Irish culture as a whole is very unique, complex, and of course, interesting! Although there are many aspects to Irish heritage, traditions and culture, music is a very important one. In previous centuries, music and storytelling were the only forms of entertainment on an island that had no electricity and where only a small minority of the population were literate. On cold, dark evenings, villages would crowd together into their local pub to share a warm fire, hear stories and listen to music played by the local musicians (of course there was usually dancing too, which is where our traditional dancing originates from). It started a tradition that has been kept alive since then, as music is still a very important part of life in Ireland.
A quintessential experience for any visitor to the Emerald Isle, particularly rural Ireland or anywhere along the west coast, is participating in what is locally known as a 'trad sesh', or a session of traditional Irish music in a local pub. This usually involves a handful of musicians all playing old folk songs on native instruments, ranging from slow, melancholy singing to the energetic and very fast paced type of music that most people around the world know to be 'Irish'. Basically, it's the modern version of the villagers crowding around the fireplace listening to the local musicians. It's still equally as fun and spirited an affair, however; in fact, it may even be more rowdy now than it was then!
Origins of Irish music
Music has been in Ireland for thousands of years. The first inhabitants of the island used very primitive forms of musical instruments, mostly pipes and horns. Rather than being used to make melodies or as a form of art, instead they were most likely used as signallers, to warn others of danger or to summon people from an area for whatever reason. Over time as these people became more skilled, the instruments became more complex as well as more durable; although whether they became more tuneful or not is anyone's guess. Among other instruments, a set of six hand-carved cylindrical wooden pipes dating from around 2000 BC have been found in Wicklow. Made from yew wood and resembling a larger set of pan pipes, they are said to resemble similar objects found in Scandinavia around the same time period. Two other prime examples are the Dord Iseal and the Dord Ard. Both are cast bronze horns that are around 3000 years old, from the west and north of Ireland respectively.
Like most other aspects of Irish culture and traditions, the beginning of Irish music as we know it today can be traced back to the arrival of the Celts. Having spread from central Europe all the way to the shores of the Atlantic, they picked up a few skills along the way, and using musical instruments was one of them. In particular, they had one significant instrument; the harp. This was the most dominant sound in Ireland long after the Celts had made way to the Vikings and the modern era, enjoying popularity from the 10th right up until the 17th centuries. While not a whole lot is known about how exactly the Celts used music or expressed themselves through it, we do know that it had already become an important part of life by the Middle Ages. Anyone proficient in the harp could earn themselves a very nice living playing in the courts of the chieftains, as the harp and harpists were held in very high regard along with poets and other artistically inclined people.
Traditional Musical Instruments
From there, other instruments joined the fray, most of which are earlier versions of present day traditional instruments, which are...
Bodhrán (pronounced bow-rawn): The bodhrán is a simple handheld drum, used – obviously – as a percussion instrument. It usually measures around 35 – 45cm in diameter with goatskin stretched across to make up the drumming surface. The interior will sometimes have a wooden cross bar for the musician to hold onto. His/her other hand will hold a tipper, a short wooden stick used to beat the bodhrán in a fluid, shaking sort of motion. The bodhrán is always played vertically, resting on the musician's knee. They will place their 'free' hand on various parts of the interior of the drum to control the pitch and timbre.
Fiddle: The fiddle is now the primary instrument of most traditional Irish music. Despite the name, there is no difference between a fiddle and a violin (except the name of course); the difference comes with the type of music each instrument plays. A classically trained violinist is unlikely to play folk music, and a folk musician is equally as unlikely to play classical music!
Tin Whistle: A tin whistle is another simple instrument that requires a surprising amount of skill to master. It's the cheapest Irish instrument around starting at around €10, and has a range of around two octaves with six holes and a mouthpiece. It's very similar to a recorder, although more slender, and has many variations in this part of the world. The Scottish penny whistle and English flageolet are essentially the same instrument with a different name.
Uilleann Pipes: Again, this is much the same as the more well known Scottish bagpipes, although in fact there are several forms of the instrument. Uilleann pipes are much quieter than their Scottish cousins, with a range of two octaves. They usually have keys, drones and regulators along with a few extra pipes to play chords.
Concertina; Although not strictly Irish in origin – it was developed in both England and Germany, not Ireland - the concertina makes a regular appearance in traditional Irish music these days. It is a small hexagonal accordion with a keyboard on both ends and no bass. It became popular at the beginning of the 20th century in Irish music because of its rich, multi tonal sound, and was especially prevalent in county Clare, where female musicians were said to be particularly skilled in playing it.
Harp: Last but not least is Ireland's national instrument, the harp. It appears on our coins, all government documentation, and just about any other official symbol in the country. There are many different types of harp that vary in size, shape, sound, and virtually everything else. However, they all have multiple strings with a neck and resonator. Depending on the size, a harp can be played while held in the hand, or standing on top of a table or the floor. It is always played vertically and has a beautiful, fairytale like sound.
You may also be interested in reading our blog post on 10 Great Irish Musical Acts
Types of Songs
Traditional Irish songs can be broken down into two very general categories; the slow ballad songs and the fast paced dancing songs, both of which have several subcategories. There is a song for just about every eventuality in Irish music; laments, drinking songs, rebel songs, love songs, humorous songs, and of course, dancing songs.
Sean Nós is an especially famous type of Irish song. Sean Nós songs are always sung unaccompanied by a single person in the Irish language. The words and music are of equal importance, and were passed down orally from generation to generation. Songs are sung with free rhythm, speeding up and slowing down according to the words and their expression. It has a nasal tone quality and due to its slow, melodic style, songs are usually about miserable topics like death, famine and oppression. Needless to say, they don't exactly get the party started!
Dancing songs are infinitely more popular than Sean Nós songs, and are almost always accompanied by a ceilidh (a group of dancers who dance in a simple formation that interchanges partners and directions at various intervals), so they're not only a lot of fun, but can get somewhat chaotic too! There are three main subcategories of dancing music; jigs, reels, and hornpipes.
The reel is the most common form of irish dance tune, said to be brought to Ireland from Scotland in the 18th century. They are quite fast paced with 4/4 or 2/2 timing. Jigs are even faster in tempo, with 6/8 or 12/8 timing and some varieties are usually danced by women. Hornpipes are slower than jigs and reels, usually played to give musicians a bit of a rest after the vigorous faster songs! They begin with an upbeat rhythm and then even out into a dotted rhythm with triplets. The dancing that accompanies hornpipe songs is very intricate. Dancers wear hard shoes as this type of song was originally adapted purely as a show piece.
As well as dancing music, which is almost exclusively instrumental, there are plenty of songs that include lyrics too, some of which are world famous while others are only known in certain parts of Ireland. Some of the more popular songs include;
The Green Fields of France
Dirty Old Town
The Wild Rover
The Fields of Athenry
Whiskey in the Jar
The Rose of Tralee
The Rare Old Times
Modern Irish Music
These days, the music you'll hear around Ireland does not often feature bodhráns, harps and tin whistles. There are plenty of Irish music groups keeping the traditional style alive - The Dubliners and The Pogues to name just two - but Irish music has definitely moved with the times and produced some world class acts along the way. Just some of Ireland's most famous musical exports include U2, Van Morrisson, Thin Lizzy, Sinead O'Connor, Bob Geldof, and more recently, Damien Rice, The Frames, The Script, and one quarter of everyone's favourite boy band of the moment, Niall Horan from One Direction. The live music scene in Ireland is booming, be it traditional or modern music that is played, and more and more talented new musicians are coming up the ranks all the time. It may have changed a lot over the centuries, but one thing has stayed the same; Irish music is still bringing people together, and making them dance.
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