The Irish Folk Music Tradition

16 Sep

Kept alive by a combination of historical, political and cultural forces, Irish traditional music remains one of the richest musical cultures in the Western world. In Ireland itself, the growing interest in traditional music is further evidence of a national maturity that allows Irish people to be more relaxed about aspects of their traditional culture. Consequently, traditional music is neither seen as backward, rural and something shameful, nor is it a stick of cultural purity for fending off the 21st century. Long after much traditional music in the industrialised West has ceased to exist in any meaningful way, Irish music continues to refashion itself, not as introverted, stagnant and nationalistic, but as an evolving and progressive part of a common, universal oral folk tradition. Travellers to Ireland will most likely come across traditional music in a pub setting and these quasi-impromptu musical get-togethers are known as ‘sessions’. These are the life-blood of traditional music, accompanied by the associated notion of craic (or crack) whereby music, conversation and drink combine to produce an evening of fun.

A session is not strictly a performance, but more of a dynamic of musician and listener – a group of people enjoying the craic together. While sessions take place all year round in the major cities, summer is the optimal time for sessions in traditional music’s heartland, the west of Ireland. While the west coast (especially around Clare, Donegal, Galway, Kerry and Sligo) has the best of the traditional scene, virtually every village and town in Ireland seems to have a festival of some kind or other each year. No matter the size of the town, there’s rarely enough room for all that’s happening during festival time, with music and dancing bursting out of the official venues into surrounding streets and bars. There’s usually plenty going on in the pubs and bars even outside of festival periods. Music in Irish pubs is legendary, and there’s lots on offer, though only a relatively small proportion of its is ‘traditional’. The cream of pub music, however, has to be the traditional sessions of fiddles, flutes, accordions, bodhran (a goatskin frame drum) and, occasionally, singing. Interest from abroad and the tourist industry has much to do with the resurgence of this musical culture – but this hardly matters since the music can be phenomenal.

The instrumental repertoire mainly consists of dance tunes, but there are also slow airs played without accompaniment and usually to hushed attention. Most are laments or the melodies of songs, some so old that the words have been lost. The uillean pipes are particularly well-suited to the performance of airs, as their plaintive tone and ability to produce complex ornamentation cleanly allows them to approach the style of sean-nos (literally ‘old-style’) singers in the Irish language. Highly temperamental and difficult to master, seven years learning, seven years practising and seven years playing is reputedly what it takes to master the uillean (pronounced “illun”) pipes. However, it’s the simple wooden flute that is mainly used in Irish music, played mostly in a fairly low register with a quiet and confidential tone which means that it’s not heard at its best in pub sessions. The fiddle is popular all over Ireland, and each area has its own particular characteristics: Donegal breeds fiddlers with a smooth melodic approach, whereas the Sligo style is more elaborate and flamboyant. The bodhran (pronounced “bore-run”) is an instrument now much in evidence at traditional sessions that is a relatively recent addition to mainstream traditional music. Since it was introduced in the 1960s, it has come on by leaps and bounds and new techniques are constantly being invented.

Singing folk songs to instrumental accompaniment became enormously popular in Ireland in the 1960s with the triumphal return from America of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Their heady blend of rousing ballads accompanied by guitar, harmonica and banjo revitalised a genre of folk song that had all but vanished. Another great group of this era were The Dubliners. With an uncompromisingly urban image, in contrast to The Clancys, their work was often bawdy and their ribald spirit was captured in the most popular song of the age, Seven Drunken Nights. In many ways they helped lay the groundwork for the fusion of the traditional/ballad genre explored by bands such as Sweeney’s Men, The Johnstons, The Bothy Band and, most influential of all, Planxty. It was a member of this band, Christy Moore, who moved on to become possibly Ireland’s best-loved singer, recording a number of highly successful and acclaimed albums. In his first recordings he was overtly political in the style of the early Bob Dylan. Though Moore has become less politically engaged as time has gone on, his popularity has been maintained through stunning live performances. Contemporary bands striving for new ways to express the tradition are the excellent Kila, the superb Afro Celt Sound System and Anuna, a vocal group spanning classical, folk, traditional and contemporary. Any look at Irish traditional music must include a reference to perhaps the country’s best-known band, The Chieftains. Lastly, there are the more recent bands who have kept this tradition alive through the eighties, nineties and into the 21st century: The Pogues, the Cranberries and the Corrs, whose music has reached a wider audience than ever before. The Irish folk tradition continues to evolve, grow and change – as any living musical tradition must in order to prosper.

3 Responses to “The Irish Folk Music Tradition”

  1. ritaroberts September 16, 2018 at 2:53 pm #

    Loved the Dubliners Thanks for this post very enlightening.

  2. Maria Matthews September 28, 2018 at 8:38 am #

    well written. We had a great evening recently walking through the streets of Drogheda during the Fleadh Ceol . The average age of the street musicians was approx 12years old. They were play accordians , box accordians, bodhrans, guitars. fiddles.

  3. simon7banks November 27, 2018 at 8:31 pm #

    I don’t think traditional music died out in any component of the north-east Atlantic islands, though certainly more marginalised in England. Scots in Gaelic-speaking areas have never stopped having a ceilidh and the English far north-east (Tyneside, Wearside, Northumberland and Durham) has a lively folk tradition much of which is urban. Still, Ireland comes first for this. My own English town has a lively sea shanty festival which attracted, for instance, a retired sailor from Porthmadog, North Wales (met him in a pub which was shortly to be one of the venues).

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