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Irish Folk Music Essay, Research Paper

In ancient Ireland, music was an important part of life. It was played for Kings, Chiefs, and also for entertainment of the people. The first Irish tunes were played primarily on the harp. Professional harpers were honored above all other musicians and earned a high reputation for their music.

After a horrific war in Ireland in 1607, there was a heavy blow to the Gaelic order. Many towns were destroyed, and several of the music schools were shut down. Because most of the tunes were transmitted orally and never written down, most of the music was lost or forgotten. By the end of the eighteenth century, traditional Irish music and harpers were nearly extinct.

The Belfast Festival of 1792 was held to try an stimulate the rebirth of traditional harping, but only ended up preserving the last of its remains. A 19 year old church organist, Edward Bunting, was hired to write down the festivals tunes, and did do diligently. He found them so wonderful, that he continued to collect traditional Irish music throughout his life. We owe much of the knowledge we have today to Bunting’s work.

Though the harp was one of the most prominent instruments in traditional Irish music, there were several that were used. Bagpipes, flutes, whistles, fiddles, and harmonicas were also used along with the human voice to make up the music that we know today. The transmission of these Irish tunes were passed from generation to generation through performance and memory instead of writing and print. Even though the tunes of the ancient Irish harp were lost and forgotten, traditional Irish music still lives today.

Some distinct characteristics of traditional Irish music include its constantly changing composition. A large body of inherited music in incorporated into todays music, but it does not form a static repertory. It is very conservative in its tendency, and changes slowly, but is constantly doing so. Being an oral type of music, it has a greater state of fluidity than notation based songs. Mood and theme are very important in the music, and the same melody can often be heard throughout the same pieces.

In the mid twentieth century, Irish folk music became more and more popular in Eastern America. In Southern Appalachia the music was a powerful form of entertainment. Folks would gather just to hear the music, and dance and socialize. Some talented Appalachia families even gained air-time in the first half of the century. This simple form of acoustic music was becoming increasingly popular in places outside Europe.

Performers of traditional Irish music are usually unpaid. They perform for entertainment and recreational purposes, and to conserve the music instead of for monetary gain. Solo performances are traditional, but group performances are most common today. Most singers can not read music, they write them down only to aid in memory. Music is never used in performances, the performers rely only on their memory.

Traditional Irish music is a very beautiful and uplifting style of music. Even though much of todays Irish music is only the remnants of the actual traditional music, the mood and style still shines through.


Siegmister, Elie. The Music Lovers Handbook. Harvey House Publishers, 1973.

“Anicent Music of Ierland.” Online. America on Line 29 Feb. 2000.


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