Music in Global America



Traditional music of Ireland refers to the repertory of anonymous dance music passed down orally since the eighteenth century. (Much of the repertory was also preserved by music collectors who transcribed the music played for them by instrumentalists.) The tradition is a living tradition — a musician today might know hundreds of tunes by memory, and newly created tuns circulate and in some cases become part of the shared repertory. The term "traditional" is commonly meant to refer to the instrumental body of music, while vocal and dance traditions of Ireland are considered folk cultures.   

Traditional music has been closely associated with the rural poor, "the greater part of the Irish population for whom it had been their major cultural resource." The music "still positively retains this cachet. However, the traditional music of Ireland has been able to accompany rural-urban migration and upward social mobility into all regions and class levels and it is now solidly representative of both itself as an art form, and of Irishness by origin."

At the end of the nineteenth century, recording and broadcast technologies changed the means of transmission of music. Irish music and dance became emblems of Ireland and helped spark a global fascination with Irish culture, which has only increased with the emergence of electronic communication and transmission. Today there are countless recordings ranging from "old-style playing to modernist fusions with rock, classical and various folk musics. Instrument makers and repairers cater for its community…Institutions and organisations promote its learning at skills and academic levels, and knowledge of the field is developed and promoted by research, broadcasting and publishing." 

[Fintan Vallely, ed., Companion to Irish Traditional Music, 2nd edition, Cork University Press, 2011]


This section describes the traditional instruments, song forms, and dance forms of Ireland. By way of introduction, this video of a performance by The Chieftains provides samples of all of these traditions. The Chieftains is a traditional Irish music band that has played continuously since being founding in 1963 by Paddy Moloney (seen here playing uilleann pipes). The band first plays a dance tune, then accompanies a singer, and ends with Irish step dancing.  


The traditional (pre-1900) instruments in The Chieftains performance are fiddles, uilleann pipes, wooden flute, and tin whistle. An important instrument not included in the performance is the button accordion. The Irish drum (bodhrán), Celtic harp, and guitar played in the video are instruments that joined traditional music in the twentieth century.

The Fiddle (violin) was by far the most useful instrument in eighteenth century Ireland, and has retained its position ever since.  There are many distinct regional styles of fiddling. Fiddlers, like pipers, play slow airs, but were most useful in the 18th and 19th century for providing dance music. Rural Ireland was traversed by "dancing masters," itinerant dance instructors who traveled from township to township to teach new dances. Some dancing masters themselves provided dance music on fiddles; others traveled with a piper or fiddler. 

Paddy Killoran plays two reels on fiddle: "Drowsy Maggie" / "Toss the Feathers"

A recent video recording of two reels, "Toss the Feathers"/ "Jenny's Chickens" is performed by The Boys of the Hock. Until the twentieth century traditional music was played by a soloist. Ensemble playing is a modern development in traditional music. The fiddle and flute and the oldest members in this video. The bodhrán (drum), guitar, and dulcimer are twentieth-century additions to traditional Irish music. 

Uilleann Pipes, also known as union pipes, are the national bagpipes of Ireland. The bellows in the uilleann pipes are controlled by the player's elbow rather than by his breath, so the uilleann pipes are played seated. The instrument dates from the seventeenth century and was perfected by 1900. The pipes were first developed by well-to-do Irish, Scottish, and English "gentlemen pipers" who modified Great Irish and Great Scottish warpipes to create a smaller, lighter instrument with a sweeter sound and much wider pitch range. The new design made the instrument nimble and capable of great nuance.

In the mid-nineteenth century, three other instruments became part of traditional music making in Ireland. Irish musicians began playing the wooden flute in the mid-1800s just as the new, valved metal flutes were being adopted everywhere else. Tin whistles became extremely popular. They were homemade or mass produced, portable, and relatively easy to learn to play. 

Two jigs and a reel played Tin Whistle and Flute with guitar, by TinWhistler

The button accordion also became a popular instrument for traditional music in the late nineteenth century. Here Sharon Shannon plays some tunes with three fiddlers.


The heart of traditional Irish instrumental music is the vast body of dance tunes that have been passed down from the eighteenth century. In the United States, the dances and dance tunes introduced by Irish immigrants were main ingredients in the mix of traditions that spawned uniquely American forms of music and dance. The Irish dance tune repertory centers on three folk dances —  the reel, the jig, and the hornpipe. Reels are by far the most numerous type and the most often played. Reels are fast paced with onrushing eighth-note motion. Jigs are played in a lilting 6/8 or 9/8 time. The slower paced hornpipes are the least common type. All of the dances and dance tunes are structured in eight-measure sections in the form AABBAABB. 

Irish dances are step dances, a general term indicating any dance type that features intricate, quick, and precise footwork. Reels and jigs are danced by both sexes, solo or in groups. Hornpipes are traditionally a solo male dance. 

The reel became the most popular folk dance in Ireland after it was introduced from Scotland in the late eighteenth century. In this video a group of traditional instrumentalists play a reel. The impromptu dance is improvised in a style of dancing called sean nós ("old style"). This style is improvised, low to the ground, features sharp toe percussion, and is ordinarily danced on a small surface area by a single dancer. The style of Irish step dancing known by most people is done in hard shoes with a stiff upper body and aerial movements. A  "treble reel" is one that is danced in hard shoes.  Here is a reel by a group performing a "set dance" in soft shoes at an Irish dance festival in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. 

The jig developed in England in the sixteenth century and  became popular in Ireland and Scotland in the seventeenth century. Two or three dance tunes are often grouped together without pause, as in this video:

Michael Coleman plays two jigs: "The Trip to Sligo" / "Tell Her I Am"

Coleman is universally considered to be one of the greatest fiddlers in history and had an enormous impact on Irish fiddling. Coleman performed in vaudeville shows in the New York, dancing as he fiddled on stage. His iconic recordings were made in the 1920s.

The hornpipe has been played and danced in England and Ireland since the sixteenth century. Here is John Cullinane step dancing in hard shoes to the "Liverpool Hornpipe" played on fiddle by Seán O Cearbhaill.



Ballads are narrative songs that are commonly found throughout European folk traditions. English-language ballads became popular in Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These "old ballads" recount stories of romance, death, murder, humorous and historical events, and interaction between humans and supernatural beings. Unlike the private character of the old-style (sean nós) singing, ballads were —and are — "vehicles for expressing emotion and popular wisdom." [The Ballad and Oral Literature, ed. J. Harris, Harvard Univ. Press, 1991]

The heyday of the ballad was the nineteenth century, at least until 1855. Countless thousands of ballads were sold on the street. Ballad peddlers on every corner of every city sold lyrics printed on broadsheets. The ballad lyrics were set to well-known airs (melodies) that the ballad peddlers sang. This webpage categorizes Irish ballads by subject into twenty-two types, and lists some 300 of the most famous ballads from the sixteenth century to recent times.

Ballads are strophic songs, that is, the air (melody) repeats for all verses, while the words change from verse to verse. In a world where music was transmitted orally and retained by memory, a single melody that could be repeated any number of times could be easily remembered and passed on. Such an air could accommodate any number of poetic verses and any story, so that the same air shows up in different times and places with varying or completely different lyrics. Names, events, and locations may change over time, or the words to an air may take on new meanings. 

In this scene from The Dead, based on a story by James Joyce, the great Irish tenor Frank Patterson sings a single verse from the ballad The Lass of Aughrim. The song originated in Scotland as "The Lass of Roch Royal" in the seventeenth century. The ballad became popular in Ireland, where the tragic ending of the story was eliminated. Irish and English immigrants brought the song to the U.S., where over time only a few verses from the Scottish version were retained, and the original meaning of the ballad was changed. Eighty three American versions of the song have been documented, most titled "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet,"  sung here by American folk singer Woody Guthrie.

In the mid-1800s Thomas Moore fashioned lyrics to an old Irish air. His poem, "The Minstrel Boy" was written in memory of friends killed in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. The song became popular in the U.S. during the Civil War (when another verse was added by an unknown author), among the Allies in World War I, and in the Irish Army and Irish Regiments around the world. The song has been recorded multiple times. The Irish tenor John McCormack is considered by many to be the greatest voice of his time. In this recording of "The Minstrel Boy" McCormack is accompanied by military band. The most recent version is an arrangement of the ballad heard by millions on the soundtrack of Black Hawk Down.

Irish slow airs  

Slow airs (melodies) are the earliest known native Irish songs. Until the late nineteenth century, when pianos became common instruments throughout Europe and the U.S., Irish song was unaccompanied. Slow airs are commonly played on fiddle and pipes. Slow airs are still sung and played as part of the living tradition. 

Slow air played on fiddle - "Have You Been to Carrick?/An raibh tú ag an gCarraig?"

The title of this slow air can refer either to a town named Carrick, or to gCarraig, literally "stone" in Irish. The air was composed in honor of a society beauty in the town of Carrick, according to John O'Daly, a collector who ascribed the melody to harper Dominic Ó Mongain (born 1715). But the lyrics of the opening verses later took on an allegorical meaning: the "stone" of the title was interpreted as a coded reference to secret Catholic meetings that took place at "mass stones" during the period of the Penal Laws. The video's visuals and subtitled commentary explain this interpretation. The first verses of the poem are sung here by Sharon Lyons at the 2012 Irish Ecumenical Council opening ceremony. (Irish and English translations provided in video description.)

Sean nós Singing

Sean nós (literally, old style) singing refers to distinctively Irish styles of unaccompanied solo singing. The earliest records of sean nós date back to the sixteenth century, reflecting practices that originated much earlier. Though the styles of singing vary by region, sean nós is most often described as highly melismatic and ornamental, a factor that has had crucial significance in the development of Irish traditional music as a whole. Tomás Ó Canainn asserts that 'no aspect of Irish music can be fully understood without a deep appreciation of sean-nós singing. It is the key which opens every lock'.

Unaccompanied singing in rural Ireland took place in intimate household settings and was executed in an almost ritualistic manner. Singers do not attempt to make a show of emotion, or to create an individual vocal style. Though sean nós singing is most closely associated with songs in Irish, the style is applied to English-language songs as well. Today the few regions where Irish is still the majority language are centers of sean nós. Sean nós singing is supported by recordings, broadcasts, schools, festivals, and competitions throughout Ireland and the United States.  Subjects include  everyday life in agrarian communities such as de Buainteoir (The Harvester) sung by Brian O'Hairt at a North American sean nós competition in Weston, Missouri; and stories of romance such as  "Eleanór a Rú" (Eleanor My Love), as sung by Roísín de Safty of County Cork.



The Celts were a people of the Iron Age and and Middle Ages whose culture and language spread throughout much of Europe. By the time Celtic warriors invaded Ireland around 500 BC, mainland Celtic culture had largely declined and was restricted to the Celtic nations: Brittany, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. The Gaels were the Celts in Ireland and in the kingdom they established in the Scottish Highlands.  Gaelic Ireland refers to the social order and associated culture of the Gaels in Ireland. 

Following the arrival of Saint Patrick and other Christian missionaries in the early to mid-fifth century, Christianity overtook the indigenous pagan religion. Ireland was Christianized by the year 600 AD. Irish Christian scholars excelled in the study of Latin, Greek and Christian theology in monasteries throughout Ireland. 

The Normans invaded Ireland in 1169. Norman lords confiscated and occupied vast swaths of land through 1540. The Normans built walled towns, castles and churches. They also increased agriculture and commerce in Ireland. Normans replaced the Gaelic kings but became increasingly assimilated to Gaelic culture. 


The Irish harp is the national symbol of Ireland. The thousand-year history of harps and harpers in Ireland reflects the island's Celtic roots and celebrates Gaelic culture. Celtic rulers patronized bards, highly educated poet/composers who wrote poems praising the king and recounting historical events. The bard's position at court was second only to the king's. The poems were sung by a "reciter" who was accompanied by harp or lyre. Reciters and harpists were among the highest ranking members of the courts. Celtic harps in both Ireland and Scotland were strung with brass (and sometimes gold) wires, and plucked with long crooked fingernails.  Since the melodies were not notated the music is lost to history.

Ironically, harps gradually became obsolete in the early seventeenth century as patronage evaporated along with the decline of Celtic courts and Gaelic culture. Wandering harpers and pipers were subject to summary execution. Harps had nearly disappeared from Irish musical life after the death of the last great harper, Turlough O'Carolan, in 1738, when he composed his final piece "Farewell to Music." 

In the late 20th century there was an explosion of interest in the Gaelic harps and early harp music which has brought harp playing into the world of traditional Irish music.  

At the turn of the 20th century renewed interest in Gaelic culture led to an international revival of Celtic harp music.  But the resurgence of the harp began in earnest as an offshoot of the Irish folk music and traditional music revivals. A leader in the movement from 1983 to the present day is Irish-American researcher, author, and harper Ann Heymann. Today there are Celtic harp societies in Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, and throughout the United States. Hundreds of harpers play on reproductions of Celtic and neo-Irish harps. Harp forums abound online. Entire schools, festivals, seminars, concerts, studies and books are devoted to the various Celtic and Gaelic harps, their history, and their music.  

Alli Stevick plays Irish ballad "The Foggy Dew" on wire-strung harp, the older type of Celtic harp. Stevick is one in a large informal Web community of Celtic/Irish harpists and harp enthusiasts who post vidoes and swap information online. 

Kavan Donahue improvises on neo-Irish harp in jazz-rock style with fellow university students at the County Cavan music festival.  The neo-Irish harp  is strung with gut or nylon strings.

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