Perhaps the most easily recognizable part of Irish Culture today is their musical tradition. Nearly everyone has heard an Irish fiddle tune, a jig, or melody on the tin whistle. People sometimes confuse the traditional bagpipes of Scotland as being an Irish instrument. Although Ireland does have it’s own “Irish Pipes”, they are not the same that come to mind when thinking of their neighbors.
Ireland is a nation with a long history, and remember and recalling their history is incredibly important to them, and music is one of the main ways they tell stories. Much of their traditional music was instrumental, but more modern music became increasingly about telling about events in their history, honoring their heroes, or exposing untold stories.
The first idea that comes to mind for many people when thinking about Irish music is a fiddle, guitars, maybe a banjo, and some folk-singing. These instruments appear a lot in Ireland, but things were not always this way.
The first known instruments in Ireland were a small harp, a timpan (a stringed instrument, sort of like a guitar), a feadan (a whistle), a buinne (a flute), and a few other flute-type instruments. It is difficult to hear much of this music today because it was written and played before recording or printing technology.
Some people say that these, and only these instruments are at the core of the Irish tradition. There were energetic songs used for celebrations like weddings, and songs of lament to be played when there was sorrow. It is difficult to describe what any music is like in words, but “lively” is a good word to describe much Irish music. On a well-played jig (a song for dancing), there are complicated melodies jumping back and forth between fiddle and flute, solos, foot-stomping, and it becomes easy to see why people would dance to such enthusiastic tunes. Irish music is very much known for the social aspect of playing music, or of dancing to it. Many forms of music today are best-known for a song that plays on the radio, or a track on a CD that is especially good. Irish traditional music, however, is all about the experience of being together and playing the songs as a group.
It wasn’t until about 200 years ago that the folk songs that we associate with Ireland began to be written. It was only in the 1960’s that the guitar made its way into Irish music, and the banjo in 1920’s. The fiddle showed up around the 1200’s. With all these instruments together, the stage was now set for the folk music of Ireland we think of today.
It is very common to find Irish music being played either in people’s homes or in restaurants. This is because during certain parts of Irish history, they were forbidden to play music outside, so it turned into a group activity that took place in people’s homes. A common sight to see in Ireland would be one or two people playing guitar, a banjo, a fiddle player (or two), and perhaps a stand-up bass. Sometimes there might be a musician playing a bodhrán, or a circular drum, that is held in one hand. Lastly, a very small but very important part of this set-up might include a tin-whistle. A tin-whistle is a small, simple flute that is used to play melodies during a song. Since so much of Irish music tradition is based on flute-type instruments, having the tin-whistle in a folk song can be what really ties it to Irish roots.
In the last 30 years, a number of musicians have carried the Irish tradition for all the world to enjoy. In a world where the music of particular counties often get lost in the sea of pop-music that gets played on the radio and TV, Irish music is one of the strongest and most enduring of all forms of music.