Ireland's Musical Heritage

By Ronan Galvin

While Ireland can lay claim to a strong and rich musical heritage, it is important to look beyond its shores to discover the varied influences on our traditional music, song and dance. This short summary will firstly look at various instruments and aspects of song and dance associated with Ireland. It will then discuss repertoire, the impact of technology and the influence of Irish traditional music on other genres.

The Harp

The harp can be described as our strongest national symbol demonstrated by its historic use on Irish coinage, as an emblem by the police force and even by one of Ireland's most marketable products, Guinness. However, the forerunner to the harp is the more compact, knee held lyre which dates to 2500 BC in Mesopotamia and a little later in Greece before becoming part of Celtic culture in later centuries. Iconographical evidence depicted on various high crosses including at Castledermot, County Kildare and Carndonagh in County Donegal, suggests that the lyre was part of traditional life in Ireland in the early to mid-medieval period. However, no material evidence to substantiate its existence has been found.  The triangular-shaped harp found in Irish culture dates from about the 11th century, while iconographical evidence suggests an earlier existence in Scotland and France.

The Fiddle

The fiddle is one of the most popular instruments in Irish traditional music and first arrived on these shores in the late 17th or early 18th century. The excavation of an eleventh-century bow during an archaeological dig of the Viking site at Wood Quay in the city of Dublin suggests that bowed instruments were played in medieval Ireland. The current form of the instrument which was based on older medieval fiddles unconnected with the bowed lyre can be traced to northern Italy, where it was first manufactured about the year 1550.

The Uilleann pipes

The uilleann pipes can, perhaps, claim to be the most 'Irish' instrument of all and are sometimes referred to as the 'Irish Pipes' to distinguish them from the older Scottish bagpipes. A 'full-set' consists of a chanter, bag, bellows, drones and regulators, the basic version of which is in existence since at least the year 1749. The flute dates from slightly later and only became common in Irish tradition in the late 19th century. The bodhrán is the standard form of percussion found in Irish traditional music and although there is reference to it from the early to mid- nineteenth century, it only became a regular feature of music sessions in the 1960s. More recent instruments introduced into Irish traditional music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries include the one-row melodeon, two-row accordion, concertina and banjo.

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