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Irish Traditional Music

Traditional Irish music is understood to include instrumental and vocal music, the latter embracing traditional singing in the English language and amhránaíocht ar an sean-nós.

The combination of tunes and tune type generally referred to as traditional Irish music for instrumental performance/practice ( and as practiced by lilters and whistlers) involves the following: airs, slow airs, harp music, and all tunes and melodies that have a metre and a regular pulse – including clan marches, reels, double/slip/single jigs, hornpipes, set and barn dances, flings, polkas and other tune types such as slides, schottishes and mazurkas. These tunes do not have lyrics, but they have a functionality, being intrinsically linked with the various types/forms of Irish traditional dance.

Traditional singing in English, and amhránaíocht ar an sean-nós, had their origins in solo unaccompanied singing: the singer sang a story, communicating with the listeners through their unique interpretation of both the melody and the lyrics. Interpretation in traditional singing is achieved through feeling and expression in the execution of the melodic line, including the use of ornamentation by choice, and through the effective enunciation and delivery of the lyrics. The singer and his/her audience set great store on feeling and expression, demonstrated by the skilful use of ornamentation.

Background information

Oral transmission is a defining characteristic of traditional Irish music. The repertoire of songs and tunes has been added to over time, as have the spaces in which the music is performed. While the parameters of traditional Irish music have generally been delineated academically and theoretically, it is understood to be truly defined by its practice.

Traditional Irish music today is practiced throughout the island of Ireland, the diaspora and overseas by those with no Irish heritage but who have an affinity with this music. This wide reach contrasts with the localised/regional or family-based pockets of practice up to the mid-twentieth century. It was primarily practiced in certain rural regions which are often defined by their style and repertoire today (e.g. South Sligo, Sliabh Luachra, Donegal, East Galway/East Clare, West Clare, Oriel etc.).

Regional styles is usually understood to mean ‘an identifiable common ‘sound and feel’ underpinned by specific technical execution and also the playing of certain types of tune categories and within these tune categories the playing of certain actual tunes/ selections in a certain way. Dr Niall Keegan establishes that a specific indigenous repertoire is one of the most intrinsic parameters of regional style. The influence of key local musicians – and their recordings either radio broadcast or 78s/LPs plays an important role in influencing regional style and repertoire but in addition to shared ‘melodies’ are shared ‘playing techniques – e.g. bowing patterns in fiddle playing, the pace at which tunes are played and the internal phrasing of the tunes. For example East Galway is associated with a more lyrical, slower paced reel playing than the brisk South Sligo style.

(English translation follows)

Tá amhránaíocht ar an sean-nós chomh hársa le hÉire féin; seachadta chugainn ó bhéil ár sinsear a bhí ina gcónaí sna pobail Ghaeltachta in nGaillimh, i Maigh Eo, i nDún na nGall, sa Mhí, i gCorcaigh, i gCiarraí agus i Port Láirge. Tagraíonn an téarma ‘sean-nós’ do shean-stíl amhránaíochta agus déanann sé idirdhealú idir an stíl seo amhránaíochta i nGaeilge agus an stíl chlasaiceach a chleacht na baird. Luann Fintan Vallely (The Companion to Irish Traditional Music: 338) bunú an Oireachtais in 1897 le hathrú meoin i measc lucht an Bhéarla in Éirinn i dtreo na hamhránaíochta ar an sean-nós. Tá iliomad cáipéisíochta ag cur síos ar thuairimíocht acadúil agus ar dhioscúrsa poiblí faoi bhunbhrí, nádúr agus sainghnéithe na hamhránaíochta ar an sean-nós ón am ar reáchtáil An tOireachtas an chéad chomhdháil riamh ar an ábhar, in 1910. Go bunúsach, is amhránaíocht aonair gan tionlacan atá i gceist leis an fhoirm agus bíonn saoirse ar leith ag an amhránaí i dtaca le rithim, ornáidíocht shéiseach agus tondath a chuireann ar a c(h)umas a c(h)uid féin a dhéanamh den amhrán, beag beann ar a raon ná ar ábaltacht a g(h)utha. Is gnách stíl ar leith a bheith á cleachtadh sna ceantair Ghaeltachta éagsúla agus béim an-difriúil a bheith acu ar ornáidíocht agus ar ilchastacht na hurlabhartha. Is minic freisin repertoire dá gcuid féin ag réigiúin ar leith cé go mbíonn leaganacha éagsúla de chuid de na ‘amhráin mhóra’ i ngach aon cheantair. Ba slí an-éifeachtach é an modh amhránaíochta seo, agus go deimhin is ea fós, le taifead a choinneáil faoin bpobal, faoi na daoine a chónaí ann, faoi mhianta a gcroíthe, faoina gcuid éachtaí agus a gcuid tubaistí. San am i láthair tá an tOireachtas ag saothrú chun ealaín na hamhránaíochta ar an sean-nós a choimeád, a chothú, a fhorbairt agus a sheachadadh, ag reáchtáil ceardlanna, comórtais agus féilte dúinn, trí leas iomlán a bhaint as na meáin chumarsáide éagsúla, raidió, teilifís agus idirlíon go háirithe, chun ardán os comhair an domhain mhóir a thabhairt don ealaín uasal, ársa seo.

Amhránaíocht ar an sean-nós is intrinsically linked to the Gaeltacht areas of Ireland and to the Gaeltacht diaspora. The form is as old as the country itself, surviving by oral transmission in the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) communities of Galway, Mayo, Donegal, Meath, Cork, Kerry and Waterford. Literally translated, the term ‘sean-nós’ means the ‘old way’ or ‘old style’ and distinguishes traditional singing in the Irish language from the classical style of the bardic tradition. Fintan Vallely (The Companion to Irish Traditional Music: 338) credits the establishment of An tOireachtas in 1897 with fostering appreciation within ‘English-speaking Ireland’ of the ‘sean-nós’ song. Academic opinion and public discourse about the essence, the nature and the unique characteristics of the sean-nós singing have been documented since the very first conference on ‘sean-nós’ was held at the 1910 Oireachtas. It is essentially a form of unaccompanied solo singing which lends itself to a sense of freedom which is expressed through the rhythm, melodic decoration and vocal timbre and draws from the singer’s natural singing range and vocal abilities. Each Gaeltacht tends to have its own regional style which may range from the highly elaborate and ornate to a more simple and subtle form. Specific geographic areas are known to have their own repertoire although a number of ‘amhráin mhóra’ (great songs) appear in all regions, although often as different versions. It was and remains a trusted method of maintaining a social commentary on the lives, loves, successes and tragedies within the community. In today’s modern world An tOireachtas undertakes to maintain, foster, develop and transmit the art of sean-nós singing through workshops, gatherings and competitions, making full use of all forms of media, radio, television and internet, thereby continuing to give expression to the many varied styles of this most ancient but vibrant of artforms.

The style and technique of traditional Irish singing in English differs from individual to individual, from area to area, and from province to province. In generally, Western styles are most elaborately embellished; Southern styles are well-ornamented but with an inclination to use variations of rhythm and phrasing for the effective telling of the story; and Northern singers usually have a distinctive Northern repertoire, singing with a well-accented style displaying tasteful nuances of rhythm and an occasional grace note; Eastern styles are generally direct and forthright with a minimum of decoration.

Irish traditional music has of course long been practiced in Irish communities abroad e.g. throughout Britain, North America and Australia and, more recently, certain locations in Europe. The role of the emigrant musicians of the early 1900s and subsequent decades has been well cited. Where there is a strong local Irish presence there is often a specific focus on the provision of music classes. The practice of Irish traditional music has now extended further overseas to places such as Tokyo, Moscow, Argentina, Columbia, where non-Irish practitioners connect to Ireland through its music and culture.

Irish traditional music is both an oral tradition and an art form, including amhránaíocht ar an sean-nós, traditional Irish singing in the English language, and upwards of 10,000 melodies from a variety of tune classifications played by instrumentalists.

It is an oral and aural tradition because it is passed on from generation to generation primarily through musicians – instrumentalists and vocalists – listening to each other in the wide variety of settings now available. Despite the proliferation of media of transmission (especially in the digital age), it remains a skill acquired by ear and a practice rooted in community.

It is an art form because performance is at its heart. It is something that is actually done and performed by people – an activity rather than just a piece of static art. The organic nature of how Irish traditional music is played/sung is key to its intangible value. The fluidity of interpretation place to place, region to region, and individual to individual practitioner, is its central feature.

It is perhaps not without good reason that within the community of Irish traditional musicians and enthusiasts the word ‘player’ or ‘singer’ is embedded in the vocabulary – ‘he/she is/was a great player/singer’ is a phrase often heard. Interestingly ‘players’ and ‘singers’ that are regarded highly within the tradition are not just ‘assessed’ by their peers on the basis of their technical skill, a unique style, their ability to connect with their audience on an emotional and aesthetic level, the extent of their repertoire is also one of the aspects to a musician that is admired.

This music is intrinsically rooted in Ireland’s past, its political and social changes, its multiple senses of place, and the evolution of identities.

Traditional Irish music, being rooted in people and practice, is constantly evolving in today’s global space.

The traditional Irish song, whether in the Irish or English language, provides the listener/audience with an accessible narrative. In contrast, the listener to instrumental traditional Irish music does not benefit from such a narrative which places a song in its appropriate context.

Due to a lack of direct evidence, very little is known about the origins of traditional Irish music other than it first began to appear in English collections in the seventeenth century, appearing in Irish publications somewhat later. The ownership repertoire of traditional music was initially considered to be the province of the community, so much so that the individual composers of the music were often overlooked, leading O’Neill to state that ‘Irish traditional music can hardly be said to have been composed at all’. The anonymity of composers meant that this music, once accepted, became the property of the community of practice, to be engaged with, interpreted and recreated by each subsequent generation of musicians.

While it is known that individuals were engaged in the practice of composition, it was not until 1950 that prolific composers, aided by advancements in dissemination, began to be recognised and appreciated for their contributions to the Irish traditional music repertoire. These composer-performers wrote music that is entirely concurrent with the music found in the earlier tradition whilst expanding upon the parameters inherent within the structures of this music. Through their practice, insight can be gained into the process of recreating this repertoire, and its representative, community-based nature, manifested not only through tune nomenclature (which often bear the place names) or expositors of this community of practice, but also at a semiotic level through which the people, places and events important to these practitioners are immortalised and handed down to each successive generation. This is expressed succinctly by Fr. Kelly when he states:

‘I think those people steeped in the lore, and the tradition, and the background of Irish traditional music and heritage, and I think it’s not only a heritage wherein they use the compositions of other people, I think they compose their own. It was to try to encourage that, so that maybe people of my generation might have something to hand on to the next generation, and it’s a love of Irish music with which we have all been regaled, with which we had all been revived, you might say at times.’

The traditional repertoire is understood to be mutable, subject to revision and interpretation in performance within a strict set of parameters that are intrinsically defined, yet not considered to be restrictive by practitioners. The music is passed on with an implicit guarantee that it will be subject to modification by each successive generation. The mutability of the repertoire seemingly stands in direct contradiction to the immutability of its practitioners. The subtleties of melodic nuance therefore cannot be adequately represented in any literate form, though skeletal outlining ‘models’ of these melodies have been collected and published by luminaries such as Petrie, Goodman, O’Neill, Roche, Breathnach, Fleischmann and others in an effort to preserve the tradition. It is this element that has begun to evolve following the introduction of literacy, and recordings, to an oral tradition in which individual versions of a tune are preserved and imitated, limiting the individual’s involvement with the improvisatory elements inherent in its reproduction.

The performance of this repertoire has evolved also as the result of changing performance practices from the rural-based communities throughout Ireland where it was primarily a solo art form, to diasporic communities of practice based largely in cities the United States and Great Britain in the mid-twentieth century. The emergence of ensemble performance, beginning in the late 1920s through the céilí band, and the establishment of Comhaltas Ceoltoirí Éireann in 1951 and the Oireachtas Competitions of the 1960s brought a renewal of interest in this discipline both in Ireland and abroad, shepherding the repertoire for present generations.

Practice and practitioners

The vast majority of Irish traditional musicians are non-professional. Key practitioners can occupy different spaces and adopt different roles – commercial performing artist, informal session musician, tutor/mentor, recording artists etc. Emergent musician and young musicians – those aged 18 and under – are also regarded having a key role as present practitioners of an oral art form. The broad categories of practitioner are as follows:

  • Commercial artists, instrumental artists and vocalists
  • Tutors and teachers
  • Adults and child learners
  • Participants in informal sessions and singers ‘groups’
  • Audiences are vital participants
  • Céilí-goers and dancers
  • Enthusiasts of the tradition

Performance, practice and transmission are inseparable entities within the context of Irish traditional music. Creativity is also essential to these processes; musicians interpret melodies in their own individual way and their performance of any tune is a form of self-expression; musicians also create/compose new melodies/tunes which become absorbed into the idiom through being performed.

This evolution of tunes, songs and repertoires, and their different individual and regional interpretation by practitioners, creates excitement through delivery and fosters the evolution of the music both melodically and rhythmically. No live performance is every exactly replicated, even within the commercial sector where the ambiance, energy and momentum of performance, and the audience response, are all in a moment of time.

Development, transmission and safeguarding

Vital to the transmission and safeguarding of the music are the various forms of its practice. The ‘session’ is regarded as being at the heart of the practice, its unique feature among musical performance being the inclusion of musicians of all levels – from amateur to professional – as well as its truly intergenerational and inter-regional character. Sessions also feed off their audience. Audience response and participation energises the session, resulting in a holistic convergence of skill, expression, emotion and aesthetic value, encapsulated by Hayes (2017): ‘I always try to play as if I’m freely dancing and singing at the same time; the body holds the rhythm and the heart generates the feeling in response to the beauty of the melodic line.’

Master musicians inspire other musicians; teachers who tutor and mentor in a variety of settings ensure intergenerational transmission. Organisations create and support the appropriate settings for this transmission, while the informal community-based music education sector and community-based events invariably focus on the practice of the music.

The wealth of repertoire available in antiquarian collections from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is, as digitisation advances, increasingly emerging as a source for practitioners. Whereas, overall, the multitude of digital resources has greatly enhanced the opportunities for musicians to ‘learn from a distance’, musicians based overseas invariably want experience real-life performances, to learn through playing with more experienced musicians, understanding the importance of ‘practitioner based transmission’.

The vibrancy of Irish traditional music today derives not only from the session but also from the number of opportunities presented for its playing: this includes stage performances, recitals, fleadhanna ceoil, feiseanna, festivals, workshops, céilithe and the number of public events at which it is performed, including the various summer schools which have developed over five decades as primary facilitators of transmission, including:

  • Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, Miltown Malbay
  • An Chúirt Chruitireachta, Termonfeckin
  • Blas, University of Limerick
  • Ceardlann an Earraigh
  • Joe Mooney Summer School, Drumshanbo
  • Meitheal, Ennis
  • O’Carolan Summer School, Keadue
  • Scoil Acla
  • Scoil Éigse, preceding Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann
  • Scoil Gheimhridh Frankie Kennedy, Ghaoth Dobhair
  • Scoil Samhraidh, Séamus Mac Gabhann, Kilmovee
  • South Sligo Summer School, Tobercurry

Summer/seasonal schools usually have a regional emphasis. As the longest running summer school, the Willie Clancy Summer School has provided a model for Summer/seasonal schools that are hosted annually in the same location. (CCÉ’s Scoil Éigse, of equal longevity, precedes Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann and thus changes venue according to the Fleadh location). It has embraced the variety and scope of the tradition. Whereas its origins were in the West Clare Musical heritage this community based Summer School always embraced the wider scope of the music and the variety of regional styles and legacies. Its programme has been inclusive of traditional singing in both languages, dancing and An Ghaeilge. Its lectures have been of seminal interest and significance to the discourse on Irish Traditional Music; The Willie Clancy Week tutors and performers includes practitioners that are professional and non-professional providing a unique context for musicians to meet/play together in informal sessions, each in their own equally shared space; such practitioners are re-energised and enthused as they return to their own locations.

Professor Marie McCarthy, of Maryland University in the United States, has summed up the achievements of Comhaltas in the transmission of Irish traditional arts as follows: ‘The single most important agent and patron in the transmission of Irish traditional music has been Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. Young performers are not only taught in regular classes but are also exposed to the experience and expertise of the masters, through sessions, workshops, concert tours, television programmes and festivals. A rich learning context is provided, primarily by the organisation being rooted in the community and working consistently at local level.’ (The Transmission of Music in Irish Culture, 1999).

It is generally understood that Irish traditional music is in a healthy place: ‘The current state [of Irish traditional music] is truly remarkable, quite staggering. I don’t think that the music has ever been stronger.’ This is because of the number and standard of young musicians. However, it is critical that the structures that have supported this vibrancy continue to underpin the tradition to ensure that this vibrancy is safeguarded into the future. The challenge may be to ensure that the music does not become ‘clinical’ and that creativity is ensured by the continuation of the structures that provide space for education, practice/performance which are essential to its continued existence.

The combined efforts of all interest groups (see Sec. 6) provide a framework (at local, regional and national/international level) to support the various educational activities and events that safeguard the development and transmission of the tradition.

Contact organisation

Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann

Related and supporting organisations

An tOireachtas

Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy


For more information on the individual videos, please click on the following link CCÉ – Youtube

Location Throughout the island of Ireland, the diaspora and overseas
Categories Social practices, rituals and festive events
Keywords Music, singing, performance
Contact organisation Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann