Irish music has a mystical place in the global imaginary. Its traditional music is revered not only as a pristine European folk music but also as ‘World Music’ in its own backyard: a rural, communal, vibrant and somewhat ‘Oriental’ trace of a forgotten past of Celtic draoícht (‘enchantment’). Global melancholic nostalgia surrounding Irish music, and the Emerald Isle as a whole, taps into a wistful longing for a world of pastoralism, community, enchantment and folklore, a paradise lost to modernity; and, as such, it is a quintessential example of the German concept of fernweh(‘longing for a place you’ve never been to’). Ironically, this representation of Irish music has been reinforced by its transformation into a diasporic culture par excellence: its migrating communities brought their music and culture to countries all over the world, and diasporic Irish communities in the USA in particular have made lasting contributions to Irish traditional music itself. For many people, Irish music offers some reflection on the current times in its fusing of localism and deep roots with globalism and international flight, a cultural tradition somehow essentially ‘Irish’ but profoundly resonant with ‘World Music’.
The Republic of Ireland, or Éireannin Irish Gaelic, occupies most of the island lying to the west of Great Britain at the northwest edge of Europe. It has a population of around five million across its 32 provinces (such as Clare, Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Limerick and Sligo). The national languages are Irish Gaelic and English; the former is spoken by less than 20% of the population, although basic learning is still compulsory in school and it is dominant in certain areas of the west and southwest of the island. Its White Irish majority makes up around 90% of its population, but it has a small indigenous minority group (the nomadic ‘Travellers’) and rising immigration from Europe (especially Poland). Ireland technically has no official religion, but over 80% of its people are Roman Catholic and the church plays a prominent role in the country (e.g. in providing education and welfare), although its influence is somewhat in decline. Its rural population of around 40% is relatively large compared to its neighbours and appears fairly stable, with an urbanisation rate of just over 1%.
Following a few thousand years of hunter-gatherer, farming and fishing communities during the Stone and Bronze ages (4000 BCE-500 CE), the Goidelic (Gaelic) Celts rose to power in Ireland, embedding their distinctive language and culture in the region, including clan society, headed by kings and by chieftains elected through the tanistry; a passion for warfare and territorial expansion, which meant that they built vast networks of stone forts and organised much of their culture around combat; and polytheistic paganism, led by Druids who served not only as priests but also as medics, lawyers, political advisors, and so on. Under the Celts, Ireland was divided into small clan kingdoms that, according to Roman accounts, were in virtually constant conflict with one another. As missionaries came to Ireland in increasing numbers (5thC), with the famous Saint Patrick amongst their flock, Christianity soon overtook the pagan religion (6thC). Though some missionaries, like Saint Patrick, hoped to organise the religion in line with the Roman Catholic model of church and Bishops, it was Irish Christianity, with monasteries and Abbotts, that instead took hold (7th-8thC), producing new forms of arts and culture such as ornate jewellery, carved stones and illuminated manuscripts (highly decorated books) like the Book of Kells. Subsequently, the Vikings (from modern-day Scandinavia) raided and invaded Ireland (9thC), at first looting and taking women and children as slaves but later settling on the island, at which point they embraced Irish culture and religion, intermarrying into Irish society and setting up its first towns (incl. Dublin).
With the mandate of the Pope and with the help of the exiled King of Leinster, Diarmait MacMurchada, and his top aide Richard ‘Strongbow’ FitzGilbert de Clare, the English captured Wexford, Waterford and Dublin for King Henry II (late 12thC); the English later took control of almost all of modern-day Ireland (13thC). Like the Vikings before them, the Anglo-Irish rulers were absorbed into Irish society and culture, although they introduced new forms of commerce and agriculture across the island (13th-16thC). Henry VIII established good diplomatic relations with Ireland, and the Irish Parliament declared him King of Ireland (1541), but the controversial ‘plantation’ policy of his son, King Edward VI, which involved moving thousands of English Protestants into Ireland, confiscating Irish lands on their behalf, led to widespread sectarian rebellions. As the English response to insubordination toughened, Irish leaders and landowners fled to France and abandoned their people in the infamous ‘Flight of the Earls’ (1607).
At the end of the English Civil War (1646), Oliver Cromwell oversaw a ruthless suppression of Irish resistance. Catholic rebellions had themselves been violent, with mass killings of Protestants, but Cromwell’s assault on Irish rebels included a series of massacres and the annexation of all of Ireland under direct English control (1651). Plantation of English and Scottish Protestant settlers increased and brutal Penal laws disempowered Irish Catholics, denying them basic rights such as owning land or entering education, outlawing the Catholic clergy and ordering all Catholics to convert to the Church of Ireland (17th-18th). This led to the mass cultivation of potatoes in Ireland, especially amongst Catholics, as a large volume of the crop could be grown in small areas of land.
Inspired by the French Revolution (1789), the United Irishmen movement aspired to bring together all Irish peoples and religions to oppose what was now British power in Ireland. When their rebellions failed, the British responded with the Act of Union (1801), bringing Ireland under British political sovereignty. However, Daniel O’Connell, ‘the great liberator’ took a nonviolent approach, securing the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act (1829), which restored the political rights of Irish Catholics. Unfortunately, the momentum towards emancipation was stifled by the worst disaster in Irish history: the Great Famine (1845-1847). After a fungus wiped out Ireland’s staple potato crop nationwide and the British government offered no relief (even refusing to allow Ireland’s own wheat and dairy exports to be kept within the country as respite), more than one million people starved to death and around a further three million emigrated, most leaving for England or the United States of America. This was a dark time for Ireland, and especially for Catholics (who had been reliant on potatoes for sustenance since the implementation of the Penal laws). Even those who left risked injury or death on the perilous voyages and most faced hardship and marginalisation in their new lands. This decimation and exodus shrank the Irish population from 8 to 3.5 million (a level to which it has never since recovered). The famine was nevertheless culturally significant beyond its desolation in that it did initiate the global Irish diaspora.
Despite the anger and bitterness, the challenge to British rule only started to re-galvanise effectively with the Irish Home Rule Party, led by Stewart Parnell, which became the Irish Parliamentary Party (1882) and fought for self-government. The matter of Home Rule became a key battleground within British politics itself, with William Gladstone of the Liberal Party supporting it and Benjamin Disraeli of the Conservative Party opposing it. However, the situation was complicated by the desires of Irish Protestants to remain in union with Britain, and so the Unionist Party, led by Sir Edward Carson, made it clear that an independent Ireland would have to face a further liberation struggle from Protestants in Northern Ireland. A Home Rule Bill was nevertheless passed (1912) but, with the outbreak of the Great War (1914), it never came into effect. The Irish Parliamentary Party encouraged Irish support for the British war effort in the hope that they would be granted self-rule after the conflict but, against their orders, armed rebels with the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army took over parts of Dublin in the ‘Easter Rising’ (1916). After a series of bloody battles, the rebels surrendered with the people of Dublin vehemently against them. Yet, when the British ruthlessly executed the rebels and took punitive action against their relatives, public opinion turned against them. The Sinn Féin(‘We Ourselves’) party, led by one of the few surviving rebels Éamon de Valera, took most of Ireland’s seats in the House of Commons (1918) and announced their own sovereign Irish Republic parliament, Dáil Éireann, in Dublin (1919). The Irish Republican Army, led by Michael Collins, fought a guerrilla ‘war of independence’ against British forces in Ireland (1919-1921), and an independence treaty was signed (1921), albeit with popular opinion divided over the separation of Ireland into the Irish Free State, an independent nation of 26 counties, and Northern Ireland, a consistent unit of the UK comprising the remaining 6 counties (1922). A civil war ensued between pro-treaty and anti-treaty forces, with rebel leaders Collins and de Valera on opposite sides of the conflict. Even after the war ended, the tensions remained, and unrest worsened as the inner cities of Ireland were economically devastated by national efforts to reject modernity (1920s-1940s).
Subsequent governments pursued mass urbanisation, resulting in an economic upturn for Ireland (1950s-1960s). Yet, civil rights marches in Northern Ireland (1968) sparked violence between Protestants and Catholics in the country, marking the start of the ‘Troubles’ (1969-1998). The ‘Troubles’ involved regular outbreaks of violence and terrorism between republican and unionist groups that, along with brash British military interventions, led to the deaths of over 3000 people. While these divisions continue to underpin much of Irish politics today, peace is now the norm in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the Republic has transformed from a country of emigration that rejected modernity to a country of immigration that is in many respects an outward-looking economic and cultural player in Europe and beyond.
To understand the origins of traditional music in Ireland and appreciate its development over time, it is first essential to unpick the ‘Celtic’ label often ascribed to it. While there are strong Celtic connections in Irish musical traditions, the pure ‘Celtic’ narrative risks somewhat overstating these links and neglecting subsequent social and cultural developments that also drove the cultivation of Irish traditional music.
The Celtic influences include Goidelic language, mythology and symbolism and some aspects of musical and cultural aesthetics. In early Celtic society, music is thought to have been organised around on the one hand community, with dancing and thus dance tunes employed for their sociality and festive euphoria, and on the other ceremony and warfare. Irish dance tunes often take the form AABB played on repeat or as a medley(where multiple different tunes of the same dance type are threaded together) to make up the length of whole or even multiple dances. It is thought that this approach is a ‘Celtic’ musical idiom on the basis that it is present in the music of most previously Celtic cultures, suggesting that this structure derived from earlier Celtic times. Additionally, the cruit (a small triangular wooden harp with metal strings), the cuislí (mouth-blown pipe), the píopaí(prototypal mouth-blown bagpipes) and the fidlí(prototypal bowed stringed fiddle), though all later replaced by imports from either Scotland or England, most likely influenced the distinct Irish playing style for dance tunes.
For ceremony and warfare, the power of music was both a symbol of duty and solidarity, and epic song served as a form of musical storytelling that glorified legendary warriors and martial triumphs to embed martial loyalty. Music was even a tool of combat itself, as martial trumpeters blasted the imperious carnyx (a long bronze trumpet equipped with a bell shaped like an animal’s head) and soldiers rhythmically stamped their feet and rattled their weapons to intimidate their opponents. Beyond this, laments were sung by bereaved women and by Druid priests, the former performed directly in funerary contexts to mourn the dead and the latter on other occasions by the latter for aesthetic pleasure. While there is little evidence that epic song and laments had any significant influence on the development of traditional style, they did have clear cultural impacts in shaping traditional verse. Epic song influenced wandering minstrels, who continued sang laoi filíocht (heroic verse) in Irish Gaelic as storytellers and educators, and these would go on to influence a huge variety of narrative folksongs that employed ‘heroic’ Celtic folklore and imagery. For example, some folksongs reference the lays of legendary warrior/giant Fionn MacCumhail (Finn MacCool) such as his mythic deception of the giant Benandonner in the legend of Antrim’s natural wonder, ‘the Giant’s Causeway’. Laments themselves were preserved for centuries as both widow’s mournings, for example the gol (‘weeping’) laments, featuring poignant descending melodies echoing grief-stricken sobbing, and spiritual (Druidic) reflections, in the form of the caoineadh (‘keening’) laments, which freely mixed emotional melodic singing with laudatory expressive speech. The caoineadhaffected the vocality and spiritual connotations of later Irish Gaelic singing genres. Indeed, the Celtic concept of draoícht (‘art of the Druid’ or ‘enchantment’; symbolically profound emotional expression, charm and spirituality), though bearing scant evidence of direct stylistic impact, is cited by historical and contemporary Irish performers as a profound influence on the cultural identity, and thus on the performance practice, of traditional singing.
The oldest living Irish traditional music emerged during the 17thC and its main traditions were clearly established by the late 19thC, including: songs in Irish Gaelic; songs in English; instrumental dance tunes; and instrumental music, most notably harp music. The British administration was determined to expunge the Gaelic language and Gaelic cultural traditions from Ireland, and, especially in the urban centres, this Anglicisation of Irish culture had a huge impact on traditional music. Yet, the resilience of traditional Irish vocality (which places expressive vocal lyricism and deep emotional communication above declamatory oration and narrative storytelling) maintained the distinctiveness of Irish music, preserving it not only through rural Gaelic airs(song melodies) themselves but also in the (vocalesque) lyrical aesthetic applied to all other traditions (incl. dance and instrumental tunes and narrative songs in English). Thus, even as English song and dance forms became pervasive on the isle, they were approached with a distinct musical aesthetic, which, in the end, produced markedly different stylistic and performative practices.
For centuries, Gaelic songs had been at the heart of Irish music tradition. Historically, some songs were directly functional, like heroic verse, laments, work songs and lullabies (the latter traditionally sung to sooth infants but also to invoke mystical forces), but singing was primarily a personal affair, serving as recreation in the home, a means of passing time in the workplace and a source of enjoyment at small family and community gatherings. It is Gaelic song practices that established the cultural aesthetics of Irish vocality and so revolved around the talents of a solo individual singer to emotionally move an audience with their aesthetic and performative talents. Gaelic songs certainly suffered from the British suppression of Gaelic culture, and the public functional songs died out in most places, but the locality of personal, recreational Gaelic songs in the domestic sphere of pastoral milieus meant that they were preserved amongst rural communities (who still mainly spoke Irish Gaelic). Gaelic songs also have a long history of social comment, and this only intensified under occupation: for example, in aisling (‘dream vision’) songs, the ‘sleeping’ singer is visited by a spéirbhean (‘sky woman’; faerie) who, by articulating lamentations and prophecies on the fate of Ireland and the Irish people, served as an allegorical vehicle for political critique. After the Great Famine, Gaelicsongs embodied the harrowing suffering of the people of Ireland and, in the new global Irish diaspora, Gaelic songs envoiced Irish immigrants’ woeful experiences of emigration and marginalisation, becoming symbolic of their feelings of alienation and exile.
Gaelic airs(‘air’simply refers to a song melody, just like ‘tune’ refers to a dance melody) are mostly pentatonic, symmetrical and relatively large in range. Songs are monophonic, strophic, usually with alternating verse and refrain, using regular metres (3/4, 4/4 and 6/8). Slow songs are often sung with a great deal of rubatoand fast songs are driving, though make use of swung notes inégales). Airs comprise a structure of AABA and they were traditionally sung solo and unaccompanied. Songsare generally categorised by their textual theme (e.g. love songs, nature songs, comic songs, etc.) rather than by genre. Most traditional song textsfeature ‘Celtic’ tropes relating to nature and folkloric tales, though, the rise of Christianity, they also voice religious beliefs and motifs, albeit with (Druidic) mystical resonances. Gaelic songs also use remarkably florid language and poetic imagery, which popular belief attributes to the collapse of the aristocracy and gentry (the ‘Flight of the Earls’ (1607)), which reportedly deprived Gaelic poets of their patronage and thus redirected their talents into enriching the texts of lower-class Gaelic folksong; yet, there is no substantial evidence for this and it may be that folksong composers themselves simply developed their own sophisticated approaches to the art of verse. The ‘heaviest’ (oldest) and most revered living Gaelic song style is known today as sean-nós (‘old manner’), which encompasses high, sustained vocality with a ‘fierce’ nasal timbre and highly rubato(almost non-metrical) singing that includes stylised melodic ornamentation (e.g. slides, grace notes, turns), melodic elaboration (new variations on the melody with each stanza), melismatic improvisation (e.g. extended runs on single syllables) and dramatic performative devices (e.g. sudden pauses and explosive high notes). Sean-nós performances exemplify the aesthetic and emotional demands of Gaelic singing and the intimate connection between singer and audience, and its themes usually revolve around love and despair and, especially after the Great Famine, the suffering of exile.
Traditional songs in English, dance tunes and instrumental musics largely developed through the indigenisation (or Irishisation) of English and Scottish musical forms. In urban contexts, English narrative song became popular, and street hawkers selling ‘broadside ballads’ (narrative texts printed on cheap paper that had associated oral song tunes) to lower-class workers. However, this English narrative form was indigenised in line with Irish aesthetics, including in its use of vocality and its textual themes (e.g. exile (e.g. ‘The Irish Refugee’) and religion (e.g. ‘Patrick’s Day Parade’), rather than class consciousness). The ballads spread news and gossip and recounted stories based on historical or folkloric events, offering a form of recreation and entertainment for city workers, sung back home or down the pub. As the English language ascended over this period, English-language Gaelic-style lyric songs also emerged, which mostly maintained the musical features of Gaelic song (see above) but simply supplanted the Gaelic language with English, to the extent that even textual conventions were often preserved (e.g. the use of assonance, rather than English rhyme schemes).
Dance tunes, on the other hand, were categorised according to their stylistic genre, and a tune and its dance were conceptualised as entirely integral to one another. While singing was primarily domestic, dance was public and communal, serving as entertainment and fostering camaraderie and festivity at social gatherings and community events. Dances featured particularly at community dance socials (antecedents to the modern ceílí), which included both solo and small group exhibition dances and inclusive participatory dances. ‘Dance masters’, who presented virtuoso performance in the cities, also rose to prominence in the late 18thC and they set up travelling ‘dance schools’, which taught standardised styles and choreographies for Irish traditional dance and which became especially popular amongst English and Scottish settlers. The instrumentation used for dance tunes was entirely contextual (i.e. based on the available musicians at any given time in any given place) and could even be performed by singers if needed using a technique known as portaireacht bhéil(or lilting) that, like jazz ‘scat’ singing, involves conventional patterns of improvised non-lexical vocables.
Although indigenous dance musics presumably featured in Gaelic culture and society, living (post-colonisation) dance tunes encompass English and Scottish forms, featuring 6/8 jigs and 4/4 hornpipes (from England), 4/4 reels(from Scotland) and 3/4 waltzes and 2/4 polkas (from mainland Europe via Britain). Most of these dances feature fast quaver movement, modal melodies and AABB structures, where tunes are either played on repeat or (as in Celtic aesthetics) as a medleyfor a whole dance. The ‘A’ section of the tune is known as the fonn (‘tune’) and the ‘B’ section is called the casadh (‘turn’), which is usually higher and more vigorous than the fonn. The main instruments used for dance tunes were also imported from these countries, including the modern fiddle and tin whistle (from England), Highland bagpipes and Celtic harp (from Scotland) and later accordion and mandolin (from mainland Europe via Britain), though distinct Irish instruments were also developed. These include: the uilleann pipes (a unique, andhighly challenging, bellows-powered bagpipes with a ‘chanter’ for melody, pumped under one arm, ‘regulators’ that create simple chords; the bellows are pumped under one arm, melodies are played with both hands and the chords are then added by the wrists); the clàirseach(the Irish harp, a slight variation on the Scottish Celtic harp, with wire strings for a bright and clear timbre); and the bodhrán (wooden frame drum, often played with cipín (a short wooden stick)). Yet, as with the songs, these dances and instruments were indigenised in line with Irish musical aesthetics, applying vocality and lyricism to the dance tunes and also evidently infusing them with existing instrumental dance and instrumental stylisations including: the use of rapid pace and a toolbox of melodic elaborations such as rolls, crans, trebles, cuts and triplets which were not related to song; the use of distinct bowing techniques, ringing timbres and high performativity for the modern fiddle, which we can assume were drawn from centuries of fiddling in the fields on the prototypal Gaelic fidlí; and distinct forms of solo and group stepdancing. Indeed, it is worth pointing out that there may be an element of ‘feedback’ here, as many of these dances and instruments were themselves underpinned by ‘Celtic’ cultural aesthetics and influenced by fluid historical exchanges around the British Isles.
Instrumental performance, though less common than sung airsor dance tunes, constitutes the final segment of Irish traditional music. In domestic contexts, instrumental performance was conceptualised in a similar way to singing, both in terms of cultural purpose and musical aesthetics. Indeed, the most common instrumental form was the air(song melody) and the role of the melodic instrument, characteristically fiddle, whistle, flute, clàirseach or uilleann pipes, was to emulate the lyricisms and idioms of traditional vocality. The melodic texture was either unison or heterogeneous, and harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment was minimal, serving simply to punctuate the melody. Irish harp music became particularly prominent through patronage from wealthy Anglo-Irish landowners. Talented bards (like the celebrated blind harpist Turlough O’Carolan) travelled the country to play and sing at the landowners’ houses and social functions and, though instrumental performance practice changed dramatically over time, their harp airs, transcribed and compiled for preservation by collectors like Edward Bunting (1773-1843), remain popular amongst traditional music performers today.
Finally, it is important to recognise that, within these overall traditions, there was notable regional diversity, partly because oral transmission introduced a great deal of variation and adaptation, but also because networks of performers in each Irish county faithfully developed, established and maintained their own regional stylistic and performative approaches to common forms. For example, the sean-nós style was more popular on the west coast of Ireland than elsewhere, and singers from County Galway and especially the island of Connemara were famed for their spectacular skills in melodic elaboration, melismatic improvisation and expressive delivery, while singers from County Donegal (to the north) developed an idiomatic style more influenced by Scottish traditional music that emphasises vocal power and ferocity at the expense of melodic decoration. Similarly, as Irish fiddle playing took off, the County Donegal style focused on rapid tempos, wild runs and ringing timbres while County Clare fiddlers tended to take a slower approach that featured vocalesque lyricism and dazzling ornamentation.
At the turn of the 20thC, the popularity of Irish traditional music was reinforced by technological advancements and the rise of Irish nationalism. Inspired by ‘folk music’ preservation movements in the USA and England, collectors like Francis Roche and Breandán Breathnach expanded their efforts to ‘safeguard’ oral traditional musics for posterity by transcribing them in written form. The invention of recording technology supported this task enormously, while radio broadcasting enabled recordings to be disseminated to people all over the country and encouraged interaction and inspiration between musicians in Ireland and in An tOileán Úr(‘The New Island’; the USA). For example, emigrant Michael Coleman’s flashy and highly ornamented ‘Sligo’ fiddling had a profound impact on modern fiddle playing across Ireland.
As in England and the US, literary Romanticism was a driving factor in the folk revival mission, and thus promoted an emphasis on what the collectors perceived as the ‘pure’ traditions of the rural ‘folk’. In Ireland, this was also paired a more firebrand form of nationalism in the context of the political struggle for home rule. Together, these ideologies galvanised traditional music through the so-called ‘Gaelic revival’, which purported to place a greater emphasis on music perceived as Gaelic in style (e.g. Gaelic songs and uilleann piping) over other traditional forms (e.g. broadside ballads). In practice, these forms were all fundamentally syncretic too (as explained above), but the revival reimagined them as being quintessentially Celtic too, essentially rewrit
ing their histories to overstate the connection. This endures as a source of popular misunderstanding on Irish music, explaining the common tendency to bask perhaps a little too much in the Celtic twilight.
At first, Irish traditional music thrived in the new Irish state. The Irish Folklore Commission and a national traditional music radio station, Radio Éireann (1926), were founded to support the collection, preservation and dissemination of traditional music and instruction in traditional airs, tunes and instrumental musics and these were integrated into the national curriculum to nurture the next generation of musicians. Seamus Ennis, a master uilleannpiper and dancer, worked for both of these inst
itutions and, at once, started to cultivate a standardised traditional style through the national curriculum and through the pan-Irish style of his band, the Fingal Trio, and yet brought unprecedented attention to the richness and diversity of Irish traditional music by broadcasting performers representing a whole host of different regional stylisations. Yet, as the government’s cumulative efforts to reject modernity resulted in worsening economic conditions, many people started to associate traditional music with the culture of nationalism that had disastrously sourced their suffering, and so traditional music plummeted to its nadir (from 1920s).
Rather ironically, Irish traditional music was reborn as the Irish administration moved away from traditionalism and towards modernity, implementing mass industrialisation and urbanisation. A reactive revival movement, fuelled by fear of culture loss, revitalised traditional music into a ‘neo-traditional’ style of Irish music (1950s-1960s for song, 1960s-1970s for dance). This ‘neo-traditional’ style drew inspirations from new trends in the Irish diaspora (mostly notably communities in England and the USA) and transformed traditional Irish music both in terms of style and social context; many of its developments underpin contemporary traditional music practices today. Though its performers and traditions were still quintessentially rural in background and style, neo-traditional music was primarily an urban movement whose core audience was the educated middle-classes of cities like Dublin and Galway.
The cultural centrepiece of the revival was the introduction of the Irish seisiún, an informal musical jam session at the pub or folk club where traditional musicians gather to spontaneously sing airs, play tunes, dance, drink and socialise, delighting in traditional performance but most of all getting together and whipping up some craic(‘chat/news’; ‘fun’ through good music, good company, good drink and good times); a marriage of performativity and participation, individual expression and convivial revelry. This innovation was actually diasporic in origin: Irish communities in England developed the practice in the late 1940s, with the first regular trad pub seisiún held in London’s Camden Town in 1947. The blitz had devastated housing and communities in the English cities to the point where the pub was the last refuge for Irish musicians to meet and play recreationally with others. Of course, in many respects, the seisiúnwas simply a recontextualisation of age-old traditional participatory practices of playing tunes and medleys at social gatherings in collective contexts, but fundamentally it brought trad music out of the home and into the liminal public sphere, and the pub locale embedded drinking as part of the festivities for performers and audience participants alike. Importantly, the seisiúndivorced the union of dance tunes and dancing itself, placing the emphasis instead on musical performance, artistry and experimentation.
However, this neo-traditional style was not chained to the bar, and a whole host of new trends helped to promote the music in urban contexts. In a similar vein to the seisiún, the céilítook inspiration from the rural tradition of social dancing but adapted this for hosting large-scale public social gatherings with music and dance in pubs or community halls based around standardised group line and stepdance repertoires. The céilí also initiated the céilíband, a new dance tune ensemble which featured not only melodic but also now dense harmonic and rhythmic textures to provide the driving dance style required of such a large collective gathering; the harmonies and rhythms of thecéilí band were largely drawn from styles recorded by diasporic Irish musicians in the USA and England. The céilí maintained a central, albeit recontextualised, place for dance in neo-traditional cultural practices.
Fleadhs (national music competitions) provided a means to maintain and nurture traditional music amongst the next generation of trad musicians by establishing networks of music pedagogy and bringing children from around the country to display their talents in solo performance. Given the popularity of traditional music amongst young people in Ireland (certainly in comparison with the sharp decline of traditional musics amongst young people in most other European nations), fleadhshave been rather successful in their mission of preservation and cultivation, though other contributing factors include the place of traditional music in the national curriculum and the central importance traditional music is afforded in Irish cultural history, in discourses on Irish character and identity and in the branding of Ireland as a tourist destination.
Neo-traditional music has also thrived in recording and concert halls in the context of the burgeoning popular music industry. This has inspired new highly professionalised styles of Irish traditional music, including new ensemble instrumentations mixing traditional tunes and instruments (fiddles, uilleann pipes, tinwhistle, accordion and bodhrán) with ‘Western’ textures, harmonies, arrangements and instruments (guitar, mandolin, bouzouki and drum kit) and high performativity (e.g. emphasis on fast dance tun
es, responsorial improvisation and virtuoso solos over slow airs, traditional melodic elaboration procedures, etc.) Pioneers like Sean Ó’Riada and his Dublin-based ensembles Ceoltóirí Chualann and, subsequently, the Chieftains (founded 1963) came to embody this style, and the latter, at present, remains the most influential and internationally renowned Irish trad music group in the world.
Since then, new trends emerged in ‘post-traditional’ styles, which tended to experiment with international influences (rock, jazz and Latin musical styles), as in the music of Irish groups like Planxty and Clannad and musicians in the Irish diaspora like fiddler Eileen Ivers. ‘Post-traditional’ music, and Irish stepdancing, came to the global stage through ascent of the Riverdance phenomenon, which featured dance champions Jean Butler and Michael Flatley accompanied by ‘post-traditional’ mixes first at Eurovision (1994) and subsequently in stage shows worldwide.
‘Post-traditional’ Irish music has also flourished in the context of the ‘World Music’ industry, where the fusion aesthetic of ‘post-traditional’ music has been pushed further by innovative collaborations like Afro-Celt Sound System, who combine not only a vast range of Irish trad styles with worldwide influences on record but actually bring together musicians from a whole host of these music traditions (chiefly, Irish, Scottish, West African and Indian) to play together in live performance over the beat of the sound system.
Traditional music still also lives on as a part of everyday cultural and social life in many villages: even the Gaelic songs and sean-nós style continue to thrive in the Gaeltachts (Gaelic-speaking areas) of Ireland. Traditional, neo-traditional and post-traditional musics coexist in Ireland and across the Irish diaspora, at local social gatherings, at the pub seisiún, at the céilí in the community halls and on records, broadcasts, concerts and competitions. Its journey from rural to urban, domestic to public, local to diasporic and national to global is thus remarkable not only in its transformations but also in the way it has managed to establish active and vigorous traditions and practices at all of these different levels. As a truly glocal music for our times, the key question is: where will it go next?
James Nissen (The University of Manchester), April 2017
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Header Image: Flickr
Map of Ireland: Britannica
Book of Kells: National Museum of Ireland
Victims of the Great Famine arrive in Liverpool: Britannica
Proclamation of the Irish Republic (Easter 1916): Britannica
Carynx instrument: Carynx & Co.
Giants causeway: Ireland.com
Siobhán Ní Laoire at the Sean-nós Cois Life Traditional Singing Festival, 1993: The Journal of Music
‘The Irish Refugee’, or ‘Poor Pat Must Emigrate’ Broadside Ballad (1850): Irish Sheet Music Archives
Irish Jig: Britannica
Uilleann Pipes: Beginner’s Guide to Uilleann Pipes
Michael Coleman: The Coleman Irish Music Centre
Séamus Ennis uilleann pipes: Séamus Ennis Arts Centre
Irish Seisiún: Matt Griffin, IrishGigs
Modern Irish ceílí: The Grand Killarney
Fleadh 2016: Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann INIS 2017
The Chieftains: Alan Sculley, Metroactive
Clannad:Linda Clifford Celtic Resources
Afro-Celt Sound System: James Nissen (2017)
Musicians at a seisiún in Ennis (2016): James Nissen (2016)