The Instruments of Irish Music
By the 19th century the instruments of Irish music had been assembled.
One would also include the voice to the list below. By and large Irish
instrumental music was a solitary pursuit. Sometimes musicians traveled
in threes from one event to another. Often there would be a large assembly
of players of a particular instrument – the fiddle or harp for example.
Music was played widely as a pastime in the home. Professional musicians
and dancing masters performed for fees and traveled the country.
The fiddle is the mainstay of most Scottish and Irish music. The instrument
is exactly the same as a violin; fiddle is simply the term used in traditional
Web Page: http://www-openmap.bbn.com/users/gkeith/fiddles/Fiddle.html
Flutes of one sort or another have been played in the Celtic countries
for over a thousand years. The kind in use today is mainly the 'simple-system'
flute with six holes and up to eight
keys. This became popular in Ireland during the nineteenth century,
when classical musicians were abandoning them for the new Boehm-system
flute. Modern traditional flutes are
usually copies of these early instruments, and almost always made of
wood. Their cylindrical bore and wooden construction give a hollow, airy
tone, softer than the classical flutes and
much smoother than the tin whistle
Web Page: http://www.angelfire.com/fl/ute/
Tin Whistle (pennywhistle)
The simplest and cheapest of traditional instruments, yet not so simple
to master. The tin whistle is a simple metal tube, with six holes and a
mouthpiece like a recorder, and a range of
about two octaves. The cheapest ones cost about $5, though more highly-crafted
ones run into the hundreds. Some of today's best players still play nothing
but the cheaper brands, and
make great music.
Web Page: http://www.chiffandfipple.com/table2.html
Bagpipes & uilleann pipes
Several forms of bagpipe are used in celtic music. The basic instrument
has a bag of air, inflated by blowing through a blowpipe. Arm pressure
on the bag sends air through a reed on a
fingered chanter which makes the sound. The usual range is about two
The Scottish highland pipes are the loudest, played standing, usually
in pipe bands. The chanter has eight holes and plays a distinctive 'pipe
scale'. There are two tenor drones, tuned an
octave below the chanter and a bass drone a further octave down. The
Irish Warpipes are similar, but have only one tenor drone.
More popular in Ireland, and a lot quieter are the bellows-powered
uilleann pipes. The chanter has a range of two octaves (in the key of D),
often has keys, and in addition to drones
(three or four), the uilleann pipes have regulators, extra pipes which
can play certain chords. A 'practice set' is often used, which has a chanter
but no drones or regulators.
In Northumberland (England), the Northumbrian small pipes are similar,
with a variable number of keys and up to five drones. They are unique in
having being able to cut off air to the
chanter; all other pipes have to play continuously.
In Brittany they play the binou, which has seven-holed chanter and
a single drone. In the celtic regions of Spain, Asturias and Galicia, the
local bagpipe is the gaita, similar to the Scottish
pipes, with a 1-3 drones (usually 2; tuning is 2 octaves below the
chanter, one octave below and the same octave). The usual key is C, with
about a two octave range.
Free reed instruments
This family of instruments was developed in the early nineteenth century.
They all work on the same principle: air is blown across a set of paired
metal reeds, causing them to vibrate and
produce a particular note. All but the harmonica are powered by bellows
pulled in and out by the arms (hence 'squeeze box'). The two reeds of a
pair are placed in opposite directions, so
each is vibrated by either the press or the draw (in or out) of the
bellows. 'Single-action' instruments have the pairs tuned a tone apart,
so the one key will produce two adjacent notes
depending on whether the player is pressing or drawing. 'Double-action'
accordions have the reed pairs tuned in unison, so one key produces one
The melodeon is a simple single-action accordion. It has ten keys,
giving a twenty-note diatonic range, usually pitched in C. It also has
two bass keys, which give the chords of the tonic
and dominant keys.
The button accordion has a second row of keys, tuned a semitone above
the first set, giving a fully chromatic instrument. The most popular kind
is tuned to B/C, though C/C#, C#/D and
D/D# are also played. Traditional music is mostly diatonic, so the
second set of keys is used mainly for ornamentation such as rolls. It also
has extended bases.
The piano accordion has a piano keyboard on the left and an extensive
bass keyboard on the right hand. It is a double-action instrument (same
note on press and draw) and much larger
than the button accordion. It is most popular in Scotland and is also
widely used in central European folk music.
The concertina is a small, hexagonal accordion, which comes in both
double-action chromatic ('English') and single-action diatonic ('Anglo'
or 'German') forms. The most common form for
traditional music is an Anglo, tuned to C and G, which has the keyboard
is spread out on both ends of the bellows (usually two rows of five keys
on either end) with no bass. The
stronghold of concertina playing has been in Co. Clare, where it is
particularly common among women players.
Web Page: http://www.ice.el.utwente.nl:80/~han/ir_box/
The American five-string banjo came to Ireland in the nineteenth century,
losing one string along the way. It became popular in ceili bands and in
ballad groups such as the Dubliners
and recent recordings by American based Seamus Egan and Mick Moloney
are furthering it's spread. The banjo most used in Irish music is a 4-string
tenor banjo, with the standard
strings replaced by heavier ones, tunes to GDAE.
Web Page: http://www.irishbanjo.com/
Mandolins, citterns, bouzoukis, guitar
These fretted instruments are mostly used in accompaniment and for
rhythmic backing. The guitar comes in from the folk boom of the sixties,
and is usually a standard acoustic six-string
model, though a variety of tunings can be used. A wide variety of instruments
come under the general umbrella of the mandolin family. These have a rounded
back and usually four pairs
of strings (courses) tuned in unison. The mandolin is usually tuned
like a fiddle. Larger versions include the mandola (tuned a fifth below)
and the mandocello (an octave below). The
mandocello is also known as the octave mandolin and is similar to what
is known as the Irish bouzouki - a much modified version of the Greek bouzouki,
introduced to Irish music by
Johnny Moynihan, in his Sweeney's men days in the late sixties, and
now almost a standard in Irish groups. Bouzouki tuning is usually GDAD
or GDAE. There are several other variants,
including the five course citterns developed by Stefan Sobell (with
the name borrowed from a medieval family of instruments) and various hybrids
such as Andy Irvine's 'bizarre'
Web Page: http://www.ice.el.utwente.nl:80/~han/bouzouki/
There have been harping traditions in the celtic countries of Ireland,
Scotland, Wales and Brittany for hundreds of years and in Ireland at least
it was closely tied to the old aristocracy
and 'high' culture. Most celtic harps are small, and can be played
on the knee. The Scottish harp is called a clarsach, and the Welsh harp
is the triple-harp, a form once popular in art music
until superseded by the pedal harp. The triple has three rows of strings,
tuned a semitone apart to give a chromatic scale. Most modern players use
nylon or gut strings, but some have
gone back to the original wire-strung harp, with it's bell-like sound.
Web Page: http://www.mhs.mendocino.k12.ca.us/MenComNet/Business/Retail/Larknet/ArtCelticHarpHistory
This is a kind of zither, a trapezoidal board with pairs of strings
stretched over it, played with light hammers. It is common to many folk
traditions. Much of its association with celtic music
seems to be recent and comes from the American folk tradition, though
it also arrived in Scotland and Ireland in the eighteenth century, from
England (as best I can make out) and Derek
Bell of the Chieftains plays a version that he calls a tiompan. The
sound is similar to that of the harp.
Web Page: http://www.rtpnet.org/~hdweb/
This is a goatskin drum used widely in Irish music and also becoming
popular in other celtic areas.
Web Page: http://www.ceolas.org/instruments/bodhran/
The bagpipes used in Scottish military music are usually accompanied
by side and snare drums. In Northern Ireland, the gigantic Lambeg drums
are a symbol of the Orange (unionist)
musical tradition. Also in Ireland, bones (usually short wooden sticks
or cow rib bones, clicked against each other, a little like castanets)
and spoons are sometimes used to provide accompaniment.
Web Page: http://www.bcpl.lib.md.us/%7Ecbladey/lambeg.html
-Source: Ceolas Celtic Music Archive (WWW)
Sean O’ Riada, Ceoltóri Chualann, the Chieftains and the origin
of Ensemble playing
One might characterize Sean O’ Riada as the Arron Copeland of the Irish
tradition in that he took popular melodies and styles and set them within
a broad and nationalistic framework. O’Riada wanted to give the new nation
an ensemble style of music made up from all of the individual instruments
of the Irish Tradition. He was very successful and formed Ceoltóri
Chualann ( the musicians of Chulain) out of individual musicians and one
Group of musicians which played at ceili dances in Dublin- The Chieftains.
The resultant musical sound was very lively and forceful It proclaimed
the new Irish Independence in broad strokes without, however, adopting
the rebel songs of blood guts and war. O’Riada also became famous for his
movie scores. Mise Érie was a great first success. Paddy Maloney
of the Chieftains continues this interest in creating music for the movies
while Working with his group the Chieftains to diversify the ability of
the Irish Ensemble to work with the musical genres of other traditions
such as that of China, rock and roll, and Country and Western and Galicia.
1. Mise Érie., Video, Gael Linn, VGL 001.
1.Neilli (Side 2 track 1)
2. Táimse im chodladh (Side 2 track 2)
3. An spailpin fánach (Side 2 track 3)
Sean O’Riada.,Gael-linn, Na Ceirnini 45, Cef 076.
(Seán O Riada, Seán O Sé and Ceoltóri Chualann
1. Si Bheag, Si Mhór (track 1)
O’Riada.,Gael-Linn, cecd 032 1989.
1. I Can’t Stop Loving You., Track 2, Another Country., RCA Victor,09026609392
(The Chieftains, D.Gibson)
1.A Stór Mo Chroi., Track 2, Tears of Stone., The Chieftains,
Bonnie Raitt.,BMG, RCA.,09026689682
1.St. Stephen’s Day Murders, Track 3, Bells of Dublin., The Chieftains,
Elvis Costello. RCA. BMG, 09026608242.
1. Oh the Breeches full Of Stitches (track 10)
2. Chase Around the Windmill/ Toss the Feathers, Ballinasloe Fair,
Calleach An Airgid, Cull Aodha Slide, The Pretty Girl (tracks 11 a-f)
The Gypsy Style- Margaret Barry
The music of Ireland contains two distinct sub cultures: Gypsies or
Travelers and Tinkers. Both have cultural lifeways which set them apart
from the population at large but despite the differences they take part
in the musical tradition as a whole bringing with them their own contributions.
You can hear in the ornamentation of the style of Margaret Barry a Celtic
trait, which is combined with the passion of the Gypsy tradition. Margaret
Barry traveled from pub to pub singing her songs of Historical and local
1. The Cycling Champion of Ulster- Side 1 track 1
Eddie Richardson, hero of the story was cycling champion of Ulster
between 1921-29. The tune is Rosin the Bow.
2. The Galway Shaw Side 1 track5
Tune: When I first came to the County Limerick or Youghal Harbour also
the air to The Old Triangle or The Royal Canal.
Her Mantle So Green., Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman. Topic Records,
Local Talent- Gerry Farley the rebel song and sentimental song tenor
The Irish Tenor has always been an important force in Irish Music. Gerry
Farley plays in Baltimore with a group called Rigadoo. You can find them
at J.Patricks on Andre street- call ahead to find out when they are playing.
The tradition of the Irish ballad singer is that of a strong individual
driven by the patriotism of his or her music. Eyes straight ahead and music
that appears to come out from roots way deep in the ground. Gerry fits
the bill. His music is strong and forceful and with the passion of the
tradition behind it. He has a wonderful command of the lyrics and plays
well on the guitar in accompaniment. I have not yet received a tape of
his music however, his style is that of the Clancys and other ballad singers
of this tradition.
I present here the music of the Clancys of the Republican tradition
as well as songs from the Unionist or Loyalist or Orange Tradition
1. The Croppy Boy. Track 14
2. The Soldier’s Song, Irish National Anthem Track 6
Irish Revolutionary Songs, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem,
Legacy, Cd 461
In order to be balanced in the area of politics I provide a Ballad from
the Unionist or Loyalist tradition of Northern Ireland. This tradition
is quite close to that of that of the Republic of Ireland. Ballads are
after all ballads. A ballad well written from one tradition should be no
better than one equally well written from another . They are all works
The Sash is a small song but one which is emblematic.
1. The Sash My Father Wore Track 9 CD2, The Battle of the Boyne
1690, Ulster Music, cdni1692
2. Drumnavaddy, track 14, Sammy and Leslie Dows, Nigel Dowds and Andrew
Thompson., Lambeg Drums with Fife and Rattly., Chyme Music pticd 1088