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BellaOnline's Irish Culture Editor


Irish Traditional Music

Guest Author - Mary Ellen Sweeney

Irish traditional music is an important part of the history and culture of the country. While many Irish-born people excoriate commercial entities, such as "Riverdance," as not being "authentic," realize that music is not static, and many of the steps and nuances are but new twists on old Irish themes, so who should judge them harshly? For many people, "Riverdance" might be their introduction to Irish art. For the lucky, it is merely the beginning.

Irish "Trad" music is very much appreciated on the international music scene. Some of the finest uilleann pipers I have ever heard have not been Irish at all, but are serious musicians who embrace the difficulty of making delightful music through the sometimes obstinate reeds. The Chieftains, arguably the ambassadors of Irish traditional music for the past 40 years, have shared the stage the native musicians the world over, and in every country, every culture, there was beautiful music made.

Many musical pieces still remain from the Irish musical renaissance in the 9th through the 11th centuries. Singing was probably the first instrument, and the old Gaelic songs are often sung without accompaniment; the voice of the singer alone can inspiring transports in the listener.

The main characteristic of Irish music is its way of speaking of the people. Free speech was not an option after the initial invasions by England. The Irish were forbidden to speak their own language, Gaelic, and so music was used to memorialize the important events and to keep the heritage intact. Music is indeed the subversive's medium. For many, it was---and still is---an opportunity to have their say in a different way.

The traditional Irish music or Irish "folk" music is a term that is used for music that has been composed in various genres all over Ireland. The traditional songs were always written in the Irish language. The melody in traditional Irish music was always considered to be the most important factor and therefore harmonies were simplistic allowing the use of unaccompanied vocals. Solo performances were considered the "traditional" style for many years, but as more and more instruments were added, the "band" became an integral part of the music.

When Céilí dances gained popularity in the 19th century, and were established as a kind of a social gathering, a group of musicians always provided music and song---in the beginning, it was almost as "background" for the more important business of discovering the "craic." (Hearing all the juicy gossip.) Later, the music and dancing took central place and the concept of "concerts" specifically to entertain was born.

After World War II, and with the rise of radio and "pop" music, traditional Irish music lost much of its following, and has now become the domain for the "purist" and is sadly all too often associated with "rebel causes" and anti-English sentiment. As a result, many native-born Irish of all political and religious persuasions are missing out on a wonderful part of their heritage and culture.

Uilleann Pipes: The ancient Irish pipes were given the name of Irish Warpipes or even Great Irish Warpipes. The Uilleann pipes were also known as the union pipes and were developed at the beginning of the 18th century. These are also said to be the most complex form of the bagpipes. The modern version of the Uilleann pipes was said to have been introduced around the 1890s.

Fiddle: The violin, or the fiddle, is one of the most important instruments used in the various compositions of Irish music.

Accordian: The accordian plays an important part in modern Irish music. The popularity of the accordian gained ground, sometime in the 19th century and this was also used commonly for dance in the typical Céilí traditions.

Harp: The harp is the one musical instrument in the Irish music scene that is first recorded as being used as far back as 5000 years ago. Generally, the harp rests between the knees and the right shoulder. Although traditionally, the harp was placed over the left shoulder by some early Irish and Scottish harpists.

Mandolin: This instrument also enjoyed a prominent position in Irish music. It is noticed that most Irish musicians who used the mandolin preferred the flat back instruments, which had an oval sound hole in comparison to the Italian style.

Apart from these, other instruments include the harmonica, guitar, flute, bodhrán, concertina. Today, various other forms of instruments have been incorporated into the more traditional forms. Several groups today have combined Irish music very successfully with modern folk and some pop to introduce a new kind of music or in a way to revive the traditional Irish music for younger generations.

uilleann pipes
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Content copyright © 2014 by Mary Ellen Sweeney. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Mary Ellen Sweeney. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Bee Smith for details.


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