Every Irish person’s heart sings when they hear the soaring melodies of traditional Irish music. The singsong vocal runs, pipes, and fiddle represent a rich history dedicated to the resilience, and beauty of our ancestors.
But where did this music come from? How did it begin? What makes Irish traditional music unique?
Irish folk music is one of the most distinctive traits of our culture, and it’s important that we know its roots so we can enjoy and appreciate it more fully. Irish music and dance are part of our cultural inheritance, handed down through an oral tradition over centuries.
Today I wanted to share some of my favorite parts of Irish music’s history so we can celebrate our culture together.
Table of Contents
The Origins of Irish Music
Over 2,000 years ago, during the Iron Age Era, Celtic people settled in Ireland and started creating their own music in about 500 BC. Because they were immigrants from Austria, Switzerland, France, and Spain, they added an Eastern flair to their new musical tradition.
It was there that traditional Irish music was born, and it was handed down through the generations through aural and oral traditions. Musicians would learn by ear, and they never formally wrote down the music or lyrics.
Irish folk music evolved over the centuries and became an important thread running through Irish history. The melodies and lyrics of some folk songs carry a history and knowledge from way back when. They continue our story as a people to the present day.
Distinctive Features of Irish Folk Music
Irish music is distinct from any other culture or genre, for a variety of reasons. It features specific instruments such as the fiddle, harp, flute, whistle, pipes, accordion, banjo, mandolin, bodhrán, and more. We’ll explore the instruments in a moment, but first let’s identify some characteristics of Irish music.
The very term Irish music is extremely broad and incorporates many different types of singing and instrumental music.
In Irish music rhythmic melody is emphasized rather than harmonies. Instruments are usually played in unison, with each participant adhering to the same melody.
It is difficult to put words on the distinctive rhythm, style, structure and phrasing that makes Irish music so recognisable the moment you first hear the notes. It makes our Irish hearts sing, and our feet automatically start tapping.
By far the most common rhythms of Irish music are tunes in 4/4 or common time for reels, 6/8 time for jigs, and 9/8 time for a slip jig. The standard number of bars is eight for Irish dance music. However, listen out for dips on the fourth bar, and swinging notes on the eighth bar. Irish traditional dance borrows the rhythms and beats of our wonderful traditional music.
The best traditional Irish music is full of ornamentation and grace notes, and harmonies are usually drone based drumming.
Because of the unique ornamentation and runs used in Irish music it is difficult to use classical music notation to transcribe it. This music is made for playing and listening, not always transcribing.
Irish acoustic music is easy to catch on to and many students learn it by ear rather than by reading music sheets. It’s rhythmic, repetitions make it fit for dancing, so it easily became associated with traditional Irish dances, like reels and jigs.
Categories of Irish Music
Here are some Irish music facts you may not know. Irish music culture is an expansive topic but to summarize, we can categorize the types of Irish music into five broad categories.
- Sean nós (pronounced shan-know-ss) or “old way” songs and caoineadh (pronounced kween-ah) or songs of lament - literally crying songs.
- Instrumental airs which are written in free rhythms.
- Irish harp music which are sweet and melodic.
- Instrumental dance tunes and medleys - easily recognizable tunes that define Irish music in the eyes of the world.
- Songs sung in English which have been primarily created in the past two hundred years.
Sean-nós, a form of traditional Irish singing in the mother tongue, was developed and honed as a style that would set it apart from any other genre. The vocals notably featured tenors and a more singsong tone.
This is the type of singing most commonly thought of when it comes to Irish music. It features just the singer’s voice without accompaniment, so it specifically highlights the vocal skill and range of the singer.
Instruments of Irish Music
There are many instruments of Irish music. Here are some notable ones:
The bodhrán (pronounced bow-rawn as in taking a bow on stage or the bow of a ship), is a traditional Irish drum. It’s made with a circular wooden frame, covered on one side by a sheath of goat skin. It’s played with a small stick.
Musicians can alter the pitch of the drum by placing one hand at different places inside the drum. This frame drum is often taken to matches by Irish football fans who love its deep echoing sounds.
The Irish harp is an instrument that is beloved by the people of Ireland and it actually is the official symbol of Ireland. The Celtic harp features in many of Ireland's old myths and legends. The druids often owned enchanted harps in these old Irish tales, although some believe the first harp originated in Egypt. In ancient times the harp was the most popular instrument. Celtic chieftains employed traditional harpists to entertain them and their guests. After the Flight of the Earls to mainland Europe in 1607, Irish harpists lost their patrons. They were left to travel Ireland seeking employment.
The fiddle features in many traditional Irish tunes. Did you know the fiddle is actually the same instrument as the violin. However, fiddle players use play in a less conformed manner, with lots of free flowing musical oramentation.
Uilleann pipes (pronounced ill-inn) are the traditional bagpipes of Ireland. They are very similar to the bagpipes of Scotland but rather than being inflated by blowing into the bag, they are filled through an elbow pump mechanism. Their name quite literally means pipes of the elbow.
The tin whistle is a six hole flageolet also known as a penny whistle. It's in the woodwind family of instruments and plays an important role in the best Irish folk music.
The concertina is similar to an accordian, but is smaller and hexagonal in shape.
Some traditional Irish groups will also add new instruments such as the sounds of the piano and guitar. In recent years the Greek bouzouki has also been used.
The Spread of Irish Music
It wasn’t until 1762 that Irish music started to be written down so it could be preserved for all of time.
This made it easier for immigrants to bring their music to other countries and develop their skills without needing to learn it by ear from an experienced Irish musician.
This sheet music also made it easier for people from other cultures to access and learn the music. You sometimes find that an Irish poem was transformed into song such as the Rose of Tralee, or The Salley Gardens by WB Yeats.
Irish Music in the United States
In the 1960s and 1970s, Irish music started to be popularized in the United States. Performers like the Clancy Brothers ushered in a new era of Celtic music in the USA. They were joined on tour by another Irish musician and singer, Tommy Makem.
A new wave of Irish immigrants brought elements of Irish culture to the States and integrated it into American culture.
The Chieftains and Planxty, two traditional Irish bands, often toured America. One of the founding members of the Chieftains, Paddy Moloney passed away in 2021. Bands like The Dubliners continue to sing Irish folk music, and with the popularity of streaming platforms, they are more accessible than ever.
There are also many modern bands that play other genres that you may not know are from Ireland. A few examples would be U2, Enya, The Cranberries, and Snow Patrol.
Although they may not sing Irish folk music, they are still Irish musicians who are sharing their skills and heritage. They also sometimes integrate elements they have learned from their Irish culture into their music.
Themes in Irish Folk Music
When we look at music from any culture, one of the main things we can examine is themes within the songs. Just like most cultures, a lot of traditional Irish songs tend to have similar topics, which act as a sign pointing toward what Irish life has been like for centuries. A few examples of these topics are the sea, the supernatural, prison, martyrs, historical figures, rebellion, immigration, humor, love, and drinking.
These songs communicate what it’s like to live in Ireland, and share historical events and themes. The music runs deep with truth that Irish Americans can use to learn about where they came from and what they’re about.
Iconic Irish Folk Songs
If you’re Irish American, you’ve probably already heard a decent amount of traditional Irish folk songs. A few of the most popular ones are Danny Boy, The Rocky Road to Dublin, Molly Malone, Raglan Road, and Whiskey in the Jar.
Listening to songs like these can teach us about our families and about who we are. If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend going to see an Irish concert or participate in an Irish culture festival in your area.
These events have really helped me feel connected to my family heritage in a way I had never felt before.
Even if you don’t yet have a lot of connection with that Irish part of yourself, an Irish concert is a really approachable way to celebrate being Irish!
If you enjoyed our exploration of the history and origins of Irish music why not join in our discussion of all things Irish by leaving a comment below.
What are some of your favorite memories related to Irish music? Have you ever played a polka or danced a hornpipe? Do you have a favorite Irish tune?
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade