A Little Bit of Heaven: Irish Traditional Music

A typical Irish Traditional Music session at Cooley's House in Ennistymon, Co. Clare - The Irish Place
A typical Irish Traditional Music session at Cooley's House in Ennistymon, Co. Clare. Photo: Bob Singer

Irish Traditional Music has evolved slowly and has been passed down from generation to generation largely through the oral tradition, a practice that continues to this day via the seisún meetings that are held in pubs across Ireland.

Many of the Irish folk songs still in circulation are less than two centuries old. It is due to the dedication of individuals such as Séamus Ennis that many songs have been preserved for posterity.

The Traditional ‘Sean Nós’ Old Style

The definitive manifestation of true Irish Traditional Music is singing ‘sean nós’ (which translates as ‘in the old style’).

This style of performance, which is often showcased at the annual Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann and also at pub seisún gatherings, is most often a solo one, though you will see the occasional duet.

Sean-nós is suited to those singers with a good range who are able to cope with the highly ornamental style.

The best singers are able to subtly vary the melody of each verse without detracting from the lyrics, which are every bit as important as the tune.

Other forms of traditional singing, even those with an added accompaniment, are heavily influenced by sean-nós singing, and the voice work is often almost identical.

Sorrowful Songs

‘Caoineadh’ is the Irish word for ‘lament’ – a song which can be identified by lyrics that typify pain, sorrow and grief.

Historically, Caoineadh songs often incorporated lyrics in which the vocalist yearns to return to Ireland, having left for financial or political reasons.

Such songs may also grieve the loss of a sweetheart. Many songs of this type have roots in the Troubles, and references to the British military presence are common.

Caoineadh singers in times past could earn good money lamenting for the souls of the recently departed during funeral services.

Traditional Irish Dance Music

Lots of traditional music was written to be danced to at celebrations such as saints’ days, weddings or other notable occasions.

Such tunes are flexible as they are split into two eight-bar strains, each of which can be repeated as many times as necessary.

This is absolutely ideal for dancing and goes a long way to explain why Irish dance music continues to be so popular all over the world.

Key Traditional Irish Music Instruments

The most common instruments used in Irish traditional dance music are:

Irish flute

The Irish flute has long been a fundamental instrument in Irish music. Early flutes were made of wood, though most these days are metal – nickel or silver.

However, the silver flute never caught on in Ireland as they were too expensive and not really suited to the flow of the music.

Tin Whistle

The tin whistle has a similar fingering pattern to the flute or metal whistle and has a quintessentially Irish sound. Virtually no home in Ireland is without a tin whistle. Another name is penny whistle.

Uilleann Pipes

The uilleann pipes are air-filled via the integral bellows rather than the lungs, and they are sometimes used to accompany the sean nós style of singing.

Tenor Banjo

Many Irish traditional instrumentalists play the melody of a tune on the tenor banjo.

Musicians playing in an Irish Traditional Music session at Cooley's House, Ennistymon, Co. Clare. - The Irish Place
Musicians playing in an Irish Traditional Music session at Cooley’s House, Ennistymon, Co. Clare. Photo: Bob Singer


The mandolin has recently noticeably increased in popularity amongst Irish musicians, and because the range of the instrument is the same as the fiddle, the two complement each other very well.


A central instrument in the repertoire of any traditional band is the Irish fiddle, which is played in a number of distinctive regional ways.

Accordion and Concertina

The accordion and concertina are central instruments in the Irish traditional canon and are particularly suited to céilímusic.


The bodhrán (frame drum) is a fairly recent addition to the set-up and was once confined to ritualistic events such as the Wrenboys St Stephen’s Day procession.


The harp is a significant Irish instrument (and indeed symbol) which dates back to the 10th century.

Ancient harpists were very highly regarded in society, and harping was an aristocratic form of music that largely stood aloof from the folk style, which accounts for its near extinction once the Gaelic aristocracy disappeared.

However, the harp underwent a revival in the 20th century, and today its popularity is increasing fast.


Following a fairly long period of apathy regarding traditional pastimes, a renewal of interest surrounding all aspects of Irish culture was sparked by the Nationalist demands for independence.

The subsequent formation in 1893 of the Gaelic League, which aimed to reinvigorate interest in all things Irish as played a role in inspiring the old arts.

Once independence had been achieved, many in Ireland expressed a desire to make their culture stand out from that of mainstream Europe.

A hope that was curtailed by clerical demands that any pastimes they regarded as immoral (such as jazz dancing) should be curtailed.

This religious zeal combined with an increasing rate of emigration resulted in traditional pastimes such as dancing and singing being pushed back into private residences from dance halls and pubs.

Traditional Pub Seisúns

It was only in the 1960s that the practice known as a ‘seisún’ started to grow in popularity, driven by the enthusiasm of returning former migrants.

This was originally an impromptu musical session that took place in pubs all over the country, where musicians simply turn up and start jamming.

The first recorded event of this type was at the Devonshire Arms in Camden Town in London.

Rafferty in session at The Brazon Head, Dublin - The Irish Place
Rafferty in session at The Brazen Head, Dublin

It was some time later that the practice reached Ireland.

As the 1960s dawned, popular pubs, including Dublin’s O’Donoghues, started to hold regular musical gatherings of this type.

Nowadays, the core musicians who take part are paid. This is to guarantee there will be music when the publican says. This is also the case in Festivals with the session trails.

Irish Music Competitions

One of the cornerstones of Irish music is the annual Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann (Festival of Music in Ireland).

The inaugural event was held in 1951, and it continues to this day.

Its stated aim is to establish a high standard of Irish traditional music mostly via competitive events, though a variety of parades, céilíthe and concerts also form a good chunk of the programme.

Approximately four hundred thousand gathered in Ennis in 2016 to to compete and to simply revel in the very best of Irish culture and tradition.

The Fleadh is the biggest gathering that celebrates Irish culture in the world.

Similarly, but on a much smaller scale, seisún gatherings celebrate the unique sound of Irish music.

Evolution of Irish Traditional Music

The 1960s was a key decade for Irish Traditional Music, with bands such as The Dubliners, The Chieftains, Sweeney’s Men, The Clancy Brothers and The Irish Rovers all contributing to a new wave of interest in traditional folk music, an interest that was carried into the 1970s by groups such as Planxty, The Bothy Band and Clannad.

Traditional forms of music, particularly sean nós singing, played a significant role in Irish music later in the 20th century, led by artists such as the Hothouse Flowers, Enya, Sinéad O’Connor, Van Morrison and the Pogues.

In the 1980s, a growing worldwide interest in Irish culture helped bring bands like Patrick Street, Arcady and De Dannan to prominence, followed by traditionally influenced bands Gráda, Beoga, Danú and Teada in the 2000s.

The interest in Irish music shows no signs of abating, and the success of current bands such as Dervish, Flook and The Dave Munnelly Band, plus the continued worldwide interest in the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann and frequent seisún events, can be seen as testament to that.

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