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Traditional Irish Music Today and Its Origins



Every year on March 17th, thousands of people get together to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland. In anticipation of the holiday, we will be taking a quick dive into traditional Irish music as well as its origin and history. Irish folk music has a rich and complex history that stretches back centuries. From the ancient Celtic times to the present day, the music of Ireland has evolved and been shaped by a wide range of influences, including the arrival of Christianity, the influence of the English and Scottish traditions, and the struggles of the Irish people for independence and cultural identity. In this blog, we'll explore the origin and history of traditional Irish folk music. Let’s dive in!



Origins of Irish Music:


The roots of Irish music can be traced back to the ancient Celtic times when bards and harpists were an integral part of Irish society. The harp was the most important instrument in Celtic music, and it was played by professional musicians known as harpers, who were highly respected and sought-after. The bards were poets who recited tales of heroic deeds, love, and nature, often accompanied by the harp.


However, with the arrival of Christianity in Ireland in the 5th century, a new style of religious music emerged. Monks introduced the Gregorian chant, and the Irish created their own distinctive style of hymns and psalms. The uilleann pipes, a traditional Irish bagpipe, also came into use during this time.


During the 16th and 17th centuries, Ireland experienced a period of English and Scottish colonization, which had a significant impact on Irish music. English and Scottish music and dance styles were introduced to Ireland, and Irish musicians began to incorporate these influences into their own music. The fiddle, which was a popular instrument in English and Scottish music, became an important part of Irish music as well.



18th Century:


In the 18th century, Ireland was undergoing a period of significant social and political change, and music played an important role in the culture of the time. At the beginning of the 18th century, Ireland was still under English rule, and there was a great deal of cultural suppression by the British authorities. Despite this, traditional Irish music continued to flourish, with many musicians playing in small villages and towns throughout the country.


One of the most significant developments in Irish music during this time was the growth of the harp tradition. The harp had long been a symbol of Irish culture, and during this time, it became an increasingly popular instrument. Many Irish harpists gained international acclaim, and the music they produced was highly influential in the development of traditional Irish music. There was also the emergence of the céilí band tradition, which involved groups of musicians playing for dancers at social events. The céilí band tradition became very popular in Ireland, and it is still an important part of the country's music culture today.


Another important development in Irish music during this time was the emergence of the ballad tradition. Ballads were popular songs that told stories, often with a political or social message. They were typically sung by a single performer, and they often had a very simple melody that was easy to remember and sing along to. Ballads played an important role in Irish culture, and they helped to preserve the stories and traditions of the country's past.


Despite the challenges posed by the British authorities, traditional Irish music continued to flourish. The music of this time was marked by its simplicity and its emphasis on storytelling and social commentary. It was a time of great creativity and innovation in Irish music, and the legacy of the musicians of this era can still be heard in the music of Ireland today.



19th Century:


The 19th century was a particularly significant time for Irish music, as it was during this period that many of the most beloved and enduring songs and melodies were first composed. This was a time of great change in Ireland, as the country continued to struggle under the weight of British colonialism and economic hardship. In the midst of this turmoil, music became an increasingly important form of expression for the Irish people, a way of celebrating their culture and history and expressing their hopes and dreams.


The harp has long been an important instrument in Irish music, but it came to represent much more than just a musical instrument. It became a symbol of Irish nationalism and pride thus being featured prominently on the country's coat of arms and flag. At the same time, new instruments were being introduced into Irish music, including the accordion and the concertina. These instruments quickly became popular among musicians and helped to create new and innovative styles of music that blended traditional Irish melodies with more modern influences.


Many of the most famous traditional Irish folk songs were composed including songs like "Danny Boy," "The Wild Rover," "The Fields of Athenry," and "Molly Malone," all of which remain popular to this day. These songs told stories of love, loss, hardship, and triumph, and helped to connect the Irish people to their rich cultural heritage.


Perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of Irish music in the 19th century was its ability to bring people together. Despite the many challenges and hardships faced by the Irish people during this time, music was a unifying force that brought communities together and helped to create a sense of belonging and shared identity.



20th Century:


The 20th century was a time of great change in Ireland. The country gained independence from the British Empire in 1922, and this had a significant impact on the country's cultural landscape. Traditional Irish music became a symbol of Irish identity and was a way of celebrating the country's rich cultural heritage. One of the most significant developments was the revival of traditional Irish folk music. This movement was spearheaded by a group of musicians who were dedicated to preserving and promoting traditional Irish music. The movement gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s, and many traditional music festivals were established during this time.


There were many influential figures involved in the revival such as Sean O'Riada. O'Riada was a composer and musician who founded the group Ceoltóirí Chualann in 1960. The group was instrumental in reviving traditional Irish music, and they played a key role in popularizing the genre as well. Another important figure in the revival was The Chieftains. The Chieftains were founded in 1962 by Paddy Moloney, and they quickly became one of the most popular traditional music groups in the world. They were known for their innovative approach to traditional Irish music, and they incorporated elements of rock, jazz, and classical music into their sound. Listed below are many more talented traditional Irish musicians that emerged during this time, with one of the most notable being Seamus Ennis. Ennis was a piper and a singer, and he was known for his virtuosic playing and his deep knowledge of traditional Irish music. Other important musicians included Tommy Makem, The Dubliners, and Planxty.


In addition to the traditional music revival, the 20th century also saw the emergence of Irish folk rock. This genre was characterized by the fusion of traditional Irish music with rock and roll. One of the most popular Irish folk-rock bands was The Pogues. The Pogues were known for their energetic live performances and their irreverent lyrics.


Traditional Irish folk music had such a rich and fascinating history in the 20th century. The genre experienced significant growth and evolution during this time, and its influence can be seen in contemporary music. The traditional music revival, the emergence of talented musicians, and the development of Irish folk-rock were all important developments that helped to shape the genre into what it is today.



Modern Day:


Now we know that traditional Irish folk music has such a rich history, dating back centuries and encompassing a wide variety of styles and influences. From the haunting melodies of sean-nós singing to the lively jigs and reels played on fiddles and accordions, Irish folk music has long been an important part of the country's cultural identity. In the 2000s, this tradition continued to thrive, with new artists and styles continuing to emerge while still honoring its rich heritage.


The most notable developments in modern-day traditional Irish folk music have been the rise of young, innovative musicians who are bringing a fresh perspective to the genre. One such group is the Dublin-based band Lankum, formerly known as Lynched. Lankum's music draws heavily on the tradition of sean-nós singing, but adds new layers of experimentation and contemporary influences. Their 2017 album "Between the Earth and Sky" was widely acclaimed, and earned them a prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Award. Another important figure in contemporary Irish folk music is the singer and multi-instrumentalist Daoirí Farrell. Like Lankum, Farrell draws on the sean-nós tradition, but also incorporates elements of English folk music and even rock and roll. His 2019 album "A Lifetime of Happiness" received critical acclaim, and he has toured extensively in both Ireland and the UK.


In addition to these new voices, traditional Irish music has also continued to be passed down through the generations. There are many young musicians who have learned to play the fiddle, accordion, and other instruments in the traditional style, carrying on the legacy of their ancestors. This has been particularly evident in rural areas of Ireland, where music sessions in pubs and community centers remain an important part of local culture.


Another trend today has been the increased emphasis on collaborations and fusion with other genres. Musicians from a wide range of backgrounds have come together to create new sounds that draw on the Irish tradition while incorporating elements of jazz, rock, and world music. The Afro Celt Sound System for example is a group that combines traditional Irish music with West African rhythms and instruments. Other notable collaborations have included Irish folk musicians working with artists from India, the Middle East, and even the United States.


Overall, modern-day traditional Irish folk music remains vibrant and dynamic, with new artists and influences constantly emerging. While there is still a deep reverence for the traditional forms, there is also a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of the genre. This reflects the ongoing evolution of Irish culture as a whole as it continues to adapt to new realities while retaining its unique identity and heritage.


Let’s take a look and listen to a music session in Dolan’s Pub in Limerick, Ireland that you can still visit today!



Irish folk music is a vibrant and important part of Irish culture and history. From its ancient Celtic roots to the present day, the music of Ireland has evolved and been shaped by a wide range of influences. Through its use of traditional instruments, lively rhythms, and heartfelt lyrics, Irish music continues to captivate audiences around the world and remains an important part of Ireland's cultural heritage.



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