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Irish Music

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Celtic Irish Music


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Celtic music is a broad group of music genres that have emerged from the native folk music traditions of people of Western Europe, such as the Irish. Throughout history, Ireland has been associated with music. Irish music history dates back over 2000 years when the Celts arrived in Ireland. Irish clerics are known for writing some of the earliest folk songs. One of the twelve disciples of Ireland, St Columcille (521-5797 AD), described that the clerics of Ireland had the ability to “sing like birds”. Irish music has remained vibrant in this 21st century having gained global recognition. This is unlike most European countries that have lost their native folk songs.

Traditional Irish songs are full of culture over two millenniums they have been existing. Irish culture has been preserved in the form of songs, stories, and tunes. This music has been passed down from generation to generation. The most common method was by parents teaching their children the music. Irish clerics are well known to write folk songs. Although of slight changes in the traditional Irish music, it has still been able to keep most of its traditional aspects. Irish children are still taught Irish songs and to play traditional instruments rather than modern music instruments. Parents are also keen to carry on Celtic Irish traditions.

The Celtic harp is the best known of all traditional instruments. The harp was most dominant between the tenth to the seventeenth centuries. However, it has evolved into the Neo-Irish harp. The harp is a very important culture, and it is the national symbol of Ireland and also appears on Irish currency. Many Irish Mythology stories feature the Celtic harp. Most Irish musicians know how to play the instrument. Consequently, the harp is used in nearly all Irish songs. Turlough O’Carolan is one of the most famous Irish harp players. Although being blind, Turlough gained fame in the 18th century and is still regarded as the best harp player. He composed a variety of songs some of which are still being played today. The harp has gained much international recognition, and it attributed to Irish songs by most people.

The accordion is another standard music instrument. Invented in 1822 by Friedrich Buschmann, the accordion gained much use in music. Traditionally, the harp was played more by the upper classes while the accordion was popular among the lower classes. It is a simple instrument; basically, the accordion consists of three components; the bellows, the keys and the reeds. The bellows are squeezed to push air out of the reeds. The keys are pressed to produce notes while the reeds vibrate the body of the accordion to produce sound.

Other traditional instruments used in Irish songs are the bodhrán, the whistle, and the fiddle. The bodhrán consists of a frame drum covered with synthetic material or goatskin. The drum hit with a tipper, a small wooden bone to produce sound. The whistle can either be made of tin or metal. It is a very popular traditional Irish instrument, and most Irish school children are taught to play. The tin whistle is usually the first expensive instrument that children are taught to play. Lastly, the fiddle is another vital instrument in playing tradition Irish songs. Depending on the region of Ireland, the fiddle is played in a particular style. Irish traditional songs encompass one or more of the music instruments mentioned.

Over the centuries, Celtic Irish music has faced difficult circumstances that nearly led to its extinction. Before the 17th century, harpists were professional musicians and the use harps was at its height. At the time, Ireland was ruled by Chieftains, who also employed the use of harps in Irish songs. Irish tradition was steady and secure. However, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Ireland was invaded forced the Chieftains to flee the country. The Irish music tradition suffered a massive blow as harp playing was not considered as a profession anymore. The professional harpists became known as “travelling” harpists. Decades after the Chieftains fled Ireland after the first invasion, Ireland was colonized by the British. The British government introduced laws aimed at crushing the Irish culture and introducing the British culture. There was a penal law that forbade any cultural activities. These laws saw the significant suppression of the growth of Irish culture.

In the 1840’s, Ireland suffered a great famine. This led to the death of more than one million people, subsequently, most of the Irish tradition died with them. The famine also saw a significant migration of people over the world in a desperate measure to stay alive. This led to a devastating factor in the Irish traditional music. However, a good dead came out of this emigration. When the Irish fled the famine and settled elsewhere, they introduce the Irish music in that new place. The traditional Irish music network grew especially in places like USA and Australia. The music was quickly established in these areas that saw a high concentration of Irish people. Irish traditional music started to develop again.

The 20th century saw the revival of traditional Irish music. It was during this century that Irish music saw the finest time in its popularity and innovation. In Ireland, after the colonization and the famine saw the rise of the Chieftains. They revived the old Irish music bringing more skill and life to the songs. They successfully brought about the use of harps and other traditional music instruments and blended them together in playing songs. The Chieftains brought about the unique Celtic expression that did play with traditional musicians, not only Irish musicians but indigenous worldwide folk musicians. They made popular the harp, whistle, bodhrán and other traditional instruments, ensuring a new era of the traditional Irish culture and its global acknowledgment. The Chieftains composed many songs mostly in Ireland but some in Scotland, England, and the USA.

Also, the 20th century saw the publication of Irish songs and their performance in theaters. Wehman firm is known to have made the first publications of traditional Irish songs. The publications were done as a part of a series of the Irish ten-cent songsters. These songs published in consecutive series were of overlapping but non-identical content. This publication was a significant boost to Irish culture and the spread of traditional Irish music. The songs were first translated from the native Irish language to English language. The work contains a great deal of history as it has published Irish songs from as early as the first century.

Traditional Irish music thrived in theaters and the streets. Several bands sprouted in this century that ensured that Irish music was heard and made famous. The most obvious development of Irish folk music was probably because of the group Planxty. This group emerged in 1972 and with them came a new sound of the traditional music. Planxty produced and performed traditional Irish music that accompanied by intricately captivating music instruments. This group is arguably the most influential band in the performance of Irish folk songs.

Later in 1975, the Bothy Band was formed. The Bothy Band was a professional group that performed Irish music characterized by the use of pipes, fiddles and flutes with a driving rhythmic accompaniment. This band achieved one of the best combinations of traditional music talent. They had master musicianship and explosive sound with the greater use of harmony and exemplary use of musical instruments. The Bothy Band influence remains to the present. This created a greater love for traditional Irish music. It is because of bands like Planxty and Bothy Band that Celtic Irish songs and other traditional songs are still appreciated and performed in stages throughout the world.

A night of traditional music can never be considered to be complete without recourse to ancient Celtic Irish music. Irish music has circled the globe, and it continues to develop through performances and contemporary wordsmiths. Young people are still being taught the Irish culture and traditional songs. Traditional music festivals are now a norm in Ireland with even specific dates set for such festivals. Ireland has never before seen such a huge number of talented young traditional musicians and singers. Celtic Irish songs still retain their essential sense of purity thus ensuring that the Irish culture is never eroded or erased. With an eye on the past and another in the future, traditional Irish music will continue to reflect on the nation’s spirits for generations coming.


Boullier, D., & Friers, J. (1998). Exploring Irish music and dance. Dublin: O'Brien Press [u.a..

Cox, G., & Klein, A. (2001). Irish music in the twentieth century. Dublin: Four Courts.

McCann, A. (2012). Opportunities of Resistance: Irish Traditional Music and the Irish Music Rights Organisation 1995–2000. Popular Music & Society, 35(5), 651-681.

McLaughlin, N. (2009). Music in Irish Cultural History. Popular Music History, 4(3), 355-357.

Moran, A. (2012). Focus: Irish Traditional Music (Focus on World Music Series). Ethnomusicology Forum, 21(1), 107-109

O'Brien, R. (2006). Irish Wind-Band Music. Canadian Winds / Vents Canadiens, 5(1), 41-55.
Petrie, G., & Stanford, C. V. (2003). Petrie's complete Irish music: 1.582 traditional meldodies. Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publ.

Smyth, G. (2010). Irish music: what it is and what we think it is. Irish Studies Review, 18(3), 359-363.

Story of Irish Music | Discover Dublin. (2013). Retrieved from

Vallely, F. (1999). The companion to Irish traditional music. New York: New York University Press.

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