Songs in any culture teach you about the history of that culture. Long before people in Ireland began writing ballads in English, there were thousands of songs and ballads in Irish. The history of Irish music has been influenced by the political fluctuation within the country. Periods of strife have destroyed all by the most fragmentary evidence of activity prior to the 16th Century.


Traditional music is the music of the community, transmitted orally and by ear and handed down from one generation to another. It originated more in the rural areas of Ireland, as opposed to the urban areas. Today it is a living tradition with variations and ornamentation of many musicians.


Irish Folk Music is the music and song in the national heritage. It includes older Irish songs and melodies, the Anglo-Irish songs and ballads of the countryside, and the rich vein of dance music. It relies on its melodic line for effect. In Gaelic speaking Ireland song entered into every aspect of life from birth to work to keening for the dead. The musical activity of the ruling class centered around Dublin. It was European music and very important at banquets and ceremonial occasions.


The most popular musical instrument in ancient Ireland was the Harp (cruit). It was featured in the earliest myths and legends. The Cromwellian period ended the musical life, which centered around the cathedrals. In the 17th and 18th Centuries the people expressed themselves in poetry, reflecting society at the time. In modern times, songwriters and musicians have joined old poems and new melodies, or they have taken old airs and wrote new lyrics to create a new song.


Prior to 1920, Traditional music was usually played in the home or at gatherings, seldom was it heard on the stage with two musicians or more. In the west of Ireland, on summer evenings, people gathered at the Crossroads, playing their music and dancing. In the 1930’s house dances were no longer allowed in most rural areas. The Public Dance Hall Act of 1935 was introduced to control the Dance halls, which had emerged around the country, and was ultimately used to eradicate the House Dance.


Many Irish traditional musicians who had emigrated to America in the 1920’s and 193030’s were beginning to find full time employment as professional musicians and began recording on 78 Rpm’s. Fiddlers such as Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran and James Morrison, concertina player William J. Mullally and Uillean Pipers, Patsy Touhy, and Tom Ennis. Their recordings would have a great impact on the future shape of traditional music in Ireland.


The ‘Ceili Band’ emerged in the late 1930’s with instruments like the accordion, banjo, concertina, fiddle and flutes, later adding drums and piano. The influence of Jazz and more modern music had its impact mostly in the cities. In the 1950’s Dennis Day and Bing Crosby were recording American Irish songs.


In Ireland in 1951 Comhaltas Coeltoiri Eireann (CCE) was founded to promote Irish Traditional music. CCE established the Fleadh Ceoil Festival, which today, brings thousands of promising talent to Ireland for competition each year. The Showband developed in the mid 1950’s with spectacular popularity. Traditional Irish music was now being heard on National Radio by Collector and Broadcaster, Ciarian MacMathuma on his program, A Job of Journeywork. Then in the early 1960’s there was more interest in traditional music. Instrumental in that interest was the broadcast of another radio program, As I Roved Out, with Seamus Ennis. He exposed a greater audience to the sounds of the Irish music.


In the meantime in America, the Folk Music was on the rise with groups such as the Weavers, Pete Seeger and The Kingston Trio. Moving into the early 1960’s Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were on the scene. Four young men in Aran sweaters were singing folk songs and ballads of their native land, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Once they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show they began making Irish Music history. They were the single largest influence on the Traditional Folk genre of aspiring young talent, who has since, come out of Ireland.


Another vein of traditional music was developing under the auspices of Sean O’Riada. His group Ceiltoiri Chuallann was reviving 18th Century harp music of Turlough O’Carolan and other old airs and tunes. The Chieftains, most of who played with O’Riada, developed from this group.


With the modern influences of old traditions, in the music of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, and Sean O’Riada, other genres have developed within Irish and Celtic music.