The history and origins of traditional Irish music

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Ireland may produce big names that tour the world, but we also know how to stay in touch with our traditions. Here is an overview of the history and origins of Irish music.

Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann (Ireland’s Music Festival), the world’s largest traditional Irish music festival, still welcomes over 400,000 attendees each year, with dozens of nationalities arriving in Ireland to celebrate our age-old traditions. 2,000 years old.

We know that once a whistle is out of the purse it will end in a good night, but where did it all start?

Traditional Irish music began as an oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation by listening, learning by ear, and not formally writing down the tunes on paper. It is a practice that is still encouraged today and students of traditional music are encouraged to sing tunes they hear from others or learn by listening. However, many formal classes will provide musical notes for students, and books print tunes on a traditional music stave.

Traditional music played by the Irish came to the country with the Celts 2,000 years ago. The Celts were influenced by music from the Orient, and it is believed that the traditional Irish harp may actually have originated in Egypt.

The harp was the most popular instrument in ancient times with harpists employed to play for chiefs and to create music for nobles. That was until the Flight of the Earls in 1607, when native Irish chieftains fled the country under threat from invaders. With their patrons fleeing to continental Europe, harpists had to travel the country and perform wherever they could.

The harp was one of the most beloved traditional Irish instruments.

It wasn’t until 1762 that the tunes were first officially written down and collectors began traveling the country compiling music that can still be seen today. The tradition of collecting our music continues today in the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, the largest collection of traditional and folk music in the world.

As can be seen at events in Fleadh Cheoil, traditional music has traveled far beyond the 32 counties of Ireland. Our music has traveled the world thanks to our long history of emigration. It was during the famine that large numbers of Irish people settled in the United States, bringing their music with them.

Traditional music experienced a revival, particularly in the United States, in the 1920s when recordings of traditional music were first made and made available to Irish people living abroad. Violin player Michael Coleman was one such player whose New York recordings were to influence violin players in the United States and Ireland for many years to come.

The style of music was opened to a wider audience still due to the influence of Sean Ó Riada. Ó Riada created the traditional music ensemble Ceoltóirí Chulainn which was heavily influenced by classical music forms. The group started musical arrangements of traditional music, something that was hitherto unknown. Ó Riada’s influence can still be seen in the creative grúpa ceoil (music group) competition at Fleadh Cheoil.

Seán Ó Riada in 1920. (Public domain)

Seán Ó Riada in 1920. (Public domain)

In recent years, traditional music has been used in conjunction with European and American music in what was called the golden age of traditional music. Groups such as Planxty and De Dannan led the way. There has also been a considerable amount of Celtic fusion with more popular styles of music. Artists ranging from Sinéad O’Connor and Flook to Daithí and Dropkick Murphys use traditional elements throughout their music.

The main traditional instruments are the fiddle, the Irish flute, the pewter whistle, the Celtic harp, the uilleann pipes and the bodhrán. The violin is exactly the same instrument as the violin but it is by the style of playing that we differentiate them. The violin player sees less conformity in the way the instrument is held and a traditional musician free to experiment with more musical ornamentation. This is true of every traditional player, regardless of instrument. Irish traditional music is very ornate by the individual and it would be hard to come across two musicians who play the same tune in the same way.

Visit IrishCentral’s dedicated music section here or our Irish language section here to find out more.

* Originally published March 2015, updated July 2022.

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