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.
From pre-Christian times, poets and musicians were highly regarded. From their travels throughout the country and Europe, they brought back various influences. It was the responsibility of the poet to compose and recite reviews of the kings, chieftains and other prominent people within their social structure. They went into battle and war with their chieftains and composed an oral history. The intertwining of music and poetry with political and social life had its origins in ancient Celtic tradition.
We know that Irish Monks traveled throughout Europe as early as the 6th Century. They had established centers of learning or had taught at centers already developed, placing much emphasis on music. These musicians were skilled beyond other nations, as stated by scholars in ancient times. They played their harps in a lively and rapid fashion. Irish musicians were taken to Wales by King Griffith ap Conan and the Danes took their harp music from Ireland. In early times Ireland was the school of music for Scotland. The Irish harp appears to have been introduced in Italy and was played by musicians during the Crusades. The Irish harp was revered as much as the musician. The Monks, who promoted the cultivation of music, were held in high esteem.
References in medieval manuscripts indicate the importance music played in the daily life of ancient Ireland. During the Middle Ages it was customary to rewrite secular music into religious music. These songs were usually written in Latin. Much of the music of this time was concentrated in the churches. However, the ordinary people were still playing their music.
When the Norman's invaded Ireland in the 1100's, a split developed between the native traditions and the outside influences. Although a musical culture had begun to develop in centers of English and Anglo-Norman influence, there seems to be little creative activity in the field of art music. The Norman's were a fierce and ambitious people who plundered and pillaged Ireland. They eventually became entrenched in Ireland, marrying the native inhabitants, building stone castles, and churches. They in essence, became assimilated, learned the language and became Irish.
After the Battle of Clontarf there was a growth of national literature. The political freedom in the 14th and 15th Centuries saw a rebirth of intellectual, agricultural, and commercial activity. Her scholars, clerics, and craftsmen traveled to France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal and learned what there was to learn. The Latin education in Ireland had begun earlier and was maintained better than on the continent. The Irish were better versed in most areas of learning than the rest of Europe, in fields of medicine, astronomy, and poetry. They had a remarkable talent for relaying a love story.
The invaders always tried to diminish the growth, advancement and spirit of the Irish. In the 1300's the 'Statues of Kilkenny' were enacted and became some of the most hated laws. The English who had integrated into Irish society were now forbidden to have any formal contact with the Irish and were forbidden to marry them or conduct trade and commerce with them. English names had to be used, those of a higher income were to ride ONLY a saddled horse and hurling was to be replaced by archery. The ancient Brehon Law was replaced by English law and no English were allowed to hire or entertain any Irish musician, poet or singer.
In the latter part of the 14th Century England was preoccupied with the French Revolution and the 'War of the Roses' (civil war) in England. As a result there was a Gaelic revival and the poets were once again in the forefront.
When Henry VIII ascended the English throne he proclaimed himself 'King of Ireland' and began to destroy the bases of Irish resistance. He reenacted laws against the Irish in trade and commerce, marriage, fostering, native literature, and language. He was declared head of state, and church, and Catholic religion. Henry was divorced twice, this was not allowed in the Catholic faith.
The introduction of the Protestant Reformation brought new atrocity to Ireland. There was pillage, plunder, slaughters, executions, burnings, and destruction of monasteries, churches, and schools. Poets, priests, and historians were killed; their books and genealogies were burned. The object of the English government was to totally destroy the national tradition, wipe out all elements of Gaelic history, and begin a new English life for the Irish.
After Henry's rule came his son Edward, then Mary. DVB TO CLARIFY THIS STATEMENT Mary restored the Catholic religion in Ireland, but she ruled with the same ferocity as Henry. After Mary's reign, Elizabeth I then took the throne. She viewed the Irish as barbarians and heretics. She also was aware of the importance and impact the musicians and composers had on the Irish people. She ordered all traditional music be outlawed and ordered her soldiers to 'Hang the Harper's and burn their instruments'.
Under Elizabeth's reign, Munster, one of the loveliest provinces with 1500 schools, was ravished and burned, including men, women, children. It was the Bards who wrote of Ireland and praises of Irish nationality.
When the 'War of the Roses' (civil war) broke out in England, Oliver Cromwell proved himself an excellent soldier against King Charles I, (bonny Prince Charlie). The Irish had aligned themselves with Charles. Cromwell was a staunch Puritan and religious zealot. He believed the best way to handle the Irish was to annihilate every last one of them.
Cromwell invaded Ireland with 17,000 Catholic hating soldiers. They slaughtered the people of Drogheda, burning and destroying as they marched across the country. They killed 2,000 more people in Wexford. By the time Cromwell was finished in Ireland, one third of the Catholics had been slaughtered. He returned to England but left his soldiers to continue the enforcement of his persecution.
Then in 1652 began the transplantation of Scots and English to Ireland. The Irish landowners under threat of death, were forced to vacate their fertile lands and move to the area west of the Shannon, 'To Hell or Connacht". The British now divided the Irish land amongst themselves. At this time a bounty was put on the heads of the Catholic priests and bishops in Ireland. Saying Mass to a group of parishioners could cause a priest to lose his head. However, faith in God and practice of religion was very important to the Irish. Catholics assembled in rural areas at 'Mass Rocks'. These 'Mass Rocks' were landmarks, unique rocks in secluded spots where a priest could say Mass.
After Cromwell died in 1653, Charles II became King of England, his wife was Catholic. The Irish had hoped that Charles would remember the Irish support for his father. Charles II did restore some Irish landowners to their original lands, but he did not want to upset his British subjects by doing too much for the Irish. He did stop the open persecution of the Catholics, and hunting and killing priests.
When Charles II died, his brother James II took over the crown in 1685. James was a Catholic and supportive of the Irish. He tried to restore Catholic Ireland, but the House of Lords and Commons were against this as were the Protestants. They were calling for James to step down; they wanted William of Orange to take the crown. A battle between James II and William of Orange took place at the Boyne River Valley in 1690. James was defeated and Ireland was now under the power of the Protestant Ascendancy.
Eighty percent of the land in Ireland had changed hands within one hundred years, from native Irish to foreign invaders, who took control of the country.
The English Parliament passed the hated Penal Laws. The Irish Catholics were excluded from holding office, Catholic priests and bishops were banished, Catholic worship was once again forbidden, Catholics were forbidden to marry Protestants, Catholics were not allowed to carry weapons, teach school, forbidden to purchase or lease land, or take a dispute to court, forbidden from working in any field of scientific study, and could not own a horse worth more than five pounds. Irish Catholics, who were able to keep their land, were forced to subdivide whatever property they had between all their children. In contrast, Protestants were allowed to leave their estate, intact. By fragmenting the family property wealth was destroyed.
The Penal Laws and the Protestant Ascendancy were devastating to the Irish culture. English became the language of the land instead of Irish Gaelic and the children were forbidden to receive an education.
As so many times in Irish history, the Bards worked at preserving the national identity. The poets and scholars taught the children in secret in the 'hedge schools'. These were classes behind hedges, rocks, and abandoned buildings. These teachers kept the language, myths and legends alive. Their level of teaching was very high; the children learned poetry, literature, mathematics, and astronomy. Whenever the spirit of Ireland was threatened, her Bards and poets worked their magic and kept it alive in whatever way they could.
In the 17th and 18th Centuries, the hidden Gaelic Ireland expressed itself in poetry, reflecting society at the time. As Tudor and Cromwellian suppression gained ground so did native literacy expression. The Catholic defeat at the Battle of the Boyne, Sarsfield's last stand at Limerick and the Wild Geese provided much of the material for the poets. Thomas Moore published a number of poems, which won him acceptance as the National Poet of Ireland. He glorified Ireland's countryside and history in poems like 'The Meeting of the Waters', The Minstrel Boy' and 'The Last Rose of Summer'.
As a result of all of the horrors and atrocities that befell Ireland, it was most difficult to play music let alone document whatever was being composed. However, a large portion of the population at that time, most likely played music. The individual pieces were probably played a bit slower than today and the technology of the instruments was less advanced. There was little quality to life, the people worked hard which left little to improvise with their music.
Not many Irish work-songs have survived. Some scholars have concluded that the work-song did not figure very much in the life of Gaelic speaking Ireland. The reality was that their widespread practice had declined before collectors realized the value of recording them. The Great Hunger, beginning in 1845, was the universal silencer that took the spirit out of the people and plunged the land of song into silent gloom. What survived of the work-songs is a valuable window into the intimacy of people's lives.
The rhythmical function of the work-song is self evident, whether for solitary tasks or for synchronized group work. Tasks, which were not intrinsically rhythmical, the communal singing or chanting of a work-song, had a happy effect of inciting a team spirit and of regulating and orchestrating the physical movements. The function of the work-song was in lightening the labor into an amusement by the singing of cheerful songs. Humor is characteristic of many of thee songs. The use of nonsense syllables was one of the features of these songs, especially in the refrain. The syllables were often for the sake of the rhythm.
Songs were very important to the people in ancient times from the incantations of the Druids to the lullabies for the babies to the warrior on the battlefield. Song and music inspired them and was very much a part of daily life.
Irish Traditional Music includes many different types of songs, and instrumental music from Irish history. It is orally passed on from one generation to another. Today it is transmitted by recordings, radio, television, live performances, and sesiuns. It is a living, vibrant tradition in constant change, but a slow change, and is ageless and priceless. Old melodies are adapted to modern forms. It was more rural than urban, but today it is heard in every nook and cranny the world over.
From the invasion of the English in the 1100's until the collection of melodies by Edward Bunting in1792, not much has been recorded on the music of the ordinary people.
Edward Bunting was a young, professional organist, who was commissioned to record the music of the Harper's at the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792. The festival sponsors, referred to as the 'antiquarian movement', knew the Gaelic culture was being destroyed. They knew it had to be recorded before it was totally wiped out.
One of the harpers in attendance at the festival was Denis Hempson, well into his nineties and an old style player. The old style consisted of holding the harp to the left shoulder and spiney fingernails on the right hand plucking the lower wire-strung strings while the left hand played the upper strings. Denis Hempson was the last living Gaelic Harper. The other harpers played with gut-string harps, the same as those used in Europe.
Edward Bunting was so taken with Hempson that he devoted the rest of his life to collecting the old melodies. Bunting had published his general collection of the ancient airs in 1796 with further editions published in 1809 and 1840. There were approximately 300 melodies; many published for the first time. Bunting had also modified many of the melodies from their original version. He was not a Gaelic speaker, so he hired 'contract collectors' to help collect the melodies. One such collector was Patrick Lynch, a Gaelic speaker; however, he was never given credit for his work.
Along with the harpers who performed their music for the aristocracy, on parallel, were the ordinary people playing music for themselves. The instruments they used were primitive fiddles, pipes, flutes, and whistles. The repressive laws at that time were designed to stamp out the Gaelic order lifestyle. As a result, the harpists' music declined but was quickly replaced by the uilleann pipes for higher ranks of society. Many of the harpers and pipers were blind; music was an arena where the blind musicians could prosper as opposed to any other field of work.
The Irish Traditional Music that is played today evolved from the peasantry of the 17th century, the ordinary people who passed the tradition aurally.