There has been a major upsurge of interest in traditional Irish music in recent years. Bands like The Chieftains and Clannad have helped develop a worldwide interest in the lyrical sound of Celtic music. Musicians throughout Ireland and its emigrant communities have found opportunities to play for adoring crowds in Irish pubs everywhere. These musicians are continuing in a Celtic music tradition that goes back many centuries.
Celtic Praise Poets
Poets and bards were big shots in Celtic societies. A good poet could grant either fame or shame to Celtic nobles, so when one showed up at court and started to sing, everyone gathered to listen. These bards often played harps and other musical instruments. Brian Boru's harp — the symbol of Ireland — was supposedly played to rally his troops.
The singing poets continued their cultural influence after the Norman Conquest. The Anglo-Norman nobles, like the old Irish nobles before them, recognized the power of a good song, so they often sponsored these bards in their courts. Over time, however, the power of the bards waned. With books and letters available, nobles no longer needed poets to spread their fame.
The Elements of Traditional Music
Irish music is a free-form style. The length, pace, and musical composition of a given piece will change from night to night and from group to group. Traditional musicians almost never play from written music; in the past, many of the best musicians couldn't even read music.
As in American jazz, most pieces revolve around group performances that highlight the virtuosic improvisations of individual musicians.
One of the best-known Irish songs is “Danny Boy.” Interestingly, the lyrics aren't Irish; an Englishman named Frederic Weatherly composed them in 1910. The music is from an older tune called “Londonderry Air,” which was transcribed by Jane Ross of County Derry around 1855. Its origins are unclear, but it may have been a traditional harp song.
Despite the free-form style, Irish music has a distinctive sound that makes it immediately identifiable (although Scottish and Welsh music sound similar). The distinctiveness comes largely from the mix of instruments used. The traditional instruments of Irish music are:
Bagpipes or uilleann pipes
Pretty much anything that can jam
Traditional music performances are informal. They generally take place in pubs, with the musicians performing only for free beer and the cheers of the crowd. Members of the audience can join in if they have a fiddle, a good voice, or even just a set of spoons to add to the music.
The Irish love of poetic language mixed with humor and tragedy to produce the beautiful Irish ballad. The ability to compose and perform a beautiful ballad has been highly prized in Ireland for centuries. The ballad is generally sung by a single person, who may or may not be accompanied by instruments. Ballads range from a handful of lines to many hundreds of lines in length. They can tell stories of lost love, injustice and revenge, or what happened when the singer went to get a beer.