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Traditional Irish Music and Instruments

Paul Murphy from Murphy of Ireland has given us a superb infographic about the development of Irish Music from the earliest times up until today's modern mainstream Celtic music. This fantastic information can either be found as a single graphic for printing onto poster-sized classroom paper or section by section in the article below.


History and Origins

Music for Singing and Dancing

Traditional Irish song styles include Folk, Sean Nos and Caoineadh and the types of Dancing that are associated with traditional Irish music are Reels, Jigs, Hornpipes and Polkas.


The Celts 500 BC to the Ruling Chieftains 10th to 17th Centuries

Traditional Irish music is an oral tradition whose origins can be traced back to almost 2,000 years ago when the Celts last arrived in Ireland. The Celts were established in Eastern Europe since 500 BC and were heavily influenced by the music of the East. It is speculated that the Irish Harp originated in Egypt.

Traditional Irish Instruments - the Fiddle

The Fiddle looks identical to the violin, but its playing style and sound make it different. It is high-pitched at a very fast upbeat pace. It is played with a bow and is thought to have been played in Ireland since the 17th century.

During the later period, the harp was the dominant Irish instrument. All harpists were professional musicians employed by the ruling Chieftains under a patronage system to create and perform music for them. In 1607 the Chieftains fled Ireland under pressure from invaders. It hugely affected the harpist's tradition. They became 'traveling' harpists.


The Irish Flute - the Tin Whistle

It is a simple system transverse flute with 6 holes and up to 8 keys. It is made of wood and produces a pure mellow sound that is completely unique to Ireland. The world famous melody "Danny Boy" is often played hauntingly on it.

The Tin Whistle is a simple metal tube, with 6 holes and a mouthpiece with a range of 2 octaves. It dates back to the 12th Century. It is also called a 'Penny Whistle' because of the whistle's popularity among beggars and vagabonds on the streets of Dublin in the late 1500s.


The First Written Music in the 18th Century and the Great Famine of the 1840s

The first written collection of Irish music appeared in 1762. It included 49 airs and was published by the Neale brothers in Dublin. The most significant manuscripts of Irish music from this time were created by Edward Bunting and unveiled at the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792. The manuscripts still survive today and are some of the most important documents in the history of the tradition.

Over 2 million Irish people emigrated and ironically this resulted in helping to bring traditional Irish music across the world - particularly to the USA. Traditional Irish music networks were quickly established in cities with large volumes of Irish populations such as New York, Chicago and Boston.


The Celtic Harp - the Uilleann Pipes

The traditional Celtic harp was wire-strung, and had no pedals. It was much smaller and originally held on the harper's leg and leaned against the left shoulder. The 'Trinity College Harp' is one of the oldest surviving Celtic Harps, dating back to the 15th Century. The word 'harp' means 'to pluck'. Today's harp is much larger and rests on the floor. It is gut-strung and includes pedals.

The meaning of the term 'Uilleann Pipes' means 'pipes of the elbow' because of their pump-oriented bellows. They would have appeared in Ireland at the beginning of the 18th Century. They are comprised of a chanter which has a range pf 2 octaves in the key of D and often has keys. It also includes 3 to 4 drones and regulators, extra pipes which can play certain chords. A 'practice set' is often used which has no drones or regulators. It is a complex instrument which can take years to master.


The Revival Recordings 1900s and Sean O'Riada's Arrangements of the 1960s

Recordings of Irish musicians were being made in the USA by the 1920s. These 78 rpm recordings made their way to Ireland and had a dramatic effect of the tradition. Musicians in Ireland began to speed up the tempo of the tunes. They also began to use the piano as an accompanying instrument to the fiddle or uilleann pipes, an idea previously unheard of.

Traditional Irish music had its main setting in the houses and pubs of rural areas and music was played mainly to be danced to. Music lecturer Sean O'Riada opened the tradition up to a much wider audience. He set up the traditional musician ensemble 'Ceoltoiri Chualann'. He used classical music forms, came up with a formula of playing solos within the group and his ensemble lead to the creation of 'musical arrangements'. The group's 1st concert took place in the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. The tradition began to no longer be associated solely with rural areas and poverty.


The Bodhran

This is a large framed drum ranging from 25cm to 65cm in diameter and covered with stretched animal skin, typically goat skin. It is struck with a stick which is traditionally made from double-ended knucklebone to provide traditional music with a pulsating beat The other side is open ended for one hand to be placed against the inside of the drum head to control the pitch and the timbre.



The Golden Age of the 1970s and Celtic Fusion (1980s)

Innovative developments included heavy influences of contemporary plus American and European folk into traditional music. A new sound emerged. Groups that rose to fame included Planxty, De Dannan, and the Bothy Band. The popularity of these groups paved the way for certain traditional musicians to stand alone on stages throughout the world today.

Ventures into new areas have included fusions of traditional Irish music with rock, reggae, punk, hip hop, jazz and new age. Popular artists that arose include Clannad, Sinead O'Connor, Enya, The Pogues, The Chieftains and Dropkick Murphys.

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