Irish music. A tradition spanning thousands of years, this niche genre of music has captivated the attention of many by its intricate melodies and uplifting atmosphere. From Germany to the USA, to even as far as Australia, Irish music can be heard being played quite literally all over the world!

But that begs a few questions, where did this style of music come from? How old is it? And how did it become the lively genre of music we know today? Well, join me on my journey to briefly explore the roots of traditional Irish music.


The Ancient and Mysterious Origins of Irish Music

As it turns out, we don’t fully know how traditional Irish music (or ‘trad’ for short) began, purely because Irish music is so old that it’s hard to know when exactly it was first created. However, research has shown that it dates back to before the turn of our current calendar, making it at least 2000 years old! 

The history of the style is shrouded in mystery though as it has existed as an oral tradition for most of its life, being passed down orally from generation to generation. This is why it’s so difficult to determine exactly how old Irish music is as there’s not much written record of the origins of the music itself. Musicians learned different pieces within this tradition by learning to play by ear, which is still an important part of the tradition today.

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How was Irish Music Played Traditionally?

One feature of traditional Irish music that contrasts how it’s played today is that Irish music was often played solo and unaccompanied by other instruments. This differs from the modern ‘session’ which has many different musicians play tunes together in one big group setting. We used to see this unaccompanied custom most commonly in the ancient style of ‘Sean-Nós’ singing. 

Literally translated as ‘Old Style’, Sean-nós is an ancient style of singing songs unaccompanied with very ornamented melodies and a free sense of rhythm.  These songs were often written describing grief and sorrow that was experienced at the time. 

Unfortunately, this style of singing has fallen out of fashion in the most recent years and can be a little more difficult to find in comparison to other aspects of Irish music.


Regional Styles

As Irish music developed in different communities, different trends and methods of playing these melodies began to appear. These differences became collectively known as ‘Regional Styles’ and became quite distinctive. Each style tended to focus on different instruments more, with the fiddle gaining the most attention and differences among the different areas. Here’s what we know about how the main regional styles are played:

  • Sligo Style: Renowned for highly ornamented fast melodies and flowing, slurred bows. Typically described as bouncy with a significant “lift.”
  • Donegal Style: Known for dexterity in bowing, even rhythms, mostly single bows creating a staccato sound. Normally features some brisk tempos, has a fierce attack, and bowed triplets.
  • West Clare Style: Rhythmically accented melodies with a single bowed style. Features a “lonesome touch” which consists of a lot of sliding between notes and untempered scales. 
  • Sliabh Luachra Style: Distinctive for its polkas and slides, unique bowing style in reels. It’s known for minimal ornamentation and “doubling” (two fiddle players playing the same melodies in different octaves). 

That being said, these regional styles change depending on the instrument that’s being mentioned, as flute regional styles for example differ in that their main styles are seen more in Sligo and the Leitrim/Roscommon areas instead. As it also happens, Sean-Nós singing also has its own distinctive regional styles that appear in the three prominent Irish-speaking provinces of Ireland; Munster, Ulster, and Connacht. 

The concept of regional styles has met criticism over the years though, as it only became a concrete concept during the 1960’s. Plus, it’s difficult to debate and categorize fully where each style differs from each other, as there tends to be plenty of overlap. Also, the famous fiddler Michael Coleman made a significant impact on Irish music during the ’20s, and his recordings heavily influenced the zeitgeist of Irish music at this time, leading to the formation of more of an overall ‘National Style’ instead.

Written Sources

As we’ve already mentioned, there are very few written sources about Irish music throughout history, as it was mainly oral tradition. In addition, tunes weren’t necessarily ‘owned’ by their respective composers when they were written like they would be today. In fact, tunes were quite commonly shared and adopted by the community, which led to multiple people making their own versions of Irish tunes without any issues surrounding ownership. Kind of like people using music from the public domain nowadays, only without any of the legal systems of course!

However, the lack of written records for Irish music began to change during the late 18th Century as people started to write down various accounts detailing Irish music. 

One of the first events to capture the written record of Irish music was at the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792. This festival was inspired by the tradition of Travelling Harpers – professional musicians who journeyed from one location to another, performing harp music. Among these harpers, Turlough O’Carolan stood out as a particularly renowned figure, gaining immense popularity for his exceptional talent despite being blind.

At the Belfast Harp Festival though, 11 Irish harpers attended and wrote down several Irish tunes in an attempt to preserve Irish harp music for future generations. They subsequently published three volumes of music known as the ‘Ancient Music of Ireland’ and is also known as the ‘Bunting Collection’ as Edward Bunting was the harper responsible for writing down the music.


The Spread of Irish Music Abroad

Irish music’s transformation over the centuries has been influenced by significant historical events. ‘The Flight of the Earls’ in 1607 saw harpists traversing Ireland, while the Great Famine of 1845 led to a mass exodus, spreading Irish music to the United States. This was the start of how Irish music garnered such a presence in the USA and why it’s played so much there today.

Adding to this global spread was the worldwide phenomenon known as ‘Riverdance’, a theatrical show combining traditional Irish music and Irish dancing. Originating as an interval act at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, it evolved into a full-scale production under creators Bill Whelan, Jean Butler, and Michael Flatley, debuting as a stage show in Dublin in 1995. Rooted in the “Timedance” piece from the 1981 Eurovision, Riverdance blends Irish folk with many contemporary elements. Despite some challenges, the show flourished, achieving global acclaim with over 15,000 performances and being seen by over 30 million people as of 2023. Its impact has further spread worldwide interest and the appeal of Irish music.

Gaelic Revivals Throughout Irish History

The importance of Irish music began to pick up some speed in the late 19th century when the Gaelic League was founded in 1893. This was due to the league’s revival in the interest of certain aspects of Irish culture such as its music, and to reinforce the call for independence from British occupation.

This idea of preserving interest in Irish music carried into the 1950s when the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí was founded to preserve traditional Irish music. In addition, in the coming decades, bands/musicians such as Planxty, Clannad, The Chieftains, and Séan Ó’Riada were responsible for spreading the widespread appeal of the tradition through their music. Ó’Riada especially was heavily influential in this movement, as he became famous for arranging traditional Irish music in a classical orchestra and blending it with classical elements. His work arranging the music for the documentary ‘Mise Éire’ made a considerable impact in reviving interest in Irish music, especially in a follow-up series called ‘Our Musical Heritage’.

In the latter half of the 20th century, music giants from Ireland such as Shane McGowan, the Hothouse Flowers, and the legendary Sinéad Ó’Connor helped spread elements of Irish music through their music as well. Some of which can be heard in songs such as Sinéad Ó’Conner’s ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ from the movie “Michael Collins” (1996), which features very Seán-Nós-like vocals.


Irish Music in the Modern Age

Nowadays, Irish music is experiencing an unprecedented level of admiration worldwide. As previously stated, it’s not uncommon to find people playing Irish music in all sorts of pockets around the globe. It’s really incredible to see the kind of impact Irish music has had on the world.

One of the coolest parts about modern Irish trad is that many bands have mixed Irish music with other genres to create exciting new textures. This style is referred to as ‘Trad-Fusion’ and is very prominent in the music of certain rock-based trad-fusion bands such as Horslips, Mutefish, and the incredible Kíla, who write songs in the Irish language and blends elements of folk, trad, rock, and other styles as well.

Some of the previously mentioned artists such as Seán Ó’Riada, The Chieftains, and Planxty can also be considered Irish trad-fusion in fact as their music isn’t purely traditional either. It’s incredibly exciting to see how musicians incorporate elements of Irish traditional music, and how they will be used in the future to create even more incredible tunes!

If you want to learn more, be sure to check out the other blog posts on traditional Irish music here:

If you’re looking to learn how to play traditional Irish music yourself, be sure to have a look at our website for a wide range of Irish instruments for sale such as fiddles, Irish flutes, tin whistles, banjos, Irish bouzoukis, harps, bodhrans, guitars, mandolins, and many more!

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