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   Irish Traditional Music
[Brief version] by Larry Sanger

The traditional or folk music of the Irish people as well as of the Irish diaspora, that is, descendants of Irish emigrants in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.  Irish traditional music as it is known today is the result of a centuries-old tradition of melodically-rich dance music and song.  It was formerly played without harmonic accompaniment such as guitar and usually learned "by ear" rather than from written music.  Irish dance music is typically lively, and Irish songs are often highly ornamented and complex.  This music is usefully contrasted with the Irish pub ballad tradition (which has made, for example, the song "Whiskey in the Jar" famous) and the modern "folk" tradition, as well as what goes under the name "Celtic [kel'-tik]  music."  The term "Celtic music" usually combines Irish traditional music with various other traditional musics, including those of Scotland and the Shetland Islands; Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada; Wales; the Isle of Man; Northumberland, northern England; Brittany, northwest France; and sometimes Galicia in northwestern Spain. The term, though widely used, is eschewed by many traditionalists.

While once mostly home-made ("kitchen music") by non-professionals for their own entertainment and that of their neighbors and friends, now Irish music can be heard at sessions (informal gatherings of musicians, often in pubs) and in concert halls, not only in Ireland and countries with large Irish immigrant populations, but indeed in many countries around the globe.  It also can be heard on recordings of bands such as The Bothy Band, Altan, and The Chieftains, instrumentalists such as Michael Coleman (fiddle), Joe Cooley (button accordion), Paddy Keenan (pipes), Matt Molloy (flute), and Mary Bergin (tin whistle), and singers such as Joe Heaney, Tríona Ní Dhomnhaill, [tree'-n& nee khaan'-&l]  and Paddy Tunney.  In recent years, Irish music has enjoyed increasing popularity worldwide, largely as a result of the wildly successful, internationally performed dance-and-music stage extravaganza, Riverdance, as well as the "steerage scene" from the movie Titanic.  Those interested in pursuing the art, if they take it seriously, are warmly welcomed by more experienced traditional musicians.

The music traditionally employs a delightful variety of melody instruments: voice; Uilleann [il'-&n]  pipes (bellows-blown Irish bagpipes); fiddle; wooden flute; tin whistle (a simple recorder-like instrument); button accordion and two accordion-like instruments, melodeon and concertina; tenor (four-string) banjo; mandolin; harmonica (also called "mouth organ"); harp; and sometimes others.  The harp, in fact, is the national symbol of Ireland.  Dance tunes are sometimes "lilted" as well, that is, sung with nonsense syllables.  While not always regarded as traditional, chordal and rhythmic accompaniment is often provided by, variously, guitar; three lute-like instruments, including cittern, bouzouki (a Greek instrument adopted and now widely played in Irish circles), and mandola (a larger variety of mandolin); piano; bodhrán [boh'-rawn]  (a shallow Irish goatskin drum); bones (animal rib-bones or similarly-shaped pieces of wood held between the fingers); and "Jew's harp" or jaw harp.

Irish dance music is typically quite lively and is used indeed for dancing as well as for listening.  This music can be sorted into a wide variety of dance tune types, such as reels, jigs of various kinds, hornpipes, set dances, polkas, slides, highlands (also called "flings" and "schottisches"), barndances, waltzes, and mazurkas.  There are also types of tunes not used for dancing, including marches, harp compositions such as those by blind harper Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738), and slow airs.  Slow airs are often the instrumental rendition of the melodies, or "airs," of songs, usually sean nós songs (see below).  Most of these types of tunes were borrowed in various centuries past from other traditions.  The differences between them are too subtle to allow easy, brief explanation.

The Irish song tradition is diverse and rich.  It enjoys a prominent place among the interrelated song traditions of Scotland, England, and North America.  Irish songs, with plaintive or sprightly melodies to suit their themes, cover many subjects: love and betrayal, everyday country life and occupations, and historical or newsworthy events.  The sean nós [shan nohs]  (Irish for "old style") tradition is the relatively unknown, but beautiful Gaelic language tradition still thriving in the Irish-speaking western counties of Ireland.  Sean nós songs are usually sung with very loose time signatures, although not quite in "free time," that is, with no identifiable time signature at all.  Most sean nós songs do indeed have an identifiable rhythm but are interrupted as a singer takes a breath, usually in an unhurried fashion.  Consequently, slow airs, played in imitation of sean nós songs, are played with very loose time signatures as well.  There are more or less distinct regional styles of sean nós song, just as there are more or less distinct regional styles of Irish dance music.

For Further Reading

Breathnach, Breandán.  Folk Music and Dances of Ireland.  Cork, Ireland: Mercier, 1971, 1977; Ossian, 1996.
Ó Canainn, Tomás.  Traditional Music in Ireland.  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978; Cork, Ireland: Ossian, 1993.
Ó hAllmhuraín, Gearóid.  A Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music.  Dublin: O'Brien, 1998.
Vallely, Fintan, ed.  The Companion to Irish Traditional Music.  Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 1999; New York: New York University Press, 1999.  Includes a 16-page discography.

Selected Discography

Altan.  The Best of Altan.  Green Linnet GLCD 1177.  Altan is one of the finest and most popular Irish traditional bands in the history of recorded music; these tracks are from the 1980s and 1990s.
The Chieftains.  The Very Best of the Claddagh Years.  Wea/Atlantic 83224.  A selection of the early and influential work of this, probably the best-known of Irish traditional bands.
The Bothy Band.  The First Album/1975.  Green Linnet GLCD 3011.  One of the best and most influential albums from one of the most talented Irish traditional groups.
Coleman, Michael.  1891-1945.  Gael-Linn/Viva Voce CEFCD 161.  Coleman's setting of tunes are still played.  His playing was long regarded as the standard for Irish fiddling.
The Kilfenora Ceili Band.  Set on Stone.  Torc TOLCD 1.  A fine ceili (dance) band -- a taste of what ceili bands can sound like today.
The Lark in the Morning.  Tradition TCD001.  A very nice album of unaccompanied Irish song from the 1950s, with some fiddling as well.
Traditional Dance Music of Ireland.  Saydisc CD-SDL 420.  A traditional recording with some of the greatest of Irish musicians of the mid-twentieth century, including John Doherty, Michael Gorman, Paddy Taylor, and Seamus Ennis.

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