Music of Ireland

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Musical genres, styles, eras and events

An Irish band playing in the Hetzel Union Building, Penn State University.
An Irish band playing in the Hetzel Union Building, Penn State University.

Ireland is internationally known for its traditional music, which has remained vibrant throughout the 20th century, when many other traditional forms worldwide lost popularity to pop music. In spite of emigration and a well-developed connection to music imported from Britain and the 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 mainstream success, at home and abroad. (One example of a traditional song that has received exposure as the result of being recorded by pop and rock artists is " She Moved Through the Fair".)

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, Horslips, Clannad, The Cranberries, The Corrs, Van Morrison, Thin Lizzy, Sinéad O'Connor, My Bloody Valentine, Rory Gallagher, Republic of Loose , The Pogues and Westlife.,

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, Danú, Déanta, Lúnasa, Kíla, Noel Shine and Mary Greene, and Border Collies. Others incorporate multiple cultures in a fusion of style, such as Afro Celt Sound System and Loreena McKennitt.

In addition to folk music, Ireland also has a rich store of contemporary classical music. However, contemporary classical music has no impact, and very little exposure in Ireland itself, and therefore abroad.

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Traditional music

Irish traditional music, like most traditional music, is characterized by slow-moving change, which usually occurs along accepted principles. Songs and tunes believed to be ancient in origin are respected (though, in reality, many are less than two hundred years old). 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). Of major importance to the transcribing of melodies belonging to both the instrumental traditions and the song traditions were the collectors. These included 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 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 late 1960s. The bodhrán, once known in Ireland as a tambourine, is first mentioned in the nineteenth century. Céilidh bands of the 1940s often included a drum set and stand-up bass as well as saxophones. (The band At The Racket continues the "tradition" of the saxophone in Irish music.) As of current writing, the first three instruments are now generally accepted in traditional Irish music circles (although perhaps not in the most purist of venues), while the latter three are generally not. (The Pogues received much criticism for their use of a drum kit, for instance.)

Furthermore, such "unimpeachable" instruments as button accordion and concertina made their appearances in Irish traditional music only late in the nineteenth century. There is little evidence for the flute having played much part in traditional music before art musicians abandoned the wooden simple-system instrument still preferred by trad fluters for the Boehm-system of the modern orchestra, and the tin whistle is another mass-produced product of the Industrial Revolution. A good case can be made that the Irish traditional music of the year 2006 has 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.

More recently, traditional Irish music has been "expanded" to include new styles, arrangements, and variations performed by bands, although arguments run rife as to whether you may then call this music "traditional." However, the greater part of the community has accepted that the music played by such bands as Planxty and the Bothy Band and their numerous spiritual descendants is indeed traditional.

Musicians from non-Irish styles (bluegrass, oldtime, folk) have discovered the appeal of Irish traditional music. However, the rhythmic pulse and melodic flow of Irish traditional music are quite distinct to the rhythmic and melodic structures that govern other musical forms, even in the case of the few tunes shared between these musical genres. Also, Irish sessions and bluegrass and old time jams carry completely different sets of etiquette and expectations, and these do not, for the most part, integrate well; this has led to many misunderstandings and outright confrontations.

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. Structural units are symmetrical and include decorations, in many cases imaginative and elaborate, of the rhythm, text, melody and phrasing, though not usually of dynamics.

Unaccompanied vocals ar sean-nós ("in the old style") are considered the ultimate expression of traditional singing, usually performed solo, but sometimes as a duet. Sean-nós singing is highly ornamented and the voice is placed towards the top of the range; to the first-time listener, accustomed to pop and classical singers, sean-nós often sounds more "Arabic" or "Indian" than "Western". 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. 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.

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.

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 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. 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.

Set dancing

Set dancing, generally danced in "sets" of four couples (eight hands; a "half set" is two couples or four hands), is one of the most popular forms of the Irish traditional dances. After almost having died out, the recreational dance form was revived in the 1980s in counties Clare and Kerry. Venues for set dancing are often pubs, which might reserve one evening of the week for dancing, and céilís, which almost always feature live céilí bands. 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".

Most sets consist of a series of figures. Each figure is danced to a different type of tune with a pause between each figure for the dancers to catch their breath (and perhaps to quickly review the next figure); a reel, jig, hornpipe, and a polka, for instance. Each figure calls for a certain amount of measures of music, and the musicians will often be given a list of the music required for each set ahead of time so the figure and the music will end at the same time.

A caller will sometimes call a set, especially when there are many beginners, but set dancers strive to memorize their sets in order not to need a caller. Attendees will generally see a few of the easier sets at the beginning of the night called for new dancers and visitors, and then the rest of the sets tend to be for "those who know".

Another feature of set dancing is "battering", where the dancers tap/stamp out a rhythm on the floor as they move through the set. At one point in time, this was mainly the province of the "head couple" at the top of the set, as this was generally the most experienced pair of dancers in the set. However, it has become much more common for many if not all of the dancers in a set to batter throughout the set. (This provides either a great deal of energy or simply an overwhelming conglomerate of noise, depending on one's personal viewpoint of the matter.)


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, a few scattered remnants of other regional forms of stepdancing, and other forms of Southern style dancing not under the auspices of An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha). 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 for competition in a manner similar to ballet dancers, ice skaters, and gymnasts. It is largely a solo dance form, although group dances or figures exist in a set curriculum of ceili (or, in Scottish Gaelic, ceilidh), or party, dances. Stepdancing was hugely popularized after the success of the Broadway-style musical Riverdance in 1994.

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.

An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha has long instituted a certification system for teachers and adjudicators through scrúdaithe (examinations/tests). An Coimisiún was established by Conradh na Gaeilge – The Gaelic League – in the late twenties as a commission for the purpose of examining the organisation of Irish dancing as it existed at that time and to make recommendations as to how it might be better organised in the future. The body first met in 1930.

Those who pass the teachers examination receive the TCRG (Teagascóir Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha) certification as certified instructors. After ten years of holding the TCRG certificate, teachers may then test for the ADCRG (Ard Diploma Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha) in order to adjudicate dance competitions (feis; plural, feiseanna). Both tests involve considerable practical, oral, and written demonstration of Irish stepdancing, including the ability to sing certain tunes and identify snippets of the traditional and non-traditional sets -- a formidable task for (often) non-musicians.

Sean nós dancing

Modern step dancing evolved from sean-nós ("old style") dancing. Sean-nós dancing has a large element of improvisation, but at its best is more than a mere frenetic jumping about; the performance of a skilled sean-nós dancer should convey both restraint and wildness packaged in an unpretentious dignity. The upper body and arms are loose and relaxed, rather than held erect and still as in modern stepdancing, and the footwork is low, hard, and percussive, without the high kicks (over the knee height) of stepdancing. Props are occasionally employed - for example, in "The Brush Dance" the dancer uses a sweeping brush (broom) as a prop.

Sean-nós dancing continues to maintain itself as a living tradition despite the popularity and flash of the more athletic modern stepdancing forms and theatrical spectacles.


Riverdance is a musical and dancing interval act starring Michael Flatley and Jean Butler. Also featuring the choir Anuna, it was performed during the Eurovision Song Contest 1994. Popular reaction to the act was so immense that an entire musical revue was built around the act. Although Riverdance was much criticised in the traditional cultural communities as being only derived from the Irish tradition, with many hybridised dances (American tap, ballet, and jazz elements were introduced; the rhythmic structure of much of the music is not based on traditional Irish music, but has roots in the complex polyrhythms of Eastern Europe) and tunes largely composed for the show by Bill Whelan rather than taken directly from the tradition, the artistic standards of the show were very high, featuring the work of world-class designers, choreographers, dancers and musicians.

Riverdance 's appeal was such that the arts of Ireland were made 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 rose to an all time high.

However, many artists found that what was wanted by much of the new audience was not the traditions from which Riverdance was derived, but more spectacle after the fashion of the original stage show, or even direct imitations of the show's Bill Whelan tunes and hybrid-form dance numbers. Many of the eager new musicians vanished upon discovering that Irish traditional music requires practice, skill, and commitment and is not merely an exercise in mass participation to the exclusion of musicality or an excuse to carouse and receive free drink. (The same held true in other Irish cultural communities, such as the stepdance schools.)

Overall, the general feeling of the Irish traditional arts communities seems to be that Riverdance was an enjoyable, expert piece of Broadway-style theatre that did an extremely good job of popularizing Irish culture and arts worldwide, but that the rate of change it inflicted upon the traditional artforms that inspired the show did not sit comfortably with many of the original participants. Still, even the most gloomy or vehement of the show's detractors will often admit that, at the least, the show brought a great deal of needed funds to the Irish cultural and arts communities worldwide.

Instruments used in traditional Irish music


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. Modern performers include Peter Horan, James Kelly, Martin Hayes, Paul O'Shaughnessy, Matt Cranitch, Frankie Gavin, the Glackin brothers, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Maire Breatnach and Gerry O'Connor. Sligo fiddlers like Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Paddy Killoran did much to popularise Irish music in the States in the 1920s and 1930s.

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, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran; Irish Sligo fiddlers included the late Andrew Davey, Martin Wynne, Fred Finn, John Joe Gardiner (who was born in Sligo and played that style of music, but moved to Dundalk where he was a huge influence on traditional music and on playing in the Sligo style) and Kathleen Harrington, John Joe's sister.

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, Junior Crehan and P. Joe Hayes, while Donegal has produced Danny O'Donnell, Néllidh Boyle, James Byrne, Vincent Campbell, Francie Byrne, John Doherty, Proinsias Ó Maonaigh, and Bridget Regan. Sliabh Luachra, a small area between Kerry and Cork, is known for Julia Clifford, her brother Denis Murphy, and Pádraig O'Keefe. Contemporary fiddlers from Sliabh Luachra include Máire O'Keeffe, Matt Cranitch, Gerry Harrington, Connie O'Connell, and Tim Browne, while Séamus Creagh, actually from Westmeath, is imbued in the local style.

Several phenomenal fiddlers have also emerged in the United States in recent years, among them Liz Carroll, Marie Reilly and Eileen Ivers.

Flute and whistle

Tin whistles in a variety of makes and keys.
Tin whistles in a variety of makes and keys.

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 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, Emer Mayock, and Joanie Madden while whistlers include Paddy Moloney, Carmel Gunning, Paddy Keenan, Seán Ryan, 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 comprised 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. Further information is available from the Historical Harp Society of Ireland,

Notable modern players include the late Derek Bell (of The Chieftains), Laoise Kelly (of The Bumblebees), Grainne Hambly, Máire Ní Chathasaigh, Mary O'Hara, Antoinette McKenna, Michael Rooney, Aine Minoque, 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. Popular players include John Williams, Joe Burke, Billy McComiskey, Joe Joyce, Sharon Shannon, and Dave Hennessy. Concertina players include Niall Vallely, Kitty Hayes, Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh, Tim Collins, Gearoid O hAllmhurain, Mary MacNamara 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. 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, 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 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.

A somewhat older system pioneered in America was the D/C# system that was popularized by Joe Derrane.

Piano accordions are somewhat unusual in Irish Music, but not completely unknown. Karen Tweed is one famous player of Piano Accordion in Irish Traditional Music.

English concertina made by Wheatstone around 1920.
English concertina made by Wheatstone around 1920.

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.

Well known concertina players include Noel Hill and Padraig Rynne.


The four-string tenor banjo is favoured by most 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. The banjo, as a relatively loud wire-strung instrument, serves a similar musical function in sessions to the cittern and mandolin. Unlike the cittern, however, 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". 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, Fergus O'Byrne, Gerry O'Connor, and Kevin Griffin.

The five-string banjo has had little or no role in Irish traditional music, and is often actively loathed by Irish musicians as a potential session-killer, since the clawhammer and three-finger picking styles used on this instrument by old-time and bluegrass musicians appear to be almost directly opposite to the pulse of Irish tunes. While a sensitive and well-informed five-string player can develop an approach which would complement Irish traditional music, he or she would have to overcome considerable skepticism in a session context.

One of the very few respected five-string banjo players involved with Irish music is Chris Grotewohl, who also plays oldtime and bluegrass.


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.


An Irish Bouzouki.
An Irish Bouzouki.

A relative of the once-popular cittern imported from Greece, the bouzouki was introduced in the late 1960s by Johnny Moynihan and then popularized by Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, and Alec Finn. Today's Irish bouzouki has four courses of two strings each tuned GDAD, GDAE, or ADAE; unison courses are probably most common, although octaves in the bass are favoured by some players. The back is flat or lightly arched and the top is either flat or carved like that of an arch top guitar or mandolin. All in all, the Irish bouzouki has evolved into a member of the mandolin family with little resemblance to the round-backed Greek bouzouki with its guitarlike (in the four course version) tuning. Alec Finn is the only notable player still using a Greek bouzouki, one of the older style three course (six string) instruments tuned DAD.


The mandolin, a fretted instrument strung with eight steel strings in four unison courses and played with a plectrum (pick), is not a common instrument amongst Irish traditional musicians. When it appears at a session, it's usually tuned GDAE, like the fiddle.

Although almost any variety of acoustic mandolin might be adequate for Irish traditional music, virtually all Irish players prefer flat-backed instruments with oval sound holes to the Italian-style bowl-back mandolins or the carved-top mandolins with f-holes favoured by bluegrass mandolinists. The former are often too soft-toned to hold their own in a session (as well as having a tendency to not stay in place on the player's lap), whilst the latter tend to sound harsh and overbearing to the trad ear. Greatly preferred are flat-topped "Irish-style" mandolins (remniscent of the WWI-era Martin Army-Navy mandolin) and carved (arch) top mandolins with oval soundholes, such as the Gibson A-style of the 1920s. The mandolins built by British luthier Stefan Sobell are perhaps the most highly prized for Irish traditional music, although many other makers, such as Ireland's Joe Foley, also make well-regarded mandolins.

Chord-strumming on the mandolin (particularly bluegrass-style "chop" strumming) does not fit at all well with Irish traditional music; an approach of two and three note chords mixed with "countermelody," as used by Irish bouzouki players can be more appropriate, but is often lost amidst the other instruments of a session.

Noteworthy Irish mandolin players include Andy Irvine (who almost always tunes the E down to D), Mick Moloney and Paul Kelly.


Bodhrán with tipper.
Bodhrán with tipper.

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. Great players include Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh, Tommy Hayes, Colm Murphy and Fergus O'Byrne (of Ryan's Fancy) and John Joe Kelly of Flook.

Although skilled bodhrán players are highly prized by most traditional musicians, the inaccurate perception of many neophytes and other persons only peripherally involved with the living tradition that the bodhrán represents an "easy" way to participate in sessions has caused some players to develop a deep and abiding, if sometimes unreasonable, hatred for 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'.) It is therefore considered wise for those who play the bodhrán to cultivate a skin thicker than that upon their drum.

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. They should be used sparingly and never (one may fear the worst from the simple existence of this warning) during waltzes, airs, or songs.


A well-known instrument found in many kinds of traditional music, the Irish harmonica tradition is best-represented by Mick Kinsella, Paul Moran, the Murphy family from County Wexford, the late Eddie Clarke and Brendan Power (the latter being of New Zealand). A detailed discography of Irish harmonica albums can be found at

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 organisation 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.

Pub sessions

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 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 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 have been a modern incarnation of the Irish poetry tradition. Irish influence in a more strictly pop idiom was represented in this period by Waterford born singer/songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan who had an international breakthrough, peaking with two UK No. 1 singles (Clair, Get Down) and one US No. 1 (Alone Again, Naturally).

Late 20th century: Rock and more...

The Waterboys performing in Dublin in 2004.
The Waterboys performing in Dublin in 2004.

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 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, Dervish and Patrick Street. Punk rock entered Ireland in full in the late 1970s, and flowered in the following decade with performers like Gavin Friday, Bob Geldof, while the Belfast scene inspired a legion of punk bands from Northern Ireland, of whom 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.

Country and Western music from the United States, which was influenced indirectly by Irish music, returned back over the ocean and is immensely popular in Ireland.

In the 1990s, pop bands like the Corrs, B*Witched, Boyzone and the somewhat rockier 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 2000s Gráda, Danú and Teada are among the youngest major instrumental bands of a largely traditional bent (although Gráda is not so easily defined. While showing a strong understanding of their historical roots, they intertwine more contemporary sounds into their playing, bridging a gap beween traditionalists and modern fusion groups).

New bands that promote the pub ballads and raucous instrumentals so familiar to Irish music fans 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 and Bad Haggis. These bands are no longer formed exclusively in Ireland.

Classical music in Ireland

While Irish traditional music, and more recently rock music, have gained such an international following, Irish classical music has had a long struggle to become accepted. Some music comes from the world between popular and classical music. One well-known example is the internationally renowned choir Anuna, with its unique and unusual sound and stage show, The West Ocean String Quartet, The Musicians of Prey, The Crash Ensemble and the young vocal group Bulraga.


Despite the enormous international successes of Irish performers in the fields of traditional and rock music, classical Irish music has struggled hard over the last 100 years to gain a strong and secure foothold in the psyche of the Irish people. Music education at school level is not a core subject, and in recent years the Leaving Certificate [Ireland's final year exams at secondary level] has introduced a more populist curriculum in Musicianship.

Groups such as Anuna, Camerata Ireland, Opera Theatre Company and the Irish Chamber Orchestra have had considerable international success. There is a National Symphony Orchestra of very good quality [managed and run by RTÉ the Irish National broadcaster], a classical music radio station Lyric FM, but beyond this Irish classical artists have to struggle for any recognition in their own country. Many of them seek education and work beyond the boundaries of Ireland.

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