Traditional Irish music is the heart and soul of Ireland’s culture. It’s famed all over the world for its lively beats and beautiful melodies, but it also has a long and haunting history. Surviving colonisation, famine and emigration, traditional Irish music continues to evolve and thrive today. We’re embracing the craic and diving into the history of Irish music to find out what makes it so unique.
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Ireland’s musical history
The earliest evidence of music in Ireland can be traced back to the Celtic settlements in the Iron Age around 500 BC. They used instruments like the harp, pipe, bagpipes and skin drums, which are still played in Ireland today. The oral tradition of the Celts meant that music was not written down, but shared amongst villages and clans, like storytelling. The music sharing tradition is still thriving in Ireland’s pubs and venues today.
The Celtic harp and British colonisation
The beautiful harp is the oldest Irish instrument and has been part of Irish music since the 10th century. While the harp is synonymous with Ireland (fun fact: it’s on the Irish passport, flag and coins) it is believed to have originated in Egypt.
Harpists held elite status in the courts of the ruling Gaelic chieftains until the 16th century when English invaders uprooted the clans and attempted to destroy Gaelic traditions. Queen Elizabeth 1 issued a decree in 1571 to burn the harps and hang the harpists. Much of Ireland’s music and culture was lost during the British colonisation.
The Great Famine in the mid-19th-century also contributed to the decline of Irish music as art and music became unaffordable luxuries. Ireland also lost more than 20% of their population due to death from starvation and emigration. Although the displacement of the Irish people was tragic, it also led to Irish culture being carried around the globe, sparking the revival of Irish music.
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The Irish diaspora
Irish emigrant communities in countries like the USA, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom celebrated their heritage with traditional music and dance. They sang sad songs pining for the country they’d left in a style known as Caoineadh (pronounced kween-ah). They also sang the lively Irish folk music that was had been repressed in Ireland. As they performed in bars and pubs, different styles of traditional music from different Irish regions began to blend. This led to the resurgence of Irish music, with artists like Sligo-born fiddler Michael Coleman recording songs in the 1920s that were popular in Ireland and all over the world.
The 20th century revival of Irish music
The 1960s saw a fresh reinvigoration of traditional music, largely influenced by Seán Ó’Ríada, who blended classical music with Irish folk music. His band, Ceoltóiri Chualann (later became The Chieftains), helped free traditional Irish music from its negative associations with poverty and rural regions, and it became widely respected around the world.
The 1970s saw new instruments like the bouzouki added to traditional music. Bands and musicians like The Chieftains, The Dubliners, Planxty and Enya further popularised Irish music, bringing it to global audiences.
Modern Irish fusion
The 1980s and 1990s saw many Irish musicians blending modern music with traditional Irish sounds. Sinead O’Connor had global success, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin blended classical elements with Irish music, and the Pogues created a fusion of punk rock and traditional Irish music.
Irish music today
Today there are many famous Irish musicians with stars like U2, Westlife, Van Morrison, The Cranberries, The Script, Hozier and Niall Horan all hailing from the Emerald Isle. Traditional Irish music is also thriving. The band Kíla combines Irish instruments with hip-hop and electronic beats. Singer Damien Dempsey also blends traditional folk music with lyrics about historical and contemporary social issues.
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Traditional Irish instruments
With many unique styles and sounds, you’ll come across a diverse range of instruments in Irish music from pipes to pianos.
Similar to the violin, the fiddle became popular in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The bodhrán (pronounced bow-rawn) is the traditional Irish frame drum, made with goat or sheepskin.
This is a staple instrument and Irish schoolchildren often learn to play it, similar to American schoolchildren learning the recorder.
Also called the squeezebox, Irish musicians began using accordions in folk music in the early 20th century.
These are the traditional Irish bagpipes, where the musician plays a small set of bellows to inflate the bag. Some uilleann pipes players even sing while playing.
Four-string tenor banjo
Originating with African slaves in the USA, returning emigrants brought the banjo to Irish music.
A traditional form of Gaelic singing, lilting uses rhythmic tones and sounds to create lively melodies.
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Where to experience traditional music in Ireland
Trafalgar’s Ireland trips will take you from Dublin to Killarney to experience the best of Irish music, song and dance. Witness the Celtic Steps with champion dancers and musicians. Watch the Gaelic Roots showcase traditional Irish instruments, dance and folk songs. Get into the craic with a Ceilidh evening filled with music, dance and plenty of food and drink. You’ll be tapping your toes and singing along in no time!
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Have you experienced traditional folk music in Ireland? Do you know any fun Irish music facts? Let us know in the comments below!