9 Interesting Facts About Traditional Irish Music and Its History

Irish music played on St. Patrick's Day
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Chances are you’ve attended a Riverdance performance of a cousin or a neighbor—or maybe you were the one who was thrown into Riverdance classes as a child.

This classic dance is but one of the products of traditional Irish music that continues to entertain people in modern times. However, most people can’t tell you much about traditional Irish music beyond that.

Traditional Irish music has an interesting history, and its influence is evident in contemporary music. But how exactly has this long-lived style impacted modern music?

Keep reading below for nine facts about traditional Irish music and the history surrounding it!

1. Celtic Origins

The Celts arrived in Europe in the 500s BC and had a profound impact on all facets of Irish culture. This, of course, extended to its music.

One of the major developments that came with the arrival of the Celts was the introduction of the harp. It’s likely that the Celts were inspired by Eastern music, and it’s possible they adopted the harp from Egypt.

2. The Variety of Instruments

Traditional Irish music has an irrefutably classic sound to it. This is in large part due to the fact that it hasn’t deviated from the instruments that first made it so popular.

Traditional Irish music is well-known for its emphasis on harp, bagpipe, flute, and fiddle. The tin whistle is a cheap instrument that is also popular in traditional Irish music. You’ll also find instruments like the concertina and the bodhrán, which is a handheld drum.

3. The Turbulent History of the Harp

Harp is an essential party of traditional Irish music, and it’s Ireland’s national instrument. However, it was almost lost to history in the 1500s and 1600s.

Evidence of harp-playing can be traced back as early as one thousand years ago in Ireland. In ancient Ireland, the harper was considered the most respected and noble type of musician.

In the 1500s and 1600s, however, the harp was viewed as a symbol of resistance to English rule. Queen Elizabeth ordered that all harpists be hung and their harps destroyed. Oliver Cromwell, an English statesman, continued this tradition by ordering the destruction of harps and forbidding harpists from gathering together between 1650 and 1660.

The harp naturally lost relevancy due to its repression by the English rule. Luckily, in the late eighteenth century, there was a revival.

A harp competition was held in Belfast in 1792. Only ten competitors showed up due to the lack of harpists, but it was enough to spur a harp revival movement.

Unfortunately, because much of the harp music was passed down orally, very little of the traditional harp music has been preserved. The Belfast competition proved even more fruitful, as the traditional Gaelic songs for harp were recorded in writing for the first time.

4. Traditional Irish Music Influence

Traditional Irish music continues to live on in its own right, but it has also bled into newer Irish music genres.

Many Irish rock and punk musicians have incorporated folk elements into their contemporary styles. While some may see this as degrading, it’s been an excellent way of introducing younger audiences to traditional music elements and styles.

5. The Immigration of Traditional Music

In the mid-1800s, Ireland was struck by the Great Famine. This period of starvation led to many people dying and with them their music. Many emigrated as a means to escape the persisting hunger in Ireland.

Many arrived in America, and they brought their traditional music along with them. Irish-American fusion became very popular, and everything from upbeat dance songs to Irish lullaby songs was birthed from it.

When recordings of Irish fiddlists in America returned to the motherland, local Irish peoples heard their music accompanied for the first time by the piano at a much faster tempo. This style of piano accompaniment then worked its way into traditional Irish music as well.

6. The Art of Storytelling

Storytelling is a key part of traditional Irish music. In the past, musicians often accompanied noble families when they traveled or provided entertainment in their homes. Like bards, they were responsible for telling epics through their music.

Many traditional musicians, particularly harpists, became traveling musicians after they were dismissed by noble families under the order of the English government. This led to their storytelling reaching even further beyond their native Ireland.

7. The Dance Counterparts

Much traditional Irish music is made for dancing. There are many single and double-jig songs in 12/8 and 6/8 time respectively. You’ll even find some polka and waltz-style songs.

Such fast-paced songs are perfect for dancing, and the Irish have committed to matching their traditional music with some impressive footwork.

One of the dancing styles most popular with traditional Irish music is ceili dancing. Ceili dances are social dances done by anywhere from two to sixteen people. Ceili dancing is a type of folk dancing, and it can be compared to the contemporary square dancing for reference.

8. A Well-Loved Tradition

It’s not uncommon to hear traditional Irish music in Irish pubs and taverns. The traditional music brings with it a sense of unity and culture.

Traditional music is not always well-loved by its peoples, but Irish music is a stark exception. Traditional Irish music festivals are very popular in Ireland, even for the slower ballad-like styles.

9. Different Song Styles

Traditional Irish music is divided between two general categories: slow-paced ballads and upbeat dance songs. The traditional Irish dance music is almost exclusively instrumental.

Lyrical songs span greatly from love to humor to tragedy. Sean Nós songs are famous Irish songs that are sung solo without any instrumental accompaniment. This specific type of traditional song usually tells of misfortune and tribulation to a slow melody.

The Power of Music

Irish music is passionate and colorful, and its traditional stylings are no exception. Traditional Irish music has evolved and survived even through the threat of extinction. It’s unlikely that we’ll see it disappear anytime soon!