The tin whistle is one of the most popular traditional Irish musical instruments today, not just in Ireland, but around the world, and it’s easy to understand why.
This simple, lightweight, instrument is the perfect starter instrument for anyone learning to play traditional Irish music for the first time. It’s not just for Irish music however. This versatile instrument features in many styles of folk music including the Kwela penny whistle music of South Africa and Malawi.
Irish whistle playing has evolved drastically over the last few decades but where did it first come from and how did it find its way into the world of Irish music?
A Brief History of the Irish Tin Whistle
The tin whistle is a fipple style flute which is known by a number of names including penny whistle, Irish whistle, Celtic whistle and feadóg stáin (the Irish term, pronounced fa-doge-stawn). It gets its name from the material from which it was fashioned. Traditionally this was a sheet of tin.
A type of flageolet, similar to the recorder, the Irish whistle is a simple six holed woodwind instrument, played by blowing air through a mouthpiece or fipple. You produce a note by covering or uncovering the tone holes using a particular fingering system.
Like many indigenous woodwind instruments, such as the Native American Flute, the tin whistle has been around in some form or another for centuries. It was not until the 19th century however that it gained popularity in traditional Irish folk music.
The earliest tin-plate whistles were being made in Britain from 1825. It was Clarke whistles, one of the most famous tin whistle makers in the world, who changed the fate of this instrument when they began mass producing their whistles in 1843. It was this mass production methods that made the whistle an affordable and accessible instrument for all, thus contributing to its surge in popularity.
1. Where Did The Penny Whistle Get Its Name?
Many claim that the penny whistle (or tin whistle as it is more commonly known today) received its name from the price it cost to purchase one. They were allegedly sold on the streets of London for a penny.
A number of knowledgable researchers however, such as Fintan Vallely, have noted that in the early 19th Century the price could reach up to 3 pence and a halfpenny. By the 1960s the price of a whistle was two shillings.
This was quite expensive for the time, so it wasn’t always the affordable instrument we think of today. Not quite the bargain price the name implies!
2. Is the Tin Whistle Made of Tin?
Today tin whistles are made from a number of materials including plastic polymer, brass, nickel, aluminium, stainless steel and wood.
The modern tin whistle is rarely made of sheets of tin.
Soprano D Tin whistles from left to right: Clarke Sweetone, Shaw, O’Brien, Reyburn, Generation, Copeland, Overton
CC BY-SA 3.0
3. What’s the Difference between a Low Whistle and a Tin Whistle?
The low whistle and tin whistle are technically the same instrument. So what’s the difference?
The low D whistle has a longer body with a wider bore and is tuned an octave lower than a standard D whistle. As a result it produces a lower, more mellow sound.
You can hear the difference between the low and soprano whistles in the video below featuring the iconic whistle player John McSherry:
4. What’s the Difference Between an Irish flute and a Tin Whistle?
The Irish whistle is a small, high-pitched instrument, traditionally made from metal. The Irish flute however is more commonly made of wood.
Like low whistles, Irish wooden flutes have longer bodies and wider bores than the tin whistle. They produce a lower, more mellow, woody sound that plays an octave lower than the whistle.
Unlike the Irish whistle, the Irish flute is a transverse flute, with no fipple or mouthpiece. The sound is produced by blowing across an airhole called an embouchure.
5. The Penny Whistle Tradition of South Africa
People are often surprised to hear of the prominent penny whistle tradition in South Africa and Malawi. Kwela is a style of music born in South Africa that features a distinctive skiffle-like beat, with jazzy underpinnings. Inspired by Marabi music, it evolved into its own genre.
Why the penny whistle? This lightweight instrument was affordable, readily available and easy to transport. Hence it became the instrument of choice for the Kwela jazz style:
Various traditional flutes have long been indigenous to the peoples of the northern regions of South Africa. Musicians were able to adapt quickly to the pennywhistle, using it to incorporate traditional South African folk tunes into the new Marabi influenced Kwela music.
For more information on the Irish Tin Whistle check out the McNeela Tin Whistle Blog.