It was my first night in Ireland. Surrounded by trees of green and some of the friendliest people I have ever encountered, I had been told I needed to hear the most traditional Irish music. Passing through the busy streets of Dublin, I was anxiously excited to see one of the most famous shows - “Celtic Nights” held at one of the most popular pubs. Tickets to the show included a traditional Irish dinner as well, which included a pint of Guinness, beef tips in Guinness gravy, garlic mashed potatoes with onion straws, and then a sample dessert platter. Although the dinner was fabulous, the show was the best part. Four men sat in chairs on the stage and entertained the crowd with stories and music, using their harmonic voices while playing the banjo, accordion, and guitars, followed by Celtic dancers. The music created an energetic atmosphere. People began clapping, singing along, and even getting up out of their chairs to dance. Their songs each told a story, whether it was about getting drunk or finding love; they were all upbeat and joyful to listen to. I realized traditional Irish music wasn’t just about how they played the song or what instrument they used- it was the meaning of the song and how their performance connected with the audience.
One way that traditional Irish music makes a connection with the audience is that it is generally always developed and shared in musical social gatherings. These social gatherings can include pubs, dances, and networks of competitions and schools. For example, two original Irish gatherings are fleadh cheoil, which means “feast of music”, and feis choil , which means “festival of music”. These two gatherings sponsor music and dance competitions.
Irish music has the characteristic features that distinguish it from the traditional music of, say, Scotland or the eastern states of America. But there are many features common for Irish traditional music, and traditional music of Scotland and the eastern states of America. Inside the Irish traditional music, there are many differences: music of West Cork is significantly different from the music of Donegal. You can probably consider these differences as dialects: for a musician from Donegal it will not be easy to play with musicians from West Cork, and it will be equally difficult for him to understand his reprimand.
One of the features of traditional music is its ability to absorb, store and change. Traditional music always draws from many sources and is subject to many influences: for example, British dance songs, Scottish bagpipe music, up until the musical accompaniment performances of stray visiting theaters. This property is preserved to this day – there is a tradition to arrange to traditional dance tunes distant melodies, as, for example, the leitmotif of the film Dallas (Williams 47).
It is impossible to identify the people, places and features of the development, as the music at the time when it all began in Ireland (and now) was passed among people without the use of notes. In addition, Irish music was composed in rural peasant environment, members of which had neither a concept nor even the desire to somehow document their music (McCann 653). Very few people were identified who composed melodies and one can only conclude that the majority of Irish music is the result of thousands unknown musicians scattered throughout rural Ireland.
However, Irish music originated not in a vacuum. Some slow pieces and melodies for harp were undoubtedly created by reworking previously known plays – by changing the measure, rhythm, redoing melodic structure, changing the pitch, adding new bits and removing old ones. The XVIII century was the time of social and cultural change in Ireland, with the destruction of the old Gaelic social order in the wake of the country, there were new trends in all areas of social life and Irish music, of course, reflected the current state of affairs.
Scientists have found strong evidence that the reels have come from Scotland, while the jig and hornpipe – from England. Professional itinerant dance masters, who were known in Ireland in the XVIII century, also participated in the creation of new tunes and genres, as new dance schemes require new (or, at least, newly arranged) comps. But no matter where there were various forms of music, the absolute majority of folk plays were created by Irish fiddlers, pipers, whistlers and flutists in the XVIII and early XIX century. In fact, new tunes continue to be composed by Irish musicians working in the established tradition, demonstrating both stability and viability of idioms, and the possibility of adapting the music to the changing social contexts.
Irish music is based on the fundamental traditions of solo performance, in which melodic line is of paramount importance. Although Irish music is often played by more than one instrument and has a harmonic and percussive accompaniment, pursuant to its one musician meant the very structure of the melody. In the last decade, a significant impact on the tradition was made by new experiments in ensemble performance of Irish music – in promoting new tunes, sets and styles, and in addition, the group became a promoter of Irish music to the general public.
Irish music, however, is developing both in performance and in instrumental directions. Violin, Irish bagpipes, various flutes, whistles and fifes – these are the instruments that were widely played throughout the country until the XIX century. From this period in the Irish music, there came reed instruments. Today, this species is represented by concertina, harmonica, keyboards and button accordions and melodeonы, which are still played – though mostly by musicians of the older generation. In addition, the second half of the XIX century was also the period when there began to acquire more popularity harmonic accompaniment – first through piano, and later – the guitar and other plectrum instruments. This innovation gave music an opportunity to absorb the modern urban influence, without dissolving it; preference of accompaniment was very well manifested in America, where until the XIX century, the basic elements minstrel art, musical theater and vaudeville were just Irish musicians. Although they were playing guitar, tenor banjo and mandolin back in the end of the XIX century, these instruments have reached their real popularity only in the last few years. The last two decades have seen a resurgence of interest to the Irish harp, bodhran and bones – ancient Irish instruments enthusiastically adopted today by fans in the XX century.
Irish music is mainly composed of dance tunes and eires, although there are pieces that are neither one nor the other – they are, above all, marches, melodies written by harpists of the XVII-XVIII centuries for their aristocratic patrons, as well as plays of descriptive character reflecting the events of history and everyday life of Ireland. At one time, there was a small number of so-called double jig decaying during the game apart from the use of them in a large number of well-developed ornaments (Larsen 105). This is dance music that dominated the repertoire of most Irish musicians up to the present century, despite the fact that the Irish music and dance since the XIX century, evolved in their own way.
The most popular genre of dance music today is reel, although collections of the XVIII-XIX centuries show that the most popular tunes of the period were exactly double jigs. Contemporary composers writing Irish music select as a source of inspiration reels, and there is nothing unusual in the fact that there are sessions, where nothing other than reels is played.
Single jigs, as well as double, have a size of 6/8 (although some are played in 12/8), but differ from the latter by slightly altered phrasing and rhythmic dance moves. In Munster, there still remain popular single jigs, also called slides, played in 12/8. Slip jig (or hop jig) played in 9/8 is the only solo dance of the XVIII century, having a triplex. Hornpipe as reels are played in 4/4, but they always have a strong emphasis on the strong beat of the measure, so that the first and third beats are perceived as single eighth notes. Dance DJ sets, also called long dancing represent the last stage of the art of dance masters, where they demonstrate their skills. Each dance, of course, is performed to a specific melody. These tunes are played either in 6/8, or 4/4, and had extended second parts, consisting of 12 or more cycles (Vallely 238). Most dance tunes consist of two eight-measure parts, although some have three or more parts, and their sequence and the number of repetitions may vary.
Scholars disagree on the classification of musical pieces, called in different cases eires, melodious, slow or narrative. In most cases, these melodies are connected (or, at least, were once connected) with some text in English and/or Irish language. In some cases only the eires are preserved, without the text, and are identified as the melody. What makes the problem worse, is that many Irish folk songs are often sung during the dance sets – especially jigs.
Today, the most frequently performed eires are obtained from sean-nos – Gaelic song tradition. These eires are often called slow eires because of the slow performance and rubato technique, in which the basic rhythmic structure of eire varies depending on the requirements of the text and the imagination of the singer. In addition, sean-nos style has very ornamented and asymmetric structure, whereby a person who first heard the singing of the sean-nos, gets amorphous feeling.
There are several important peculiarities of the Irish music that deserve our attention:
- Irish music is usually played when a group of musicians is sitting in a circle (or oval when space is limited), and play together. Since everyone plays the same tune, the music can be performed by one to several hundred players. In fact, the more people join, the better and more complete the music gets!
- Most of the tunes are short, some of them even joined together to make up a set. Selection of tunes in the set is one of the ways to realize their creative potential. There are two ways how to do it.
- Everyone chooses their tune when it is their turn. Among the group of really good musicians next tune begins once the last tune ends. Thus, the first few notes are played solo, but as soon as the other musicians recognize the melody, they join.
- In Ireland, there is also another system. Among friends in the pub there could be held a long discussion about what music should be in the set, and then they start playing it. Then there is still time for some socializing and discussing the events of the day to play the next set. This is a less intense pace.
- Another trait often shown by the Irish musicians is the slow start of melody. First, they start playing slow to show features of the tunes. Then they play a little faster, and finally take off with a squeal.
- A slow game has many advantages. On the one hand, you refresh your memory about how the melody sounds before playing it at speed. It also gives you the chance to play the melody with the interpretation that you want to use.
Many fast tunes when played slowly, turn out to be in a beautiful quality that is never really manifested when the melody is played faster. Irish musicians play slowly, even when they are able to play like lightning. Maybe it is because they appreciate the music, or maybe it is because they know that their audience will appreciate it.
Kaul, Adam. Turning the tune: Traditional music, tourism, and social change in an Irish village. Vol. 3. Berghahn Books, 2013.
Larsen, Grey. Down the Back Lane: Variation in Traditional Irish Dance Music. Mel Bay Publications, 2013.
McCann, Anthony. "Opportunities of resistance: Irish traditional music and the Irish Music Rights Organisation 1995–2000." Popular Music and Society 35.5 (2012): 651-681.
Vallely, Fintan. "Focus: Irish traditional music: Music." Irish Studies Review 19.2 (2011): 238-240.
Williams, Patrick C. "MUSI 291.01: The Music of Ireland-Traditional and Contemporary." (2013).