History of the Music of Ireland

History of the Music of Ireland

I am teaching an adult continuing education class about the history of music in Ireland. I’ve been able to find a lot of information about Anglo-Irish music from the post-colonial period (1724-1874) for example, but not much of anything prior to the 1726 collection published by the Neals in Dublin.

And there are other gaps. For example, if the Harpers were the sole purveyors of traditional Irish music in the 18th century, at what time did the dance forms that are commonly associated with Irish music (Jigs, Reels, Hornpipes, Polkas) enter into the culture and why? Also, at what point did "Irish" music become popular in the US and to what degree has that influenced "traditional" music in Ireland?

Re: History of the Music of Ireland

Try reading ‘Traditional Music in Ireland’ (Tomás Ó Canainn, 1978); ‘The Making of Irish Traditional Music’ (Helen O’Shea, 2008); ‘Companion to Irish Traditional Music’ (Fintan Vallely, 2011). All have bits in them which should be useful for you. There are other good books on the subject too. I presume that if you’re teaching an adult ed class then you’ll want academic material that is peer reviewed.

Re: History of the Music of Ireland

I recommend you get a copy of The Companion To Irish Traditional Music by Fintan Vallely. It is in an encyclopedia format, so Vallely is more compiler than author. He wrote the first book on playing traditional Irish flute, as well. The original book is the one I have, which I got in mint condition used on Amazon for twelve bucks. The full price is much higher and the new edition is much bigger (860 pages) and is even more costly. You should shop around to see what you can get. It’s probably the most comprehensive book on the subject out there, and because of the format, you can get to the info you want very easily.

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Re: History of the Music of Ireland

@David50 thank you for that link. Studying it, I find what I’ve read in many places before (and hence my initial frustration):

"We know more about the Irish harpers of the eighteenth century than about any earlier players and it is obvious that their instruments, technique and musical style were subject to many non-Irish influences. Their repertoire consisted mainly of tunes of Irish association, simply but movingly played on harps which retained enough of the tonal charm of the older Irish harp to have still a special character and quality. Judging from material published first in the eighteenth century, some of the tunes were probably very ancient, perhaps drawn from the old aristocratic repertory and from venerable though unrecorded popoular usage. A few were of Scottish, English or Italian derivation. But it is probable that the style of some of what we now consider traditional Irish music evolved in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as a hybrid of largely unrecorded indigenous music and imported foreign styles. This phenomenon has been common enough in other art forms throughout Irish history."

Joan Rimmer
The Irish Harp/Cláirseach nahÉireann
Cló Mercier, Corcaigh, 1977
p. 55

The implication being that the "traditional Irish music" of today is merely a mixture of Anglo-European tunes…frustrating, if true.

Re: History of the Music of Ireland

"merely a mixture" ? Is there anywhere where music of the present is not a "hybrid of largely unrecorded indigenous music and imported foreign styles" ?

Re: History of the Music of Ireland

"unrecorded indigenous music" — there you go. Too bad we
can’t somehow dig it up out of the ground; that would be the
real stuff.

Re: History of the Music of Ireland

Too bad they weren’t writing music down instead of learning it all by ear. While not a truly accurate representation of what was being played it’d better than it being lost or having to guess how far back a tune goes.

Re: History of the Music of Ireland

This is a great topic! Thanks to the OP.

There is one well known aspect of Irish music which today is rarely discussed, and here I see it missing.

There used be different modes of performance for creating in the audience desired effects and emotions. Harpers, and presumably Pipers, would work to send the opposition to sleep, or to cry, or to laugh so much that a battle, or whatever caused the performance, would go according to plan.

I notice today is some sessions the need to perform really fast so that the audience stays awake!

I think Joe Cooley made that comment first, to bring people to their senses you first need to wake them up!

Re: History of the Music of Ireland

Thank you @kuec for that link, unfortunately there were no references on it, which makes it difficult to verify. It also jumps around quite a bit from century to century, speaking about "The Bards" and "O’Carolan" in the same sentence when clearly the real bards were murdered during the colonial period (14th and 15th centuries) and O’Carolan didn’t start up until well into the 18th century.

The frustrating thing for me is how little has been written down about the time period between the 14th century and the 17th century Ireland as compared to the bounty of information from England during that same 300 year span, which leads me to believe that there wasn’t much going on in Ireland at all during that time period, musically speaking.

Perhaps we will never know.

Re: History of the Music of Ireland

… ‘or whatever caused the performance, would go according to plan … ’


Repertoire Trends > > http://forums.chiffandfipple.com/viewtopic.php?p=53828#p53828

"Now, I have a tape recorded at the County finals for the Ceiliband competitions in Kilrush 1960, The Kilfenora and The Tulla in one of their play-offs. They were quick enough, fierce quick. But they had a definite lift and by the end of it the man from Corofin had to agree that it’s often the lack of ‘lift’ rather than the speed that is marring the playing of some modern players, it’s more linear music rather than the more ‘curved’ lines of the older style."

"That said, I don’t like high speed myself but my experience is the fastest playing we do is generally for dancers, indeed Jackie Daly was complaining recently the dancers in Knocknagree wanted the music so fast he had to play reels for the polka figures of the set."


"Music collected by Canon James Goodman in the 19th Century in Munster in the 19th Century and played on a new CD by Mick O’Brien, Aoife Ní Bhriain and Emer Mayock. Tunes also from Joseph Browne, Micho and Pakie Russell."
"The Rolling Wave" ~ RTÉ Radio 1 Sunday 10th February 2013 http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A10107951%3A1852%3A10-02-2013%3A



"Rory Dall’s Port" > > http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandssongs/secondary/genericcontent_tcm4556878.asp
"It is hard to be certain who composed some tunes."

"Francis Collinson, in ‘The Traditional and National Music of Scotland’, points to the ‘strong possibility’ that this port and other tunes ascribed to Scot Rory Dall ‘all emanate from the same hand, that of the Irish (harpist) *Rory Dall O’Cathain’ "



*Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin (c. 1570 - 1650)}

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Re: History of the Music of Ireland

@na eisc that’s a great link! Thank you for posting it. I wonder why Paddy Keenan, Donal Lunny and all the great musicians that came out of the Irish music revival in the 1960s and 1970s chose to play anglo music instead of doing the research and tracking down old Irish music? There are too few O’Carolan tunes in any of those old albums from the 1970s, and very little if nothing out of the Neal’s book from 1724 http://www.earlygaelicharp.info/sources/neal.htm

Re: History of the Music of Ireland

I wonder why they chose to play anglo music instead of Country & Western or Rock & Roll

Re: History of the Music of Ireland

Jigs, reels and hornpipes, as we know them entered the Irish repertoire probably in the late 1600’s because of the craze for country dancing which had spread from England. The dances were nearly all 16 or 32 bars, that is why nearly all dance tunes are this length. If musicians wanted employment by the more well off, they would have had to play them. This is reinforced by the fact that Irish jigs and Scotch reels begin to appear in English country dance masters also at this time. The polka dance spread to the west from Eastern Europe in the 1840’s, so musicians started playing them everywhere.