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A Guide to irish music

What is traditional Irish music?

Traditional Irish music comprises two broad categories; instrumental music, which is mostly dance music (reels, jigs, hornpipes, polkas), and the song tradition, which is often unaccompanied solo singing.

There are many differences within Irish traditional music: the music of West Cork for example is different from the music of Donegal. You can see them as dialects of a language: a musician from Donegal will find it difficult to play with a musician from West Cork; he might find it equally difficult to understand his accent.

Tradition implies continuity, the creation of new music within an established framework. That framework is a musical language. In order to speak the language, you must know its grammar, its syntax, its way of saying things. The language of traditional Irish music is learned like other languages, by listening, by imitation, by engaging. 

In 1183 Giraldus de Barri, a Norman priest, visited Ireland; though he considered the natives 'barbarians' he was impressed with the musical ability.

I find commendable diligence on musical instruments, on which they are incomparably more skilled than any nation I have seen. Their style is not, as on the British instruments to which we are accustomed, deliberate and solemn, but quick and lively; nevertheless the sound is smooth and pleasant. It is remarkable that, with such rapid fingerwork, the musical rhythm is maintained and that, by unfailingly disciplined art, the integrity of the tune is preserved through ornate rhythms and the profusely intricate polyphony.

The most common Instruments

The Uilleann Pipes

The Uilleann Pipes are an Irish development of an instrument which is found in many versions throughout the world. the word 'uilleann' is the Irish word for elbow. Their distinguishing characteristics are: a bag filled by a bellows, not a blow pipe; a chanter or melody pipe which gives a two-octave range; and the addition of regulators which can be used for accompanying the melody. The present full set of pipes comprises bag, bellows, chanter, drones, and regulators. Tradition has it that it takes 7 years practice and 7 years playing to make a piper. Feargal, Eoin and Maitiu play Uillean Pipes at The Irish House Party.

The Fiddle

The fiddle is a violin. The difference between a fiddle and a violin is a difference of attitude and technique. Unquestionably, the greatest influence on fiddle playing in this century has been the 78 rpm recordings of Michael Coleman, made in the USA in the twenties and thirties. Traditional fiddle players generally use steel strings. regional fiddle styles can be distinguished, ranging from the short staccato bowing of Donegal to the longer, more relaxed bowing of Kerry. Cormac, Carolina, and Roisin play fiddle at The Irish House Party.

The Flute

The most common flute used in traditional Irish music is made from wood with 6 open holes. Because it is made from wood it requires alot of care. Many traditional Irish musicians swab the bore with a little almond oil to lubricate the wood. The wooden flute was the precursor of the modern metal orchestral flute, developed by the German Theobald Boehm in the 1840's. Oisin, Declan and Joey play traditional flute at The Irish House Party. 

The Tin Whistle

The Tin Whistle is probably the most popular instrument used in our music today. It is inexpensive, easy to carry around and can accomodate many traditional techniques. It is the perfect instrument for the beginner or anyone interested in traditional Irish music. The most popular tin whistles are made form brass or nickle. The nickle sound is more shrill while the brass whistle is softer with a more mellow tone. If you are interested in buying a tin whistle we have an excellent model in our online shop. Just click on the link to have a look. It also comes with a very good instruction book which is handy! Declan plays the whistles at The Irish House Party.

The Button Accordion

The button accordion is a 'single' action instrument which means that two different notes can be sounded on one button by pressing or drawing the bellows. Much of the popularity of the instrument in recent years can be traced to the playing of Paddy O'Brien, who recorded material in the fifties, and more especially Joe Burke, who is still playing today. Gerry and Luke play button accordion at The Irish House Party.

The Concertina

Concertina-playing is especially associated with Co. Clare.  The advantages of the concertina are that bellows work requires little effort and that fingering can be achieved without shifting the basic position of the hands. The pleasant tone of the instrument blends well with others, particularly the fiddle. Meadhbh plays the concertina at The Irish House Party.

The Harp

The Irish Harp of course is our national emblem. The original Irish harp is smaller than the concert harp. It sits on your lap and has steel strings. You can see an original Irish harp in the Library of Trinity College.

The Bodhran

The Bodhran is a one sided drum made from goatskin. It is played with a small stick called a 'cipin' but can also be played by hand. There are many theories about the origins of the bodhran. The most likely explanation suggests that the instrument developed from a farm implement, based on its close resemblance to the skin tray used for centuries on farms in Celtic countries for separating grain from chaff. Today a good bodhran can give a really good 'lift' to a session. The combination of flute and bodhran is a well liked one and many flute players like a good bodhran accompaniment. Since the bodhran is open-ended, various changes in sound and pitch can be achieved by manipulating the hand or arm on the inside of the skin.  We have a bodhran and cipin on sale in our online Irish music shop .Gerry and Garry play bodhran at The Irish House Party.


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