Fiddler Ben Lennon says it has to have ‘the nya’, his fellow bowman Martin Hayes reckons it must possess draoícht (‘enchantment’), while accordionist Brendan Begley believes it’s the ‘only acceptable form of madness’. No matter how it is defined, Ireland’s traditional music has some innate and elusive quality whose appeal has spread far beyond its shores.
Though some religious songs and other ballads can trace their origins to medieval times, the bulk of Ireland’s traditional music was composed within the last three hundred years – and a substantial proportion dates from after the Great Famine of 1845–49. Until relatively recent times, apart from the performance of solo airs and songs, the music has played second fiddle to dancing. In rural Irish communities the most popular form of entertainment until well into the twentieth century was the house dance, usually held in the kitchen of the largest house in the area, or the outdoor ‘crossroads’ dance. The dances were either group dances, now known as ‘sets’, based on quadrilles where two sets of two couples danced facing each other, or solo dances performed by the best dancers in the locality.
Step-dancing was accorded its revival by the performance of a short piece of music, featuring the dancers Michael Flatley and Jean Butler plus a huge supporting step-dancing cast, during the interval of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. Composed by Bill Whelan, the music integrated Flamenco and Eastern European dance influences with Irish traditions. The dancers’ electrifying performance brought immediate acclaim and, with Flatley as choreographer, Whelan set about expanding the piece into a full show called Riverdance. While providing employment to a host of Irish musicians, the success of these two shows catalysed enormous interest in Irish music worldwide.
For much of its life Ireland’s traditional music has survived by being passed on from one person to another, whether from parent to child, teacher to pupil, musician to musician or singer to singer. Since it plays such a focal part in Irish life, the pub has become the venue for such transactions via the medium of the session. Indeed, other than concerts or social events, it’s unlikely that the visitor will hear live traditional music in any venue other than the pub and the pub itself has become synonymous with purveyance of ‘crack.’
Pubs actually came into the traditional music picture in Ireland as late as the 1960s. The first regular pub session, as we now know it, began not in Ireland at all but in London’s Camden Town in 1947. The players were Irishmen, mostly from South Sligo, all traditional musicians, and immigrants working mainly in the building industry on the post-war reconstruction of London. The music was removed from the domestic or community environment and further separated from dancing, which was not allowed in most pubs. The session also brought drink, publicans and ultimately the drinks industry into an influential relationship with traditional music. Within a decade the pub session idea had spread to Ireland and by the 1960s there were Irish pubs that were synonymous with traditional music – O’Donoghue’s of Merrion Row in Dublin being one of the best known.
Unsurprisingly, considering musicians spend so much time at sessions, ensemble playing is largely the norm in terms of public performance, but this was certainly not the case for most of Ireland’s musical history. Before the appearance of céilí bands (groups formed specifically to accompany dancers) in Ireland from the 1920s onwards, the music was played unaccompanied. Usually a single fiddler, piper, flute-, whistle- or box-player or a pair of these played for the dancers. The single decorated melody line was the norm in playing as in singing, and the music had no rhythmic or harmonic accompaniment. However, Western ears are now attuned to playing and singing with a chordal backing, and over the past sixty years this has inevitably found its way into traditional playing and singing.
In the 1960s, two almost simultaneous currents emerged in Ireland which turned musicians increasingly towards the group format. One of the major successes of the 1950s folk revival in the US saw three brothers from Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary – Tom, Pat and Liam Clancy – join forces with the Armagh singer Tommy Makem to record several albums of boisterous ballads and rebel songs. When the band returned to Ireland that success was mirrored and resulted in a host of imitators forming their own groups, some even going so far as to sport the quartet’s trademark Aran sweaters. Ireland’s home-grown sensation of that time, The Dubliners, espoused a far more bohemian image, based on a hard-drinking, devil-may-care attitude and beards that would frighten children.
Meanwhile, the Cork-born composer Seán Ó Riada had hit upon his own form of ensemble playing, involving one or two musicians first expressing the basic melody of a tune which would then be ornamented and explored by small groups of solo traditional instruments and the entire ensemble as a whole. He formed the group Ceoltóirí Chualann as a vehicle through which to explore his ideas. His experiment proved immensely popular and reached even wider audiences when several members of the group first recorded as The Chieftains in 1963 and subsequently became the spearhead of the ensuing revival of Irish traditional music. By the 1970’s two perhaps more radical bands had emerged, Planxty and The Bothy Band, who transformed the ensemble format into something far more accessible to the ears of Ireland’s young musicians. Groups such as De Dannan, Patrick Street and the hugely successful Altan and Dervish continued to explore and expand the group setting, while the current cream of the crop are Lúnasa, Téada, Beoga, Solas and Gráda.
Nowadays, too, many prominent solo musicians opt for the group format. Among the most notable is Sharon Shannon, a talented accordionist from County Clare. Equally innovative are the lightning-quick Tipperary banjo player Gerry O’Connor, the expressive Galway fiddler Frankie Gavin and the uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn, all of whom have worked within a variety of group frameworks.
Since the 1960s Ireland has had an indigenous rock scene which at times owes little or nothing to traditional music. However, even a band like U2 – who once rejected traditional music as part of the repressiveness of Irish culture – have incorporated its strands in recent years. And London-Irish iconoclasts The Pogues emerged in the early 1980s playing a chaotic set of ‘Oirish’ standards and rebel songs, bringing a punk energy to the Irish ballad. They were also blessed with one of the finest Irish songwriters of recent years, Shane MacGowan, who, in his subsequent solo career with The Popes, continues to capture the state of Irish exile in a series of raw painfilled ballads.
In the early 1980s two of Irish music’s greatest innovators, Dónal Lunny and Christy Moore, original members of Planxty, made a more radical attempt to fuse traditional and rock music with the launch of the band Moving Hearts. Current bands working in the traditional/rock borderlands include the Dublin group Kíla, who offer an eclectic, beguiling and danceable mélange of trad, rap and funk with vocals in Irish. The Irish-American band Solas, centred around the nucleus of multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan and fiddler Winifred Horan, has become increasingly exploratory, using electric instruments and backing and all manner of studio techniques.