History of Irish Music

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History of Irish Music

Post by Comyn »

This article is just some notes I took while doing some research on the history of Irish music many many years ago. It was saved in Wordperfect format (the old DOS wpd!) and thankfully OpenOffice can open those old files! I haven't gone over it for errors as yet.

Traditional Irish music has been evolving over at least the last two centuries into the form in which it is heard today. Most traditional musicians feel that their music comes from times even more distant. Although no evidence refutes this idea, there is little to support it concretely, as the music of Irish peasants was not considered a matter of scholarly interest until the nineteenth century. Before that time, references to indigenous Irish music were fragmentary, shedding little light on specific musical practices. However, these scattered and tantalizing references have become part of the mythos of the music, and as such they have a place in a discussion of the historical background percieved by modern traditional musicians.

This is not the place to chronical the ebb and flow of political fortunes in Ireland, for that story is intricate and too often oversimplified. Mythological and historical considerations are mentioned here only in relation to those cultural consequenses which affected the music and the way it is percieved today.

The earliest human artifacts unearthed in Ireland show that Neolithic people were there around 6000 B.C. Bronze Age sites show great stoneworks - dolmens, raths, and tombs - but little is known of indigenous culture before the coming of the Gaels around the middle of the fourth century B.C. Popular imagination, mixed perhaps with a vestige of truth, has peopled pre-Gaelic Ireland with four waves of inhabitants. First came the Fomorians, sinister giants who embodied Evil. They were conqured by the Firbolgs, who were small and shrewd, overcoming their giant foes by supierior cunning. The Firbolgs were eventually vanquished by the Danaans, often seen as the embodiment of Good. The Danaans were able to manipulate nature to some extent, due to their close harmony with natural forces; but eventually they fell before the invading Milesians. The Danaans then transformed themselves into the invisible "little people" known as "leprechauns," "si'," or "faeries," and inhabited the old stoneworks and various other parts of the Irish country-side. The Milesians were in turn ousted by the Gaels.

The Gaels revered the memory of the Danaans - perhaps becase of their common foes, but for cultural reasons as well. "The Gaels attributed their own love of poetry and desire for knowledge to the Danaans. Lugh himself, the sun god, and Eriu, the earth goddess of Ireland, were said to have been Danaan in origin... Even the Lia Fall, the sacred stone of Tara, was said to have derived its magical powers from the Danaans" (Costigan 1969,12). The Danaans were also admired for their music, and today the music of the faeries is often said to be the sweetest music ever heard. Many folktales attest to the supernatural powers of faery music, and several tunes in modern oral tradition are said to have been composed by the faeries.

Music was very important to the Gaels , too. Flood(1913,23) collated a list of instrument types used in Gaelic courts: harps
(cruit and clairseach); zithers (psalterium, nabla, tiompan, kinnor, trigonon, and ochttedacht); fiddles (fidil); flutes
(faedan); shawms (buinne and guthbuinne); bagpipes (cuisle and piopai); horns (bennbuabhal and corn); trumpets (stoc and sturgan); and percussion (craebh ciuil, crann ciuil, and cnamha).

We have no concrete knowledge of the tunes and playing styles of the early Gaelic court musicians. but a suggestion of a developed musical system is found in their variously interpereted musical categories, given by Breathnach(1971,2-4) as goltrai (music for sorrow), geatrai (music for happiness), and suantrai (music for sleep). Citing eigteenth- and nineteenth- century sources, Flood gave the terms as goltraighe (music for valor), geantraighe (music for love), and suantraighe (music for rest), translating traighe as "a mode or measure," and designating each of the three categories as belonging to one of the three Greek musical modes, Dorian, Phrygian, and Lydian (1913, 35). At least one example of "music of valor" may have survived from the Gaelic courts: "Brian Boru's March" is believed by some to have come from the period of that monarch, perhaps having filled the air on Good Friday in 1014, when his forces won the decisive victory over the Viking invaders at Clontarf.


Costigan, Giovanni
1969 A History of Modern Ireland. New York: Pegasus.

Flood, W.H. Grattan
1913 A History of Irish Music. Dublin: Brown and Nolan. Reprint, New York: Praeger, 1970

Breathnach, Breandan
1971 Folk Music and Dances of Ireland. Dublin: Mercier Press.

A version of "Brian Boru's March" appears in O'Neill 1903, 338.