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Ireland in Song

Updated on August 27, 2011
An Irish Country Dance
An Irish Country Dance

There are few things as universally beloved as a folk song, whether it tells the tale of heroic deeds done, love lost, or wars fought. It is remarkable how one bit of music and lyric can transcend barriers of both culture and language, uniting in laughter and tears. Of Ireland's folk music, G.K. Chesterton wrote:

"For the great Gaels of Ireland

Are the men that God made mad

For all their wars are merry,

And all their songs are sad."

Now this may be an extreme stereotype, but the passionate nature of the Irish people lends itself to music that expresses every emotion imaginable in their music, causing those who are not at all Irish to make it their own.


A ballad is by definition a song that is narrative, and if there is anything that the Irish love more than a good song, it' the telling of a good story, so why not put both together? Their ballads are haunting and jovial, tales of love and death. There is the ancient march of Brian Boru that tells the valiant conquests of the ancient king, or Boolavogue telling the story of Father Murphy's brave uprising in the Rebellion of 1798 in rousing measures. But in spite of the bravado, the sadness of these events is never forgotten in songs such as The Croppy Boy, or the bitterness of the bondage that Ireland was held in for so much of her history with selections like Only Our Rivers Run Free.

Tender love stories also unfold in Grace, the story of a young couple torn apart in the beginning of the 1916 Easter uprising against the English. There are hundreds, if not thousands that tell of love won and lost (Kathleen Mavourneen, Red is the Rose, The Fields of Athenry).

Yet Chesterton wasn't completely right-- there are many songs that are light-hearted, fun, and full of the joy of life. Spanish Lady, The Kerry Dance, and Whiskey in the Jar as well as thousands of dance tunes are all proof that when Irish eyes are smiling, the world is a happier place.

Traditional Instruments

Fiddle, harp, bodhran, penny whistle, and accordian are all instruments used in the Irish tradition. In most parts of the country, where formal education was scarce and love for music strong, instruments and melodies would be learned by ear and passed down from generation to generation. This means that there are thousands of variations on any given tune (and even occasionally lyrics in a song), each with a unique flavor and style.

The fiddle is the most common and universally recognized, while the harp (or Clarsach) is the national symbol, being the Irish coat of Arms, as well as used on coinage and other official documents. Originally used as instruments of war, the bodhran and penny whistle first appeared in ancient times but are now used widely for all kinds of music. Though the accordian originated in Germany, it is now a staple in Irish music, being commonly used in pubs.

John Field
John Field

Classical Music

Though famous for it's folk tradition, Ireland has a significant, albeit small, culture of classical music. John Field (1782-1837) was a pianist and composer respected by the likes of Chopin, Liszt, and Brahms. His most significant contribution to music was the development of the nocturne (or night song) that became very popular and influential in the Romantic era. Chopin especially loved the freedom of the style, and some of his best loved melodies come from his own collection of nocturnes.

Another notable is Sir Hamilton Harty, a more modern composer and conductor (1879-1941) who strongly remained in the classical tradition. His piano concerto is the most respected of his works, but he composed several works for orchestra (including a beautiful setting of Londonderry Air) and piano that are beautiful and well written.

Richard Kearns is one of the most recent composers from Ireland, making his mark with several piano concertos, works for guitar, and variations on themes by composers such as J.S. Bach, Correlli, and Rachmaninoff.

And now don't be too shocked, but there is even a tradition of opera in Ireland. William Vincent Wallace produced six in his lifetime that received international acclaim, and there have been many classical singers of great caliber that hail from the Emerald Isle.

Dance Music

In recent years Irish dance has been made wildly popular by groups like Riverdance who have brought back the traditional step dancing. This style is noted for it's rapidly moving lower body, while the upper body and arms remain almost stationary. When done in a group, it's an impressive sight, with feet and legs moving in a synchronized blur set to a lively beat. Done in singles there's more ability to appreciate the intricacy of the movements in the various reels and jigs. It's always a good show, with traditional costuming, toe-tapping music, and lots of Irish culture.

Similarites in Irish, Scottish, and English Traditions

Not all things Irish are all Irish, as is evidenced in some of the music. For example, the song The Water is Wide is English, yet bears many resemblances to the Irish song Carrickfergus in both melody and lyrical theme. Also, the love ballad Red is the Rose has the identical melody to it's more famous Scottish counterpart, Loch Lomond. Even the most Irish of all songs, Danny Boy is set to Londonderry Air, a tune originally English with rumors that even the lyrics weren't written by an Irishman. With the nearness of all three countries are to each other, it is quite likely that music traveled between them all and each ended up claiming it as their own.

Another phenomena occurred when large immigrations to America began to happen. Much of the music of both cultures blended, making something that the freshly-made Americans could use to remember their old home, while relating to the new. Some of the standards in the repertoire (I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen, When Irish Eyes are Smiling) were written in the New World, but are just as lovable as any of the authentic ones.

Here's to Us All...

So as you can see, the music of the Emerald Isle is widely varied, ranging from traditional fiddle-and-song tunes to classical, Celtic rock, and even a few operas. It's popularity has skyrocketed in recent decades mostly due to artists like U2, The Dubliners, Enya, Celtic Thunder, and many more. In fact, a fascination has sprung up with all things Irish, making everyone want to claim to have a bit of the Blarney in them. And maybe, somewhere deep inside, we all do.


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    • collegatariat profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Hi Jane! So glad you love Irish music too. The Chesterton quote is from his epic poem "The Ballad of the White Horse", and is one of my favorites.

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 

      7 years ago from Oregon

      Very nice! Irish music has always been among my most favorite, and this article just reminds me again of the reason why. I loved the Chesterton quote you started out with-- is that from a larger poem or from a book?


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