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[Irish flag]Irish Music Page

Welcome to my Irish music page! This page contains information about the music of Ireland - types of tunes, unique instruments, notable musicians and groups, and more.


General Information

The Irish musical tradition is a very strong and diverse one which has a lot to offer. When some people think of Irish music, they probably think of drinking songs or lively sessions full of fast-paced tunes. Yes, those things are part of Irish music, but that's not the whole picture. Irish music has a long and rich history, and I think the history that goes with the music is part of what makes it so interesting. Sure, I enjoy all the "high-octane" session music, and I think it's an important part of the tradition. But, when you add all the other types of music and the history that goes along with it, you get a unique and exciting tradition. I can't tell you all there is to know about Irish music here, but that won't stop me from trying!

Turlough O'Carolan

Turlough O'Carolan (or, if you prefer the Gaelic name, Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin) was a wandering harper who lived from 1670 to 1738. His contribution to Irish music is almost immeasurable. He composed hundreds of tunes in his lifetime - tunes which combined various elements of folk and classical music in ways which, in my opinion, have yet to be matched or surpassed. The late Derek Bell, a classically trained harper who played with the Chieftains, once described the music as "hideously difficult…more so than classical music because of what I can only call Carolan's staggering originality." It is believed that over 200 of his tunes have survived, which is notable because none of his tunes were written down in his lifetime. Believe it or not, he never even received a formal music education - he learned how to play the harp at age 18 after he had been blinded by smallpox.

Here are some sites which give some good information about him and his music:

And last (but not least), you can also check out my Turlough O'Carolan page.


Musicians & Groups

Altan
Altan is a well-known and very talented group which hails from Donegal. Founded by the husband-and-wife team of Frankie Kennedy and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh in 1986, Altan is certainly one of the most successful Irish groups of the past couple of decades. The most interesting thing about Altan's success is the fact that they've done it without compromising the tradition behind the music they play - if it's traditional music you want, Altan is the "real deal." Despite the fact that Frankie Kennedy passed away in 1994 after a long battle with throat cancer, Altan has kept the music coming - and hopefully will continue to do so for a long, long time.
  • Group members:
  • Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh - fiddle, vocals
  • Frankie Kennedy (1986-1994) - flute, tin whistle
  • Ciarán Curran - bouzouki
  • Dáithí Sproule - guitar
  • Ciarán Tourish - fiddle
  • Dermot Byrne - accordion
  • Jimmy Higgins (1996-) - bodhrán
Bothy Band
A relatively short-lived but immensely popular group from the 1970's. If I had only one vote to cast for the best Irish group of all time, I'd have to give it to the "Bothies." Some of the finest musicians in the history of Irish music were members of the band, and many of them have enjoyed continued success in the years that have passed since the band's early demise. (Look for their names elsewhere on this page and you'll see what I mean.)
  • Group members:
  • Mícheál Ó Domhnaill - guitar
  • Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill - vocals, keyboards
  • Tommy Peoples (1975) - fiddle
  • Kevin Burke (1976 and afterwards) - fiddle
  • Dónal Lunny - bouzouki
  • Paddy Keenan - uilleann pipes
  • Matt Molloy - flute
Kevin Burke
As you've probably already read, Kevin is a former member of the Bothy Band. He is also a member of Open House, Patrick Street and the "Celtic Fiddle Festival" and has even recorded a couple of solo albums. He plays a wide variety of tunes, including Scottish strathspeys, Irish reels, Finnish polkas and French bourrées, but his style is definitely and unmistakably Irish.
The Chieftains
One of the most enduring, and in my opinion, one of the most versatile, groups in Irish music.The Chieftains have been at it for about 40 years now, and they're still going.Their musical journey has taken them in many different directions in their time.In addition to their repertoire of traditional Irish music, they have released an album featuring tunes from Brittany and one featuring music from Galicia.They have also traveled all across other parts of the world and have learned a thing or two from those trips - one of their CD's even has a Chinese folk tune on it! But, there's no doubt that the Chieftains are Irish and proud of it.
  • Group members:
  • Paddy Moloney - uilleann pipes, tin whistle
  • Matt Molloy - flute
  • Seán Keane - fiddle
  • Martin Fay - fiddle
  • Kevin Conneff - bodhrán, vocals

Past members of The Chieftains include Seán Potts, Michael Tubridy, and Peadar Mercier. Also, Derek Bell, who was a longtime Chieftain and was my favorite member of the group, passed away unexpectedly in October 2002. He played a variety of instruments and was mostly known for playing the harp, but I always enjoyed the way he'd get on the piano every now and then and play some ragtime. I think he was probably the most versatile one in the group, and I know he's been missed.
Dervish
They've been around for a few years now, and in that time they've attracted a lot of attention around the world...and rightfully so. Cathy Jordan's singing in both Gaelic and English is wonderful, and the instrumental power this group has to go along with that doesn't hurt, either.
  • Group members:
  • Liam Kelly - flute
  • Tom Morrow - fiddle, viola
  • Cathy Jordan - vocals, bodhrán
  • Shane Mitchell - accordion
  • Michael Holmes - bouzouki
  • Séamus O'Dowd - guitar
  • Brian McDonagh - mandola
Martin Hayes
It's difficult for me to pick favorites among the many talented fiddlers in Celtic music today, but Martin Hayes certainly deserves consideration as one of the best. His style of playing is so expressive that it defies description - you just have to hear it to understand. The most talented groups and musicians in Celtic music often make crowds cheer loudly when they play - Martin Hayes has a style so unique that it commands total silence. Every time I listen to his music, I can picture an audience staring in amazement as they listen to him play. Martin himself says that his style is grounded in the tradition of the old players whose music "made the hair stand up on the back of your neck or made you want to laugh and cry all at the same time." Something else that makes his music stand out is the fact that he chooses to stick to the "regional" style of playing, mostly playing tunes from his native County Clare. To me, it seems that more and more Celtic musicians are choosing their music from a variety of backgrounds while not going very deep into any of them.But Martin's playing is different - it really is deep in more ways than one.
Eileen Ivers
Another one of the best fiddlers in the world today, as far as I'm concerned. Whenever she plays a tune, it's safe to say that you'll never think of it the same way once she's done with it. I don't know anyone that can match the intensity with which she plays at times - I am often surprised that the strings on her fiddle don't melt!!
Lúnasa
This group started out back in 1996, but I only became familiar with them in the last couple of years. Their music is very energetic and they're not afraid to mix and match their tunes in unusual ways. Just look at the first two tracks on their first CD...the first one features a Breton gavotte sandwiched between two Irish tunes, and the second has a Breton air followed by "Brenda Stubbert's" (a reel by Jerry Holland) and Grey Larsen's "Thunderhead" (a very odd tune in 7/8). There's also another Breton tune on the CD along with tracks that mix jigs and reels, and even a little klezmer thrown in for good measure. Sounds crazy, I know, but they make it work.
  • Group members:
  • Donogh Hennessy - guitar
  • Trevor Hutchinson - double bass
  • Seán Smyth - fiddle, Swayne whistle
  • Mike McGoldrick - flute, low whistle
  • John McSherry - uilleann pipes, low whistle
Micheál Ó Domhnaill
Micheál was one of my favorite musicians. Sadly, he passed away back in July 2006. His accompaniment on guitar was always great, no matter who he was playing with or what type of music he was playing along with. He always seemed to set the tone for the tune that was being played. He was a former member of Relativity and the Bothy Band, and was more recently involved with Nightnoise.
Solas
I've only recently gotten into their music, and I now wish I had started listening to them sooner! They play a mix of traditional and original music, and they're a lot of fun to listen to. Their original lineup featured Karan Casey as vocalist and John Williams on accordion.
  • Group members:
  • Deirdre Scanlan - vocals
  • Donal Clancy - guitar, bouzouki, backing vocals
  • Winifred Horan - fiddle, backing vocals
  • Mick McAuley - accordion, backing vocals
  • Séamus Egan - flute, whistle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, bodhrán, percussion

Unique Instruments

Uilleann pipes
The uilleann ("ILL-in") pipes are very complex, but are very versatile and interesting as well.The uilleann pipes are played using a bellows which is placed under the elbow, in the same way that Scottish or Northumbrian smallpipes are played.Probably the most unique feature of the uilleann pipes is the use of "regulators" which allow for playing chords, a feature which can produce quite an interesting effect.
YouTube link - Seamus Ennis
Tin whistle/pennywhistle
The tin whistle or pennywhistle is an instrument which I've heard described as an "endblown flute." Tin whistles vary in length (and diameter) according to their pitch - for example, I have a D whistle which is 11 1/2 inches long and 1/2 inch in diameter, and a B flat whistle (lower pitch than the D whistle) which is 14 3/4 inches long and 5/8 inch in diameter.There is also a type of tin whistle known as a "low whistle" which is pitched an octave lower than the "standard" tin whistle.Low whistles have gained a good bit of attention and popularity, particularly because of the playing of Davy Spillane.
YouTube link - Jigs
Bodhrán
The bodhrán (sounds like "BOW-rawn") is a popular percussion instrument in Ireland.It consists of a round wooden frame with goat skin stretched over it, and is played with a two-headed stick known as a "beater."
YouTube link - John Joe Kelly of Flook

Types of Tunes

Note: Sheet music and MIDI files are available for each tune. Just click the "Sheet music" link to view the sheet music, or click the "MIDI file" link to listen to the MIDI file. You can also save the sheet music or MIDI file by right-clicking the link and selecting "Save As", "Save Link As", or "Save Target As" (depending on which browser you're using) on the menu that appears.

Reel [ Sheet music | MIDI file ]
The reel is the most common tune in Irish music. Reels are lively, fast tunes, and are in 4/4 or 2/4 time. The sample tune I've chosen ("The Boys of Malin") is a very common session tune which illustrates the repetition and variation that is one of the hallmarks of Irish music.
Hornpipe [ Sheet music | MIDI file ]
Hornpipes are similar to reels, but have a more relaxed and "bouncy" rhythm. Irish hornpipes also tend to make use of triplets, which seem to add to the "bounciness." The tune I've picked out ("Harvest Home") is a perfect example of the "bouncy" rhythm and the use of triplets.
Double jig [ Sheet music | MIDI file ]
Strictly speaking, there are three types of jigs in Irish music. The double jig is the most common type of jig, and is usually just called a "jig." They are in 6/8 and normally have several quarter notes and dotted quarter notes to break up the sequences of eighth notes that tend to make up the majority of the tunes. The sample tune ("Morrison's") illustrates this rather well, in my opinion.
Slip jig [ Sheet music | MIDI file ]
The slip jig is a rather unusual type of jig. Slip jigs are in 9/8, which can be a rather difficult meter to get used to. I read somewhere (I wish I could remember where!) that it helps to think of a slip jig as a double jig combined with a waltz. The tune I chose here ("The Butterfly") is a classic example of a slip jig, not to mention that it's one of my all-time favorites.
Slide or single jig [ Sheet music | MIDI file ]
The slide or single jig is yet another type of jig. Most of the slides I've encountered are notated in 12/8, but some are also in 6/8. Slides are very fast-paced tunes which tend to use more quarter notes than other jigs. The tune I've selected ("Merrily Kiss the Quaker") is a well-known slide, which I first heard on a live recording by The Chieftains.
Highland [ Sheet music | MIDI file ]
Highlands are somewhat difficult to categorize.They seem to be unique to Donegal, Fermanagh and the other regions in the far northern part of Ireland. Like reels, they are almost always in common or cut time.They also seem to combine some elements of the hornpipe with other elements of the strathspey. In fact, the tune I've used here was played on one of Altan's CD's, where it was listed as a strathspey.
March [ Sheet music | MIDI file ]
Irish marches can be a bit difficult to categorize, but most of the ones I've encountered are either in 2/4, 4/4 or 6/8. Beyond that, I don't really know that there is a "standard" for Irish marches. In any case, the tune I picked is one of my personal favorites, and I think it's a good example of what Irish marches are like.
Polka [ Sheet music | MIDI file ]
No, there's no need for you to get new glasses or adjust your monitor settings - you did see the word "polka" mentioned here. Polkas are fast-paced tunes, almost always in 2/4, which have a very tight rhythm that seems like the rhythm of a galloping horse. Polkas are most commonly played in Cork and Kerry, but I'm sure they're played in other areas too. The sample tune ("Britches Full of Stitches") is one of my favorites.
Waltz [ Sheet music | MIDI file ]
I'm sure most of you are quite familiar with waltzes already, but I'll give you a little info on them anyway. Waltzes are tunes in 3/4 time with a "long" (or stressed) beat followed by two "short" (or unstressed) beats. This rhythm is so common that tunes in 3/4 are also known to be "in waltz time." The sample tune I've chosen is "Mrs. Kinney's," a great tune which can be heard on "Encore" by the Celtic Fiddle Festival.
Mazurka [ Sheet music | MIDI file ]
Like waltzes, mazurkas are in 3/4. However, instead of having the long beat followed by two short ones, mazurkas consist of a long beat between the two short ones. I believe I remember reading that mazurkas aren't originally Irish, but that they "migrated" from Poland and became part of the Irish musical tradition. I've chosen "Sonny Brogan's" as the sample tune this time - The Chieftains played it on one of their CD's, and I believe Altan did as well.