hardshoe), and the jig danced in ghillies/pomps/slippers are known as light jigs.

Polkas are a type of 2/4 tune mostly found in the Sliabh Luachra area, at the border of Cork and Kerry, in the south of Ireland. Another distinctive Munster rhythm is the Slide, like a fast single jig in 12/8 time. The main differences between these types of tunes are in the time signature, tempo, and rhythmic emphasis. It should be noted that, as an aural music form, Irish traditional music is rather artificially confined within time signatures, which are not really capable of conveying the particular emphasis for each type of tune. An easy demonstration of this is any attempt to notate a slow air on the musical stave. Similarly, attempts by classically trained musicians to play traditional music by reading the common transcriptions are almost unrecognisable - the transcriptions exist only as a kind of shorthand.

The concept of 'style' is of large importance to Irish traditional musicians. At the start of the last century, distinct variation in regional styles of performance existed. With increased communications and travel opportunities, regional styles have become more standardised, with soloists aiming now to create their own, unique, distinctive style, often hybrids of whatever other influences the musician has chosen to include within their style.

Due to the importance placed on the melody in Irish music, harmony should be kept simple (although, fitting with the melodic structure of most Irish tunes, this usually does not mean a "basic" I-IV-V chord progression), and instruments are played in strict unison, always following the leading player. True counterpoint is mostly unknown to traditional music, although a form of improvised "countermelody" is often used in the accompaniments of bouzouki and guitar players. Much of the local character of a style comes from the type of decoration that is added to a tune.

Instruments used in traditional Irish music

The guitar and bouzouki only entered the traditional Irish music world in the late 1960s. The bodhrán, once known in Ireland as a tambourine, is first mentioned in the 1600s, although probably is just an adaptation of the ancient Celtic war drum. The banjo is now fully accepted, possibly because of its use in popular 78s made by Irish musicians in the USA in the 1920s. Céilidh bands of the 1940s often included a drum set and stand-up bass as well as saxophones. Neither the drum kit nor the sax are accepted by purists, though the banjo is. Traditional harp-playing died out in the late eighteenth century, and was revived by Derek Bell, Mary O'Hara and others in the mid-twentieth century. Although often encountered, it plays a fringe role in Irish Traditional music.

Instruments such as button accordion and concertina made their appearances in Irish traditional music late in the nineteenth century. There is little evidence for the concert flute having played much part in traditional music. Traditional musicians prefer the wooden simple-style instrument to the Boehm-system of the modern orchestra. The mass-produced tin whistle is acceptable. A good case can be made that the Irish traditional music of the year 2006 had much more in common with that of the year 1906 than that of the year 1906 had in common with the music of the year 1806.

There is a three-cornered debate about which instruments are acceptable. Purists favour the line-up that can be heard on albums by The Chieftains, Planxty and the Bothy Band. Modernists accept the drum kit of The Pogues and the electric guitars of Horslips. Classically-influenced composers such as Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin will accept the piano.


One of the most important instruments in the traditional repertoire, the fiddle (or violin - there is no physical difference) is played differently in widely-varying regional styles. [ [http://] It is normally tuned as GDAE. 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 Lad O'Beirne, Michael Coleman, John McGrath, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran. These fiddlers did much to popularise Irish music in the States in the 1920s and 1930s. Other Sligo fiddlers included Martin Wynne and Fred Finn.

Notable fiddlers from Clare include Paddy Canny, Bobby Casey, John Kelly, Patrick Kelly, Peadar O'Loughlin, Pat O'Connor and P. Joe Hayes.

Donegal has produced James Byrne, Vincent Campbell, John Doherty, and Con Cassidy.

Sliabh Luachra, a small area between Kerry and Cork, is known for Julia Clifford, her brother Denis Murphy, Sean Maguire, Paddy Cronin and Padraig O'Keeffe. Contemporary fiddlers from Sliabh Luachra include Matt Cranitch, Gerry Harrington and Connie O'Connell, while Dubliner Séamus Creagh, actually from Westmeath, is imbued in the local style.

Modern performers include Brendan Mulvihill, Paddy Cronin, Peter Horan, James Kelly, Martin Hayes, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Cathal Hayden, Paul O'Shaughnessy, Matt Cranitch, Frankie Gavin, Paddy Glackin, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Maire Breatnach and Gerry O'Connor.

There has been many notable fiddlers from United States in recent years such as Winifred Horan, Liz Carroll, and Eileen Ivers.

Flute and whistle

The flute has been an integral part of Irish traditional music since roughly the middle of the nineteenth century, when art musicians largely abandoned the wooden simple-system flute (having a conical bore, and fewer keys) for the metal Boehm system flutes of present-day classical music.

Although the choice of the Albert-system, wooden flute over the metal was initially driven by the fact that, being "outdated" castoffs, the old flutes were available cheaply second-hand, the wooden instrument has a distinct sound and continues to be commonly preferred by traditional musicians to this day. A number of excellent players—Joanie Madden being perhaps the best known—use the Western concert flute, but many others find that the simple system flute best suits traditional fluting. Original flutes from the pre-Boehm era continue in use, but since the 1960s a number of craftsmen have revived the art of wooden flute making. Some flutes are even made of PVC; these are especially popular with new learners and as travelling instruments, being both less expensive than wooden instruments and far more resistant to changes in humidity.

The tin whistle or metal whistle, which with its nearly identical fingering might be called a cousin of the simple-system flute, is also popular. It was mass-produced in nineteenth century Manchester England, as an inexpensive instrument. Clarke whistles almost identical to the first ones made by that company are still available, although the original version, pitched in C, has mostly been replaced for traditional music by that pitched in D, the "basic key" of trad. The other common design consists of a barrel made of seamless tubing fitted into a plastic or wooden mouthpiece.

Skilled craftsmen make fine custom whistles from a range of materials including not only aluminium, brass, and steel tubing but synthetic materials and tropical hardwoods; despite this, more than a few longtime professionals stick with ordinary factory made whistles.

Irish schoolchildren are generally taught the rudiments of playing on the tin whistle, just as school children in many other countries are taught the soprano recorder. At one time the whistle was thought of by many traditional musicians as merely a sort of "beginner's flute," but that attitude has disappeared in the face of talented whistlers such as Mary Bergin, whose classic early seventies recording "Feadóga Stáin" (with bouzouki accompaniment by Alec Finn) is often credited with revolutionising the whistle's place in the tradition.

The low whistle, a derivative of the common tin whistle, is also popular, although some musicians find it less agile for session playing than the flute or the ordinary D whistle.

Notable present-day flute-players (sometimes called 'flautists' or 'fluters') include Matt Molloy, Kevin Crawford, Peter Horan, Michael McGoldrick, Desi Wilkinson, Conal O'Grada, James Reilly, Emer Mayock, and Joanie Madden while whistlers include Paddy Moloney, Carmel Gunning, Paddy Keenan, Seán Ryan, Andrea Corr, Mary Bergin, and Packie Byrne.

Uilleann pipes

Uilleann pipes (pronounced "ill-in" or "ill-yun" depending upon local dialect) are complex and said to take years to learn to play. It was common to have learning to play the pipes said to be 7 years learning, 7 years practicing and 7 years playing before a piper could be said to have mastered his instrument. Its modern form had arrived by the 1890s, and was played by "gentlemen pipers" like Seamus Ennis, Leo Rowsome and Willie 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 nearly died before being re-popularized by the likes of Paddy Moloney (of the Chieftains), and the formation of Na Píobairí Uilleann, 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, Jerry O'Sullivan, Mick O'Brien and many more. Many Pavee (Traveller) families, such as the Fureys and Dorans and Keenans, are famous for the pipers among them.

Uilleann pipes are among the most complex forms of bagpipes; they possess a chanter with a double reed and a two-octave range, three single-reed drones, and, in the complete version known as a full set, a trio of ("regulators") all with double reeds and keys worked by the piper's forearm, capable of providing harmonic support for the melody. (Virtually all uilleann pipers begin playing with a half set, lacking the regulators and consisting of only bellows, bag, chanter, and drones. Some choose never to play the full set, and many make little use of the regulators.) The bag is filled with air by a bellows held between the piper's elbow and side, rather than by the performer's lungs as in the highland pipes and almost all other forms of bagpipe, aside from the Scottish smallpipes, the Northumbrian pipes of northern England, and the Border pipes found in both parts of the Anglo-Scottish Border country.

The uilleann pipes play a prominent part in a form of instrumental music called Fonn Mall, closely related to unaccompanied singing "an sean nós" ("in the old style"). Willie Clancy, Leo Rowsome, and Garret Barry were among the many pipers famous in their day; Paddy Keenan, Davy Spillane and Robbie Hannon play these traditional airs today, among many others.


The harp is among the chief symbols of Ireland. The Celtic harp, seen on Irish coinage and used by Guinness, was played as long ago as the 10th century. In ancient times, the harpers were greatly respected, considered to have near-magical powers and assigned a high place amongst the most significant retainers of the Irish lords and chieftains. Perhaps the best known representative of this tradition of harping today is Turlough Ó Carolan, a blind 18th century harper who is often considered the unofficial national composer of Ireland. Thomas Connellan, a slightly earlier Sligo harper, composed such well known airs as "The Dawning of the Day"/"Raglan Road" and "Carolan's Dream".

The native Irish harping tradition was an aristocratic art music with its own canon and rules for arrangement and compositional structure, only tangentially associated with the folkloric music of the common people, the ancestor of present day Irish traditional music. Some of the late exponents of the harping tradition, such as O'Carolan, were influenced by the Italian Baroque art music of such composers as Vivaldi, which could be heard in the theatres and concert halls of Dublin. The harping tradition did not long outlast the native Gaelic aristocracy which supported it. By the early nineteenth century, the Irish harp and its music were for all intents and purposes dead. Tunes from the harping tradition survived only as unharmonised melodies which had been picked up by the folkloric tradition, or were preserved as notated in collections such as Edward Bunting's, (he attended the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792) in which the tunes were most often modified to make them fit for the drawing room pianofortes of the Anglicised middle and upper classes.

The first generations of twentieth century revivalists, mostly playing the gut-strung (frequently replaced with nylon after the Second World War) neo-Celtic harp with the pads of their fingers rather than the old brass-strung harp plucked with long fingernails, tended to take the dance tunes and song airs of Irish traditional music, along with such old harp tunes as they could find, and applied to them techniques derived from the orchestral (pedal) harp and an approach to rhythm, arrangement, and tempo that often had more in common with mainstream classical music than with either the old harping tradition or the living tradition of Irish music. Over the past thirty years a revival of the early Irish harp has been growing, with replicas of the medieval instruments being played, using strings of brass, silver, and even gold. This revival grew through the work of a number of musicians including Arnold Dolmetsch in 1930s England, Alan Stivell in 1960s Brittany, and most importantly Ann Heymann in the USA from the 1970s to the present. Further information is available from the [ Historical Harp Society of Ireland] , [] and [ Early Gaelic Harp Info] .

Notable players of the modern harp include Derek Bell (of The Chieftains), Laoise Kelly (of The Bumblebees), Grainne Hambly, Máire Ní Chathasaigh, Mary O'Hara, Antoinette McKenna, Michael Rooney, Aine Minogue, Patrick Ball and Bonnie Shaljean. The best of these have a solid background in genuine Irish traditional music, often having strong competency on another instrument more common in the living tradition, such as the fiddle or concertina, and work very hard at adapting the harp to traditional music, as well as reconstructing what they can of the old harpers' music on the basis of the few manuscript sources which exist. However, the harp continues to occupy a place on the fringe of Irish traditional music.

Accordion and concertina

The accordion plays a major part in modern Irish music. The accordion spread to Ireland late in the 19th century. In its ten-key form (melodeon), it is claimed that it was popular across the island It was recorded in the U.S, early by a German-American John Kimmel,The Flanagan Brothers, Eddie Herborn and Irish-American Peter Conlon. While uncommon, the melodeon is still played in some parts of Ireland, in particular in Connemara by Johnny Connolly.

Modern Irish accordion players generally prefer the 2 row button accordion. Unlike similar accordions used in other European and American music traditions, the rows are tuned a semi-tone apart. This allows the instrument to be played chromatically in melody. Currently accordions tuned to the keys of B/C and C#/D are by far the most popular systems.

The B/C accordion lends itself to a flowing style; it was popularized by Paddy O'Brien of Tipperary in the late 1940s and 1950s, Joe Burke and Sonny Brogran in the 1950s and 60s and is popular with box players of the Galway style including Billy McComiskey. Other famous B/C players include Sean Og Graham and Damian McKee (of Beoga), Paddy O'Brien of County Offaly, James Keane, and John Nolan.

The C#/D accordion lends itself to a punchier style and is particularly popular in the slides and polkas of Kerry Music. Notable players include Sharon Shannon, Jackie Daly and Joe Cooley.

The D/C# system, was played by a limited number of musicians in Ireland from the 1920s{?} and evolved with the 2 row button key.

The piano accordion became highly popular during the 1950s and has flourished to the present day in ceilidh bands and for old time Irish dance music. Their greater range, ease of changing key, more fluent action, along with their strong musette tuning blended seamlessly with the other instruments and were highly valued during this period. They were the mainstay of the top Irish and Scottish ceilidh bands, including the Gallowglass Ceili Band, the Fitzgerald Ceili Band, the McStocker Ceili Band. Dermot O'Brien, Malacy Doris, Sean Quinn and Mick Foster are well known Irish solo masters of this instrument and were well recorded. The latest revival of traditional music from the late 1970s also revived the interest in this versatile instrument. Like the button key accordion, a new playing style has emerged with a dry tuning, lighter style of playing and less rhythmic bass. The most notable players of this modern style are Karen Tweed (England) and Alan Kelly (Roscommon).

Concertinas are manufactured in several types, the most common in Irish traditional music being the Anglo system with a few musicians now playing the English system. Each differs from the other in construction and playing technique. 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. 20 key concertinas have a limited use for Irish traditional musicdue to the limited range of accidentals available.

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.

Popular players include Joe Burke, John Williams, Billy McComiskey, Sharon Shannon, and Dave Hennessy. Concertina players include Niall Vallely, Kitty Hayes, Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh, Tim Collins, Gearoid O hAllmhurain, Mary MacNamara, Noel Hill and Padraig Rynne.


The four-string tenor banjo is played as a melody instrument by Irish traditional players, and is commonly tuned GDAE, an octave below the fiddle. It was brought to Ireland by returned emigrants from the United States, where it was developed by African slaves. It is seldom strummed (although older recordings will sometimes feature the banjo used as a backing instrument), instead being played as a melody instrument using either a plectrum or a "thimble".Sullivan 1979, p. 16.]

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. 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, Gerry O'Connor, and Kevin Griffin.

The five-string banjo has had little or no role in Irish traditional music as a melody instrument but is becoming more prominent due to the work of people like Luke Kelly and Tom Hanway, an expatriate American banjo player in Ireland. Other five-string banjo players involved with Irish music are singer Al O'Donnell, Bela Fleck, Leon Hunt and Chris Grotewohl.


Although not traditional to Irish music, guitars have become commonplace in modern sessions. These are usually strummed with a plectrum (pick) to provide backing for the melody players. Irish backing tends to use chord voicings up and down the neck, rather than basic first or second position "cowboy chords"; unlike those used in jazz, these chord voicings seldom involve barre fingerings and often employ one or more open strings in combination with strings stopped at the fifth or higher frets. Modal (root and fifth without the third, neither major nor minor) chords are used extensively alongside the usual major and minor chords, as are suspended and sometimes more exotic augmented chords; however, the major and minor seventh chords are less employed than in many other styles of music. Players usually strum only two to four strings at a time, rather than across all six at once; the strings are often slightly muted with the palm of the plectrum (picking) hand. A monotonous alternating bass is not appropriate, but basslines and flashes of improvised counterpoint, well played, can add considerable style and verve.

The guitarist follows the leading melody player precisely rather than trying to control the rhythm and tempo. The backing should follow the rhythmic emphasis and pulse of the tune, rather than being simply metronomic counting; a backing that does not "lift" the tune generally kills it. "Folk," "old timey," rock, and bluegrass guitar styles do not fit well with Irish traditional music, not least because many Irish tunes do not fit into a neat chord progression.

As a general rule, no more than two guitarists should play at any one time, and players must strive to complement the tune and each other, instead of competing. The guitarist must be as skilled and as dedicated to the tradition as any of the melody players, and must hold in mind that "less is more." A "rhythm section" is not necessary in the traditional session, and it is always better to sit out a tune or to play so quietly as to only be heard by oneself than to wreck the music by playing jarring chords or an incorrect beat.

Many of the earliest notable guitarists working in traditional music, such as Dáithí Sproule and the Bothy Band's Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, used the DADGAD tuning, to the point that some musicians came to believe that only DADGAD was appropriate. However, tasteful use of standard (EADGBE) and dropped-D (DADGBE) tunings is perfectly suited to traditional music, as shown by the work of, amongst others, Steve Cooney, Arty McGlynn and John Doyle. A host of other altered tunings are also used by some players, most of them modal, like DADGAD, (Paul McSherry), rather than being open-chord tunings like Open-G.

The guitar is used to accompany singers as well as instrumentalists, but it is generally considered to be a serious violation of session etiquette to play behind a singer without being asked. The purest form of Irish traditional song is the unaccompanied solo, and singers often vary their rhythm and alter the melody from verse to verse; an accompanist unfamiliar with the specific song and the individual singer's approach to it will throw the singer off completely.

Melody playing on the guitar is quite 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, Dáithí Sproule, John Doyle, Paul McSherry, Zan McLeod, Loughy (Kieran O'Loughlin), Dennis Cahill and Steve Cooney.


Although not traditional, the Irish bouzouki has found a home in the modern Irish traditional music scene. The Greek bouzouki was introduced to Irish traditional music in the late 1960s by Johnny Moynihan and then popularized by Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, and Alec Finn. Today's Irish bouzouki (usually) has four courses of two strings (usually) tuned G2D3A3D4. The bass courses are most often tuned in unisons, one feature that distinguishes the Irish bouzouki from its Greek antecedent, although octaves in the bass are favored by some players. Instead of the staved round back of the Greek bouzouki, Irish bouzoukis usually have a flat or lightly arched back. [] Peter Abnett, the first instrument maker to build an Irish bouzouki (for Dónal Lunny in 1970) makes a three piece staved back. The top is either flat or carved like that of an arch top guitar or mandolin, although some builders carve both the back and the top. Alec Finn and Mick Conneely are the only notable players still using a Greek bouzouki, one of the older style "trixordo" three course (six string) instruments tuned DAD.


A frame drum, usually of bent wood and goatskin, the bodhrán is considered a relatively modern addition to traditional dance music. Some musicologists suggest its use was originally confined to the wrenboys on St. Stephen's Day and other quasi-ritual processions. It was introduced/popularized in the 1960s by Seán Ó Riada (although there are mentions of "tambourines" without zils being played as early as the mid nineteenth century), and quickly became popular. Notable players include Liam O'Maonlai (Hothouse Flowers) Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh, Tommy Hayes, Eamon Murray of Beoga, Colm Murphy, John Joe Kelly of Flook and Caroline Corr of The Corrs.

Although skilled bodhrán players are highly prized by most traditional musicians, the perception that the bodhrán represents an "easy" way to participate in sessions has caused some players to be suspicious of the instrument. (A well-known fiddler once described the sound of an ineffectively played bodhrán at a session as 'sounding like a sack of spuds falling down stairs'.)

Mention should also be made here of the "bones" - two slender, curved pieces of bone or wood - and "spoons". Pairs of either are held together in one hand and shaken rhythmically to make a percussive, clacking sound.

Occasionally, at pub sessions, there are some non-traditional hand drums used, such as the West African Djembe drum - which can produce a low booming bass note, as well as a high pitched tone - and the Caribbean Bongo drum. These drums are used as a variation to, or combined with, the bodhrán during sessions.


Although not strictly traditional, the Irish harmonica tradition is best-represented by Mick Kinsella, Paul Moran, the Murphy family from County Wexford, Eddie Clarke and Brendan Power (the latter being of New Zealand). A detailed discography of Irish harmonica albums can be found at

Revivals of traditional Irish music

Late 19th century revival and the 20th century

The revival of interest in Irish traditional culture was closely linked to Nationalist calls for independence and was catalysed by the foundation of the Gaelic League in 1893. This sought to encourage the rediscovery and affirmation of Irish traditional arts by focusing upon the Irish language, but also established an annual competition, the Feis Cheoil, in 1903 as a focus for its activities.

The Gaelic League was often accused of being a largely middle-class organization and of taking little heed of the interests or enjoyments of those living in rural areas of Ireland; most of the League's meetings were in fact held in London.

Religion also played a role in the re-development of Irish culture. The actual achievement of independence from Britain tallied closely with a new Irish establishment desire to separate Irish culture from the European mainstream, but the new Irish government also paid heed to clerical calls to curtail 'jazz dancing' and other suggestions of a dereliction in Irish morality -- though it was not until 1935 that the Public Dance Halls Act curtailed the right of anyone to hold their own events; from then on, no public musical or dancing events could be held in a public space without a license and most of those were usually only granted to 'suitable' persons - often the parish priest.

Combined with continued emigration, and the priesthood's inevitable zeal in closing down un-licensed events, the upshot was to drive traditional music and dancing back into the cottage where it remained until returning migrants persuaded pub owners to host sessions in the early 1960s.

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. This revival was aided in part by a loose movement of musicians founded in 1951 with the aim of preserving traditional music, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.

The 1960s saw a number of innovative performers. Christy Moore and Dónal Lunny, for example, first performing as a duo, and later creating two of the best-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, Planxty and Clannad 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 Moving Hearts formed by Dónal Lunny and Christy Moore and featuring Davy Spillane on uilleann pipes - the first time this had effectively happened in a rock setting.

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.

Musicians from non-Irish styles (bluegrass, oldtime, folk) have discovered the appeal of Irish traditional music. It is usually possible to distinguish the rhythmic pulse and melodic flow of an Irish version of a tune from that of Appalachian or bluegrass versions. Few musicians can be master of more than one style in an authentic way. Kevin Burke's "Celtic Fiddle Festival" is a rare example of blending French, Scottish and Irish styles.

Late 20th century: Folk-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 enormous international success with New Age/Celtic fusions. The Pogues, led by Shane MacGowan, helped fuse Irish folk with punk rock. This resulted in top ten hits in Ireland, the UK and the USA. Afro-Celt Sound System combined Celtic instrumentals with West African influences and drum n bass in the 1990s.

In the 1980s, major folk bands included De Dannan, Altan, Arcady, Dervish and Patrick Street. A growing interest in Irish music at this time helped many artistes gain more recognition abroad, including Mary Black, and Sharon Shannon. 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.

In the 2000s Beoga, Gráda, Danú and Teada are among the youngest major instrumental bands of a largely traditional bent.

New bands that promote the pub ballads and raucous folk instrumentals include Flogging Molly, the Dropkick Murphys, and the LeperKhanz. There are many other Irish bands developing fusions of local and Irish music such as Skelpin, Flook, Kíla, Gráda, Bushplant (which includes fiddler Mary Custy) and Bad Haggis. Largely inspired by The Pogues, bands like this have been formed in the USA and Australia.

A great place to hear traditional Irish music as part of a living and evolving traditions is at Ionad Cultúrtha (website - [] ) which is a regional cultural centre for the traditional and contemporary arts in Ballyvourney (near Macroom in County Cork). It holds many interesting music and visual art events and has a very progressive programming policy.

Pub sessions

Pub sessions are now the home for much of Irish traditional music, which takes place at informal gatherings in country and 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.

Audio samples

ee also

*List of Irish musicians
*Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann
*Sean nós
*List of All-Ireland Champions
*List of Irish Music Collectors
*Traditional Irish Singers
*Celtic music
*Irish rock
*Irish Recorded Music Association
*Irish topics
*Irish Rebel music
*Irish traditional music session

References and Sources


* Sullivan, Anthony: "Sully's Irish Banjo Book", Manchester 1979,
* Boydell, Barra: "Music and Paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland", 1985, ISBN 0-903162-22-9
* Carson, Ciaran. Irish Traditional Music. Appletree Press ISBN 0-86281-168-6
* Carson, Ciaran. "Last Night's Fun", Jonathan Cape ISBN 0-224-04141-X
* Fleischmann, Aloys, "Sources of Irish Traditional Music, c.1600-1855," two volumes, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York and London, 1998. Number of melodies: 6841.
* Joyce, Patrick Weston, "Old Irish Folk Music and Songs: a Collection of 842 Irish Airs and Songs Hitherto Unpublished," Cooper Square Publishers, New York, 1965. Originally published in 1909.
* Mathieson, Kenny. "Ireland". 2001. In Mathieson, Kenny (Ed.), "Celtic music", pp. 10-53. Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-623-8
* 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
* O'Neill, Francis, "The Dance Music of Ireland: 1001 Gems, compiled and edited by Captain Francis O'Neill, arranged by James O'Neill," Lyon & Healy, Chicago, 1907.
* Petrie, George, "Petrie's Complete Irish Music: 1,582 Traditional Melodies, prepared from the original manuscripts by Charles Villiers Stanford," Dover Publications, 2003.
* Petrie, George, "The Petrie Collection of Ancient Music of Ireland," edited by David Cooper, Cork University Press, 2002.
* Vallely, Fintan. "The Companion to Irish Traditional Music" Cork University Press, ISBN 1 85918 148 1
* Wallis, Geoff, and Wilson, Sue, "The Rough Guide to Irish Music" ISBN 1-85828-642-5

External links

* [ Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann] A global movement promoting Irish traditional music and culture
* [ The Irish Traditional Music Tune Index] A searchable database of traditional dance tunes which identifies sources for tunes on commercial recordings and in tune books
* [] an online tune database and discussion site for adherents of Irish Traditional Music
* [ Glens Music] Recordings, music books, videos of Northern Irish traditional music & songs.
* [ Martin Dardis Web Site] Irish folk and ballad song lyrics and guitar chords with videos
* [ Liam's Irish Traditional Music]
* [ Historical Notes about Irish Melodies]
* [ Ceól Ólta] News and actual information on Folk Music, with an accent on Irish/Celtic Music
* [ Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin] Ireland's national resource and archive centre for contemporary Irish classical music.
* [ A History of Irish Music, by W. H. Flood]
* [ CCUSA-Northeast Region] The listing for Scottish, Irish,and Celtic concerts and tours for the Northeast United States and Eastern Canada
* [ Scoil Cheoil na Botha - Traditional music festival in Co. Monaghan]
* [ Irish Folk & Celtic Music in Germany]

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